TORONTO — Ruth Goldsmith, 81, vice-president, communications, of the Association of Jewish Seniors, is trying to spread the word about an emotional topic – cemetery plots.
A widow for nine years who recently moved into a retirement home, Goldsmith, a native of London, England, said that many women in her generation don’t realize that when they purchased a cemetery plot from their synagogue, they were only buying the right to a plot.
“They are only entitled to that plot as long, as they are a paid-up member of the synagogue,” she said.
This particularly affects those who want to be buried alongside their late husband, she said. “Synagogue fees have risen considerably in recent years, making it prohibitive for many families to remain members, especially retired seniors.
“Unfortunately, most husbands die before their wives and leave the widows alone to bear these costs. Even when paying a single membership, synagogue fees can become a major financial burden to widows on a fixed income.”
In her own case, she said, she and her husband, Ernest, joined Shaarei Tefillah Congregation when they bought a house nearby about 45 years ago. “We were recent immigrants – they met in England after he left Germany in 1937 – and we became very involved in the synagogue. It became the centre of our social life.”
About 15 or 20 years ago, she said, the cemetery chair at the synagogue approached them and said the synagogue was running out of plots. “We purchased two adjacent plots at Bathurst Lawn Cemetery, and we got a receipt. We didn’t realize at the time, though, that we had only purchased the right to a plot.”
She used her husband’s plot when he died, she said, “and I assumed that I would eventually be next to him. It is unthinkable not to be with my husband.”
As she aged however, she decided to move to a retirement home in order to be near her children and grandchildren. “I was no longer walking distance to the synagogue, and it was not feasible for me to remain a member. I was shocked to discover, though, that if I left Shaarei Tefillah, I was no longer entitled to a plot.”
She stressed that she does not blame the current cemetery chairs, because they “inherited” this situation. “This policy was established years ago, and it is the same in most synagogues of every denomination. It is not at all illegal. It is just misleading.”
Sy Baltman, cemetery chair at Shaarei Tefillah, confirmed that in order to be entitled to a plot, the deceased must have been a paid up member in good standing. “Members do not purchase plots. They are entitled to one as allocated by the cemetery committee.”
Goldsmith said Baltman was sympathetic to her situation, and because of her history with the shul, allowed her to purchase the plot next to her husband’s for $5,200. “That is a lot of money for me, but I had no choice. It is imperative that I be with my husband.”
Now she owns her own plot, she said, “but I want to warn everyone to check with their synagogue. Some do sell them outright, and some don’t.”
The association recently held a meeting to discuss the issue, she said. “Part of our mandate is to keep seniors informed.”