In April, 13 gravediggers at Beth Israel, a Jewish cemetery in a working class New Jersey township across the street from one of the state’s largest malls, buried roughly 300 bodies—many of them presumed by workers to be victims of COVID-19.
In a typical month, the crew at Beth Israel Cemetery digs between 50 and 100 graves. During the peak of the coronavirus outbreak in New Jersey and neighboring New York City, where the virus tore through many Hasidic Jewish neighborhoods with ties to Beth Israel, the gravediggers took to the fields at the earliest hours of daylight to pour foundation, lay out wood, dig trenches, set up funerals, carry caskets, and fill graves with backhoes. Gravediggers say they often worked ten-and-a-half-hour shifts, and have not gotten hazard pay and only sporadic bathroom and lunch breaks, according to Teamsters Local 469, the gravediggers' union.
“I’d never seen anything like it in my life. We did 10 to 14 burials every day for six weeks,” a gravedigger who works at Beth Israel told Motherboard. A burial schedule obtained by Motherboard shows a day in April, for example, in which 10 burials and 5 mausoleum entombments were scheduled in a four-and-a-half-hour period. Workers say it was at times impossible to complete all the burials in the allotted time.
“We had such a high volume of work and so few workers that we had to leave people’s loved ones in graves left open for four to seven hours, and even overnight, going against Jewish tradition,” he continued. “I don’t think families would have appreciated it much to learn that that happened.”
Motherboard granted anonymity to five current Beth Israel gravediggers to allow them to speak candidly about their working conditions. The gravediggers fear retaliation from their employer, a company called StoneMor corporation, for speaking to the press. StoneMor is the second-largest cemetery and funeral home corporation in the United States, overseeing 321 cemeteries and 90 funeral homes in 27 states and Puerto Rico.
The gravediggers at Beth Israel are unionized with Teamsters Local 469, but have yet to sign a collective bargaining contract, and have in recent months filed two unfair labor practice charges with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) and a 56-page Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) complaint against StoneMor. According to NLRB complaints reviewed by Motherboard, the workers have had some of their work subcontracted out to workers who earn even less, which they say is illegal.
According to Teamsters Local 469, Beth Israel's lowest paid gravediggers, many who are Latinx, earn less than $15 an hour. Less than a mile down the road, at Mount Lebanon Cemetery, where workers unionized more than 30 years ago, gravediggers make at least $24.62 an hour, according to the union official. Gravediggers at Beth Israel are well aware of the pay disparity.
“I work Monday through Friday and every other Sunday, and I do handiwork on the side, and it’s still not enough to live on. I got four small kids,” a gravedigger told Motherboard. “I came to this job because of the union. We thought we could get a big raise, but we’re still waiting to see what’s going on.”
Despite this pay disparity relative to a nearby cemetery, workers at Beth Israel still have to deal with what, under the best of circumstances, is grim work. StoneMor presentation slides and information sheets obtained by Motherboard explain that workers "may come into contact with human body fluids or tissue" from people who may have died of Covid-19, and explains that grave cave-ins can happen and that "the most common cause of worker fatalities is excavations." The documentation also explains that there are specific geological conditions at Beth Israel that can make burials challenging, such as a high water table that leaves graves subject to a phenomenon called "boiling," where water seeps upward into a grave.
Workers say that they have dealt with some of these problems in recent months, and that corpses have fallen from neighboring grave sites into new ones. (Observant Jews are often buried in quarter-inch pine boxes that decompose quickly in the ground.) Motherboard has also viewed a photo of a collapsed and flooded grave. These working conditions are not new to the pandemic, and some of them arise in all graveyards. But the severe understaffing, low wages, unfortunate desecration of bodies because of geological conditions, and out-of-order equipment, have gravediggers at a breaking point, they say.
“Bodies are packed very close together,” one gravedigger said, echoing a complaint made to OSHA which alleges dangerous work in "tight spaces."
“We don’t have an inch to spare," the gravedigger said.
