Cemetery-related bills advance; so-called ‘welfare’ burial bill held

TRENTON – The Senate Commerce Committee released several bills regarding cemeteries.

Prime sponsor Sen. Loretta Weinberg said in general she became involved in these issues several years ago. She said that in general the industry is fine, but there are some problems brought to her attention.

She said that she, Assemblyman Gary Schaer, and rabbis reached agreement on some issues but they need to be codified. She emphasized she would continue working with cemetery companies as the bills advance.

For example, S776, which increases the membership of the New Jersey Cemetery Board from 10 to 13 members, gives the public a greater voice, she said. It increases the representation of public members on the board from two to five. 

The members representing cemetery companies and the members from the Executive Branch of  State Government, the Commissioner of Community Affairs or his designee, the Attorney General or his designee, and a designee of the Commissioner of Health and Senior Services, remain the same.

It was released unanimously.

In addition, Weinberg said that some bills directly affect the Jewish community, such as S779, which prohibits a cemetery company from charging any additional fee for opening a grave or rendering any other service on Sunday.  This bill was released 4-0-2 with Sens. Thomas Kean Jr. and Nicholas Scutari abstaining.

The bill permits the charging of any actual additional costs, such as increased labor costs, which the cemetery company incurs as a result of rendering those services on Sunday.

Matt Halpin of the N.J. Cemetery Association said the industry is already heavily regulated but is not subject to a “one size fits all’’ approach.

Regarding the Sunday fees proposal, he said that although the bill offers ways to recoup costs, Halpin said that some Jewish cemeteries can handle quite a few burials on one day, and he pointed out that Jewish cemeteries often handle same-day burials.

There is another cost consideration, Halpin said, in that union workforces are handling grave openings.

Weinberg said that if the bills advance, she would continue working with the industry to see if they can figure out what their costs are and how to address admittedly difficult issues.

S780: This bill, which was held, requires cemeteries to accept human remains for interment when the only means of payment available for the purchase of a grave or crypt is the burial allowance permitted for recipients of benefits under the Work First New Jersey and Supplemental Security Income programs and certain other programs pursuant to regulations of the Department of Human Services. 

The board may suspend or revoke the certificate of authority of a cemetery which violates this requirement.

An amendment stipulates that a cemetery cannot be required to use a space in violation of any religious restrictions.

Halpin said there is only a $524 state subsidy for such burials, and this bill essentially would mandate taking so-called “welfare” burials at a loss. “There are no controls in this bill,’’ he said.

An official of the 5-acre Union Cemetery in Ringoes said this bill would hurt his operation.  They had only seven funerals in one year, and are not large enough to maintain a regular staff.  In 2011, he said, they sold one grave for about $1,290. The cemetery does have a trust fund of approximately $45,000 generating about 2.5 percent, about $1,250, he said.

In terms of expenses, he said cutting the grass one time alone costs about $525.

Halpin said a high number of cemeteries in New Jersey already are under “fiscal duress.’’

Committee Chair Sen. Nia Gill acknowledged there could be antitrust concerns with this bill, and Weinberg said she was amenable to holding it to address those concerns.

S1441: This bill was amended to require cemetery companies which file an Internal Revenue Service Form 990 to file a copy with the New Jersey Attorney General. It passed unanimously.

S2393: This bill excludes conveyances of a right of burial in a grave, crypt or niche from the 15 percent fee which cemetery companies currently charge.  It was released 4-1-1 with Sen. Thomas Kean voting no and Sen. Nicholas Scutari abstaining.

Halpin explained that this bill would open a loophole closed by 2003 legislation.  An association, he said, may have made a “bulk’’ purchase 50 years ago at certain low costs, and a “transfer” fee is triggered when a gravesite is transferred from the organization to the individual.

The cemetery misses out on necessary funding for upkeep without being able to assess the fees, according to Halpin and cemetery operators. Cemetery-related bills advance; so-called ‘welfare’ burial bill held