Buddy Sislen wrote a thoughtful opinion piece in the May 29 issue of Washington Jewish Week decrying the prospects for continued low Jewish funeral prices beyond June 2016 (“FTC ruling takes us back 30 years”). The Jewish Funeral Practices Committee of Greater Washington (JFPC) is working on that problem.
Since 1975, the JFPC has provided education and training in traditional Jewish funeral practices. It has also negotiated funeral home contracts in Maryland, D.C. and in Northern Virginia. Just last year 280 Jewish families used our contracts.
We want our funeral providers to be interested in serving the Jewish community with cooperative management, staff depth, space that can accommodate a tahara (ritual washing) room and shomer (ritual guard) area, adequate refrigeration and proximity to the Jewish community’s population centers, with 24/7 access.
The JFPC has obtained quality funeral service at very low prices for our community by contracting with commercial funeral homes. The disadvantage of our model is that changes in funeral home ownership or management periodically force us to find a new vendor. Recent experience has led us to believe that, in the future, a facility with appropriate location and good pricing may not be easy to locate. Therefore we have begun to look at alternative models to assure proper Jewish funerals at reasonable prices for the Jewish community in the long term.
Across the United States and Canada, we have found 16 community-owned Jewish funeral homes, either structured as freestanding nonprofits or as subsidiaries of nonprofit organizations like congregations. In many of these communities, the nonprofit is the low price leader. Some of these have their own chapels and some don’t. These present various models for our area.
Increasingly consumers shop first on the Internet and do not expect to receive their product or service at a brick-and-mortar facility. With a laptop or tablet and a cellphone, it is possible to bring funeral services counseling to the bereaved at home or elsewhere, and to make arrangements. This can add an immediate personal touch for grieving families, expedite the decision-making process with a knowledgeable community representative and eliminate trips to a funeral home at a very traumatic time. It may be that the funeral facility needs only space for custody of the met (dead body), refrigeration, facilities and supplies for tahara, appropriate space for shmira (guarding) a small office, and vehicles. Such a model would serve the tradition that there be equality and simplicity in Jewish funerals.
Our area has a nonprofit cemetery available to all: Gan Zikaron, the Garden of Remembrance, a community-owned nonprofit sponsored by Washington Hebrew Congregation. The Jewish Funeral Practices Committee has commissioned a study of community-owned, nonprofit facilities in other cities and in our area, as well as of local leadership and community opinion, so that it will be able to present both conventional and more modern models to the Washington community. Then we’ll need feedback, suggestions, ideas, strategic planning, and support from the whole community in choosing a model and going forward.
By the time our current contracts end in 2016, the JFPC will have provided the Washington-area Jewish community with 40 years of service and education, with a framework that has facilitated authentic Jewish practice as each stream of Judaism sees it, and with savings of millions of dollars for better family use or tzedakah. Of course, we intend to continue. But as things get more difficult, now is the time for the community to begin discussing Jewish funeral models for the next generations.
Bob Hausman is president of the Jewish Funeral Practices Committee.