"It’s not uncommon to get splashed in the face with bodily fluids," they added. "Once you dig below a certain depth, body juice starts filling up the grave. Guys are down there with rotting flesh. We use hay to cover disassembled caskets, shield people’s eyes from that sight. It’s a lot different than it used to be because of the volume of activity.”
Although the pandemic made their work more taxing—one worker described jolting awake from stress dreams at 3 AM during the worst weeks in April—the gravediggers say that what they have faced during the pandemic is the consequence of long-standing mismanagement and cost-cutting at the 168-acre cemetery. Beth Israel workers describe severe understaffing, unresponsive and antagonistic management, inadequate equipment, what they say is a failure to work with the union on safety and pay issues, and a failure on the part of StoneMor to provide burial and graveside services families had paid for.
The state of affairs at Beth Israel has been devastating and infuriating for many families of those buried there. The cemetery is a final resting place for many survivors of Nazi concentration camps and members of Orthodox and Hasidic Jewish congregations from South Williamsburg and other Brooklyn neighborhoods. Beth Israel advertises itself as a pastoral oasis—a “serene park-like land with flowering garden beds and tree lined avenues” with “true religious significance.” But Motherboard reviewed dozens of complaints from the past 10 years filed with the New Jersey Cemetery Board, which regulates and licenses cemeteries in the state, alleging that the cemetery has failed to provide services that families have paid thousands of dollars for, such as evergreen plantings, weed-pulling, and plaque and tombstone maintenance.
Motherboard’s own conversations with workers, families, and my visit to the cemetery in late July, confirmed some of the allegations from the official complaints made with the cemetery board. On my trip, graves with "endowed care" stickers (meaning the family had paid for care) were toppled and covered with weeds.
“We’re severely unstaffed,” a Beth Israel gravedigger told Motherboard on the phone in July. “The upkeep can’t be done as well as we used to because of the lack of manpower. This place looks abandoned but it’s actually active. Gravestones are tipped over. You’re up to your waist in weeds. All of the interior blocks are neglected. People are paying thousands of dollars and not getting what they paid for.”
Asked if the gravedigger would consider burying his family members at Beth Israel, he said, “I think you know the answer to that. Absolutely not.”
When asked repeatedly about the specific allegations in this article, a StoneMor spokesperson denied all of the claims.
“We do not agree with any of the statements that are provided in the email. StoneMor Partners and Beth Israel Cemetery have been diligently working with all of our employees and families during this time to assure that we have provided safe working environments and a dignified experience for our families,” she said. “The statements provided are false and misleading. We are happy to speak with any employee or customer directly so we may assist them with their concern.”
StoneMor Partners repeatedly declined to discuss any specific allegations. When provided with a series of photos that showed, for example, knocked over headstones and a flooded grave, a spokesperson for StoneMor said "thank you for reaching out. My statement remains the same."
During the pandemic, Joe Redling, StoneMor’s CEO—and former CEO of AOL International—agreed to give up half of his base salary for 10 weeks, amounting to two percent of the $3.3 million he earned in 2019. Meanwhile, Beth Israel workers say StoneMor refused to provide them hazard pay, and took weeks to offer eye protection and hand sanitizer even though workers were handling the remains of presumed COVID-19 victims that had not been embalmed, as dictated by Jewish practice. StoneMor denied the claim in its statement but declined to provide any proof or information about when workers last got a raise, whether they got hazard pay, and when they got PPE.
In their union’s contract negotiations with management in April, the company claimed that eye protection was not necessary because “COVID could not splash in their eyes,” according to workers and the Teamsters Local 469. (A flyer distributed by StoneMor states that "protective eyewear such as goggles or face shield" must be worn by gravediggers during the pandemic.)
While the death care industry still consists primarily of mom-and-pop-owned funeral parlors and cemeteries, StoneMor and a few of its competitors have pushed to consolidate the industry. Analysts estimate that the top six death care companies control roughly 25 percent of the funeral services in the country.
