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Jewish cemetery accused of desecrating gravesites

Eden Memorial Park’s parent company denies allegations but local families of deceased worry

Posted: September 15, 2009 11:23 p.m.
Updated: September 16, 2009 4:55 a.m.

As a class-action lawsuit claims Eden Memorial Park in Mission Hills - the closest Jewish cemetery to the Santa Clarita Valley - has desecrated bodies interred there, many local families have expressed concern.

Eden Memorial Park's parent company has denied the allegations, saying it has adhered to strict professional standards. Officials there have said they will not try the case in the media.

Jewish leaders say hundreds of local families have laid relatives to rest in the memorial park, and some of those Santa Clarita Valley residents are upset.

Among them is Andrea Polak of Valencia, who said her family is working with attorneys to determine whether her mother's gravesite of nine years has been tampered with.

"My mom's birthday is on Thursday and I am going to the cemetery," she said Tuesday. "At this point I don't even know if her remains are even there. I'm not going to feel at peace."

Southern California-based law firm Eagan O'Malley & Avenatti last week announced the class-action lawsuit alleging that Eden Memorial management has for years instructed groundskeepers to secretly break concrete vaults with a backhoe and remove, dump or discard the human remains - including humans skulls - to make room for new interments.

Eden Memorial is one of the largest Jewish cemeteries in the United States.

The lawsuit, filed in Los Angeles County Superior Court on Thursday, names the memorial park and its parent company, Houston-based Service Corporation International, as defendants, according to an O'Malley and Avenatti statement.

The company denied the accusations.

While the allegations against Eden Memorial park are "very salacious, these allegations are just that - allegations," Service Corporation International Spokeswoman Lisa Marshall said in a written statement.

"Eden Memorial conducts extensive training with its employees and we support that with strict policies and procedures," Marshall said.

"When these rules are adhered to it ensures our associates provide service to the highest standard. When employees see something that is concerning to them, they are required to report that to their colleagues and/or supervisors."

In 2003, the state of Flordia brought criminal charges against Service Corporation International after groundskeepers at Menorah Gardens, another Jewish cemetery, testified to similar allegations. In that case, the company paid tens of millions of dollars to settle civil lawsuits in connection with the case, according to the O'Malley and Avenatti statement.

Temple Beth Ami Rabbi Mark Blazer on Tuesday said he's received numerous calls from concerned congregants.

"Hundreds of people in Santa Clarita have friends and family buried at Eden Memorial," he said.

Blazer said at this point, he's just trying to get the facts before making any judgments.

"The lawsuit is a serious case, and it's one that if the evidence bears true that there's been desecration of graves, it's a horrible situation for families," Blazer said. "It really erodes that trust that people have in the people that are caring for their loved ones."

The allegations are especially serious considering the importance of stringent burial practices in the Jewish religion.

"For Jews, it's a very important thing to be buried immediately, properly and whole body," Blazer said. "The remains should never be moved or desecrated."

Saugus resident Marcia Davis' mother was buried in a vault at the memorial park along with several others in her extended family.
"I'm having a very uncomfortable feeling," she said. "It does feel like a huge violation."

Davis said she only visits the gravesite of her mother, buried in 1996, one day a year. That day is coming up on Saturday as she observes Kever Avot, a Jewish custom of visiting graves of loved ones between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.

"This is a deeply religious time coming up," she said. "I'm frightened to go there (to Eden Memorial). I don't want to know the fate of my mom."

Eden Memorial will proceed with Kever Avot services this weekend, Marshall said.

The lawsuit also accuses the defendants of plotting and selling interment plots in the memorial park without sufficient space to ensure that the burial vaults did not encroach on an adjacent plot, according to the statement.

Service Corporation International, in its statement, said it "will not and cannot try this case in the media," but instead will deal with the case "within the system" out of respect for families and the court system.


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