Fighting to the death

About 100 people crammed into a meeting room to speak out against the proposed merger of the two largest funeral homes in the country. Photo courtesy of Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Washington
About 100 people crammed into a meeting room to speak out against the proposed merger of the two largest funeral homes in the country.
Photo courtesy of Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Washington

More than 100 people, including rabbis and synagogue presidents, overflowed a meeting room at the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Washington to voice their opposition to a proposed merger between the two largest funeral companies in the United States.

Jewish clergy and lay leaders are concerned that the proposed merger will result in higher funeral costs, because the contract worked out by the Jewish Funeral Practices Committee of Greater Washington with Hines-Rinaldi Funeral Home in Silver Spring could be voided. That contract enables Jews in the Maryland, Virginia and D.C. area to obtain a complete, although basic, funeral at a price roughly $4,000 less than the cost of an average funeral in this area.

The contract provides a Jewish funeral for $1,820, eliminates decision making by the bereaved during a very vulnerable time and adheres to Jewish burial practices. It calls for “a low price, a plain pine box, no up-selling by the funeral home, and no billing until after shloshim, the 30 days after burial during which the mourners must not be required to do business,” explained Bob Hausman, committee president.

Also attending the Oct. 31 meeting were staff attorneys from the Maryland attorney general’s office and the Federal Trade Commission, who are expected to decide by the end of this year whether or not to allow Service Corporation International (SCI), the largest funeral home company in the country, to own Stewart Enterprises, the second largest.

If the merger is approved, Hines-Rinaldi in Silver Spring, which is owned by Stewart Enterprises, may not be able to set up special contracts, those in attendance at the JCRC-hosted meeting feared. That is why members of the funeral practices committee and area synagogues are working to convince the FTC to keep Hines-Rinaldi out of any merger.

Although the meeting was closed to the press, several people spoke on the record about the meeting.

“It was a phenomenal turnout,” organized in only a couple of days, said Karen Paikin Barall, the JCRC’s director of Maryland government and community relations. “Everybody was united and speaking with one voice on this issue. It just was incredible.”

The goal of the meeting “was to really open the eyes of the attorney general’s office and the FTC and let Hines-Rinaldi stay out of the merger,” she said.

The JCRC wants Hines-Rinaldi “left out of the merger. We are going to keep fighting this.”

Added Hausman, “We are not taking the position that the whole merger should be invalid,” just that Hines-Rinaldi be removed.

When asked how Hines-Rinaldi feels about the proposed merger and whether or not the special contract would be maintained if the entire merger goes through, Jeff Campbell, director of operations at Hines-Rinaldi, released this statement. “At Hines-Rinaldi Funeral Home, our top priority is serving families. We have been serving this community for generations, and appreciate the support we receive from the families and friends we are honored to serve. We will continue to provide the caring, professional and personal service our families have come to expect from us and look forward to continuing this tradition for generations to come.”

David Balto, an anti-trust lawyer in D.C. representing the funeral practices committee pro bono, said it was important for both the FTC and the attorney general’s office to see that there was strong community support to keep Hines-Rinaldi out of the merger.

From the rabbis who spoke, “you heard this is a core Jewish value” that the community provides, Balto said. “This contract really protects the bereaved family. There is no one more vulnerable.”

He added that “the rabbis really realized how crucial this service is” and spoke of congregants who were short of money and so appreciative.

The agreement worked out is not only applicable for the 48 area synagogues that are involved with the funeral practices committee. Any nonaffiliated Jew can take advantage of this contract, Balto said, adding that there were “over 250 [funerals] in the last four years involving nonaffiliated Jews. We tend to see this as a synagogue issue, but it is not. It’s a community issue,” he said.

Rabbi Lyle Fishman of Ohr Kodesh Congregation in Chevy Chase, said there are important financial and community-involvement reasons to keep this contract ongoing. First, he said, the price difference between a regular Jewish funeral which can cost up to $6,000 is “staggering,” he said.

As a rabbi, he also values the direct line he has with Hines-Rinaldi’s staff. They allow members of his synagogue to be involved with the funerals of fellow congregants, rather than using their own people to conduct Jewish rituals, he said. “People like to know it’s their congregation members that are there to help.”

Other funeral homes make him feel like he is dealing with a large corporation and that “makes what needs to be a very personal, direct relation, it makes it impersonal and distant,” Fishman said.

“The vast majority at the very least” of the funerals from his synagogue are done through Hines-Rinaldi, he said, noting that there have been 83 funerals conducted using the funeral practices contract during the past four years.

Rabbi Fred Scherlinder Dobb at Adat Shalom Reconstructionist Congregation in Bethesda, also holds the relationship between the Jewish community and Hines-Rinaldi in high regard. The contract is about having a funeral home “who is willing to work with us.”

Dobb praised the committee for making the whole funeral and burial services more user friendly. “Bereaved families don’t need tsuris [trouble],” he said, noting that other funeral homes try to convince mourners to purchase fancier coffins and other add-ons which “violate traditional Jewish norms.”

The contract worked out with Hines-Rinaldi “respects the mourners but also respects the deceased and the community by emphasizing simplicity and equality. We are all equal in a plain pine box and a white shroud,” Dobb said.

According to Hausman, the funeral committee was founded in the early 1970s to help Jewish mourners. Two hundred funerals per year are done using this contract, he estimated.

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