In 2018, Redling was brought in to pay down StoneMor’s debts and turn it profitable, but under his watch, the company’s stock price has tumbled 80 percent. Since 2015, its share price has fallen from $30 to 80 cents. Last year, the company hired a consulting group to advise on cutting $30 million worth of operational costs.
Meanwhile, StoneMor has faced regular legal action from customers, employees, and state governments. In April, it settled with Pennsylvania’s attorney general Josh Shapiro, and agreed to pay $50,000 to the consumers and the state. Shapiro wrote StoneMor had “failed to meaningfully inform consumers" about how it operated its agreements with customers who pre-pay for burial or funeral services. In the settlement, StoneMor denied any fault or wrongdoing.
A West Virginia man filed a class action lawsuit in 2019 because he said his father's grave and others at a StoneMor owned cemetery in Peck's Mill, West Virginia had been "subjected to sinking headstones, damaged headstones, excavation, theft, and debris." The case was thrown out pretrial because the man's mother was still alive; the court ruled that only she would have standing to sue. In July 2020, a family in Kanawha, West Virginia sued StoneMor after a mysterious body was allegedly found in their loved one's gravesite; StoneMor said that it was a "misburial" done by a previous owner of that graveyard. In Illinois, a family sued StoneMor for double-selling their son's gravesite and moving his body. A StoneMor spokesperson told the Northwest Herald that the company is aware of the situation and working to resolve it, but declined to discuss this case with Motherboard.
In 2015, StoneMor agreed to pay a $2.3 million settlement to 650 employees in Ohio in a lawsuit that alleged the company did not pay overtime. It faced—and paid settlements in—similar cases in Maryland, California, Colorado, Kansas, Missouri, Oregon, and Washington, according to court records reviewed by Motherboard. StoneMor denied fault in those cases. StoneMor declined to comment on the cases to Motherboard.
A decade ago, Beth Israel employed 28 full-time maintenance workers. Following StoneMor’s 2004 debut on the stock market, and its subsequent consolidation of the death care industry, the staff steadily shrunk to less than half that size through a series of layoffs, firings, and the departures of workers whose positions weren’t filled. The declining staff size is detailed in both OSHA and NLRB complaints. Today, 18 full-time graveworkers, who are tasked with the upkeep of Beth Israel’s 80,000 graves and the smaller neighboring cemetery Cloverleaf, remain, according to Teamsters Local 469.
Workers face “very serious health and safety hazards due to understaffing and failure to maintain facilities, vehicles, and equipment," the OSHA complaint, which is still open, states. "Workers are greatly concerned about health and safety conditions at [Beth Israel] and are considering refusing to do this work in the future unless it is made safe.”
Motherboard also reviewed dozens of complaints filed over the past 10 years with the New Jersey Cemetery Board.
A spokesperson for the board told Motherboard that none of the complaints filed against Beth Israel Cemetery have resulted in disciplinary action, and could not offer specific information on whether the cemetery has a disproportionate number of complaints compared to other cemeteries, adding that the numbers vary based on the “cemetery’s activity, size, and weather events.” The cemetery board said that complaints are often resolved between the cemetery and the customer, which means no disciplinary action takes place, but doesn't necessarily mean a complaint doesn't have merit.
In response to a detailed list of questions and specific allegations, a StoneMor spokesperson said that they could not directly comment on “individual family matters” but believed the allegations in the complaints, as well as every allegation in this article, to be “grossly misleading and untrue.” The company declined to elaborate on this statement in subsequent exchanges when Motherboard asked for comment on specific allegations.
In one of the complaints, Sanford Fitlin, a Texas-based customer, wrote to the Board in August 2019, “My parents are buried at this cemetery, I was appalled to observe that about one third of the gravesites have headstones that have fallen over or are leaning precariously. Cement walkways are buckled, graves beds are out of place, stone benches are broken and littered about…Yet they continue to sell plots. Where does the money go?”
Motherboard spoke to Fitlin on the phone, who said that the cemetery told him “there’s nothing we can do,” after he filed his complaint.
“Stones were toppled,” he continued. “Walkways were cracked. I’m still a little irate over the issue. If I could, I would remove my parents’ remains from the cemetery.”
In another complaint, a widower, Stephen Bratter, said he complained to the cemetery in 2015 about the neglect of his wife’s grave, for which he had purchased endowed care, and “was assured the issues would be rectified.” But upon visiting the cemetery in 2017, he was upset to find “the area in the exact same conditions.” After lodging a formal complaint with the Cemetery Board, Bratter told Motherboard he had been assured yet again that the issues had been addressed, but due to health problems, he has not returned to the cemetery to confirm.
“People visit cemeteries with a broken heart,” Bratter told Motherboard on the phone. “They don’t want to see plaques that are sunk into the ground, graves full of holes.”
Motherboard reviewed two documents from 2018 where Beth Israel management tallied and categorized "service reports," which are tasks that needed to be done to maintain the cemetery. These include things like trimming hedges, weeding, and reseeding lawns, but also include things like "sunken grave" (24 at the time), "straighten monument" and a handful of other categories. As of April 2018, the cemetery had 510 active service reports. By June 2018, the number had increased to 710. Workers say that they spend most of their time digging graves and cannot keep up with the mounting number of service reports.
When I visited Beth Israel on a baking hot day in late July, it took more than an hour to traverse just a small fraction of the cemetery that overlooks the Garden State Parkway and a series of office towers and condos. The tombstones that faced the road appeared well-groomed with fresh flowers, American flags waving, and tombstones erect.
But walking deeper into the sea of headstones, in many areas organized by Jewish congregations and societies, I saw dozens of headstones knocked over and tilted or split in half, dead plantings, overgrown shrubs, and cracking sidewalks. Many of the toppled headstones are marked with “endowed” stickers, meaning the family had paid thousands of dollars for either five years or a lifetime of care. Motherboard sent photo evidence of this to the company; it declined to comment.
(Five years of endowed care at Beth Israel currently costs families $4,990 for graves with plantings, and $1,900 for graves with pebbles, according to a senior Beth Israel employee.)
Last March, gravediggers at Beth Israel and the neighboring StoneMor-owned cemetery Cloverleaf voted to unionize with Teamsters Local 469, joining at least 19 other unionized cemeteries owned by StoneMor in the United States. Workers wanted to push back against understaffing, dilapidated equipment, and stagnant wages with the power of a union behind them. None of Beth Israel’s unionized workers, including some who earn $13.50 an hour, have gotten a raise in three years, according to the union. StoneMor declined to provide any specific proof or documentation that would refute this.
Later that month, the company laid off seven union members and fired a pro-union superintendent from Beth Israel and two neighboring cemeteries owned by StoneMor, spreading the remaining grave diggers even thinner, according to a complaint filed by Local 469 with the NLRB.
During and after the union drive, StoneMor distributed anti-union flyers to workers and mailed letters to their homes, repeatedly urging them to "vote no." In a flyer posted on a bulletin at the cemetery titled "What Local 469 Won't Tell You," management wrote, "You Can't Trust Local 469. Its Promises are Empty. Vote No! Keep Your Money." In another flyer distributed to workers after the union election and obtained by Motherboard with the title "StoneMor 2.0," managers wrote, "StoneMor has a whole new structure and a whole new team of leaders… Don't trust a union stranger."
Since the election, the union has filed two unfair labor practice charges on behalf of the workers with the NLRB against StoneMor for refusing to bargain in good faith by terminating new union members, for hiring subcontractors, and for fighting against the union. And in April, StoneMor agreed to settle a set of charges, splitting $50,000 among seven laid off workers from Beth Israel and Cloverleaf, according to a copy of the NLRB settlement agreement that was reviewed by Motherboard. The copy distributed to Motherboard was not signed by StoneMor, but workers say they received their payments.
The union has yet to ratify its first contract, and filed another unfair labor practice charge with the NLRB in May after StoneMor hired contractors—Central American migrant workers employed by a landscaping company called Moon who are bussed in from Pennsylvania—to assist in hand-digging graves during the worst of the pandemic. "On April 3, 2020, StoneMor wrote an email to [the union] stating that the company did not plan to subcontract bargaining unit work," the NLRB complaint says. Three weeks later, StoneMor began to "illegally subcontract bargaining unit work," it says. StoneMor declined to comment on the specifics of the complaint.
In an OSHA complaint, Beth Israel workers allege that the cemetery's machinery is woefully out of date. According to the complaint, which included photos of oil leaks, rusted and heavily dented pickup trucks, and broken machinery, a lack of working machinery has led workers to have to hand-shovel graves that cannot be dug with backhoes and lifting grave-boards. According to the complaint, many of the trucks are out of service.
“Insufficient exhaust in vehicles leads to carbon monoxide in the cab of vehicles,” the OSHA complaint, filed in March, alleges. “John Deer Gator: one of four working. The one working bed does not dump. Bad exhaust leak with open cab so fumes are being inhaled.”
“Stone devices—one of three working. Two out of service,” the OSHA complaint states.
The OSHA complaint says that the union met in November with cemetery management to discuss broken machinery and broader safety issues, but notes that these issues have not been fixed. When asked for comment, StoneMor declined to address any of the allegations made in the OSHA complaint, other than to make a blanket statement denying all allegations in this article.
OSHA, which has been flooded with thousands of complaints from workers across the country during the Coronavirus crisis, sent a letter to Beth Israel on July 29, requesting that the company take action or prove that none of six alleged hazards exist by August 5, otherwise it will else face a formal inspection, according a letter from the U.S. Department of Labor, reviewed by Motherboard.
Motherboard spoke to several Latinx gravediggers who say they are given the oldest equipment and most grueling tasks. Meanwhile, they cannot afford the company's health insurance and earn roughly $10 an hour less than many of white gravediggers (Local 469's salary data confirms this is the case).
“They give us the hardest work. White workers don’t hand dig holes and they drive trucks with ACs,” a Latinx worker told Motherboard on the phone. “The Spanish get messed up trucks with toxic fumes leaking, and we don’t have ACs even in 100 degrees…. They definitely make the Spanish people feel like ‘the help,’ like we’re not worthy of the same treatment.”
“I can’t afford the health insurance. I go cheap with my lunch, just ham and cheese,” he continued. “I got kids living with me and kids on child support. They ask too much from us, and they don’t pay us enough.”
Several gravediggers told Motherboard that a white manager called one Latinx worker “illiterate,” and in a separate instance, "a fucking pain in the ass," after the same worker asked for a pair of gloves. The same manager allegedly denied a newly hired Latinx worker access to a Carhartt winter coat in March that the company provided to all of the other workers, telling him “it’s almost summer.” Workers say the worker filed an official HR complaint and that a meeting was held between the employee and management. StoneMor would not discuss these allegations with Motherboard.
The union official could not confirm the specific incidents, but said that at least one Latinx worker “had been harassed by [their supervisor] to such an extent that the facilities manager had to call for a meeting.” That supervisor remains at Beth Israel, according to the union official and several workers.
Workers say they are tired of waiting for change, either by way of a union contract or OSHA investigation.
Given the bleak nature of their jobs, several gravediggers said they try to not to think about the meaning of their work, and are focused on supporting their families. “I’m not working there to be friends with nobody,” one worker said. “I work there to get paid and take care of my family.”
Others, disturbed by the conditions of the cemetery and how they say management deceives clients, find it difficult to sleep at night, particularly during the pandemic.
“I’m a guy who’s on the frontlines. I’m not proud or not proud, but I feel for families coming out here at their worst times,” one gravedigger said. “We were dropping people in mud puddles, losing bodies from neighboring graves. This used to be a place of religious antiquity, but now it’s like a ghetto, a cesspool, a shithole. I could show you stuff you wouldn’t believe, most people wouldn’t believe, but it’s true nonetheless.”