By Robin Heinz Bratslavsky
Special to KHTS News
A class-action lawsuit filed against Service Corporation International (SCI) and Eden Memorial Park has sparked outrage and disbelief among the Jewish community of the greater Los Angeles area.
The claim, filed in Los Angeles this week, alleges that employees of Eden Memorial Park, located in Mission Hills, knowingly disinterred remains and desecrated gravesites at the large memorial park just south of Santa Clarita.
Though the exact scope of the alleged activities is unknown, the lead attorney in the case estimates it could affect more than 500 gravesites at the cemetery.
“We were approached by a client who had concerns about what that client believed to be improper doings at the [Eden Memorial Park] cemetery,” says Michael Avenatti, the lead claimants attorney on the case. “We launched an investigation several months ago and … during the course of that investigation we uncovered evidence to substantiate the claims.”
Avenatti, whose firm Eagan, O’Malley and Avenatti, LLP filed the complaint, says the allegations of wrongdoing at the cemetery are “horrific.”
According to the complaint, graves were disturbed using backhoe equipment while preparing other graves for internment. The issue at hand is whether cement vaults, into which all caskets must be placed, were broken during the excavation of plots. For example, Avenatti says that in some cases, only 4 inches of space was left between plots, leaving inadequate space in which to use a backhoe to dig the earth from an adjacent plot. In these cases, the complaint alleges, the cement vaults were broken, which allowed human remains to fall out. This can happen because typical Jewish caskets are made from simple pine and held together with wood glue, making the entire casket biodegradable. The casket decomposes with the body. Since the casket is not completely intact for long, any damage to the encasing cement vault can result in remains being dislodged from the structure. When this occurred, the complaint alleges, said remains were then disposed of by Eden Memorial Park employees.
Avenatti says that the area of primary concern is a region of the park known as “Jacob,” in the northeastern most portion of the property. “Our evidence has shown that this area was used as a dumping ground for human remains. They then developed that property and interred new individuals there.”
Andrea Polak, 42, from Valencia, is planning to visit her mother’s gravesite on Thursday, which would have been her mother’s 83rd birthday. When she learned of the allegations, she says, “I was devastated. I was sickened. I have a big hole in my stomach because I have no idea whether my mom’s remains are still there.” Polak’s mother was buried at Eden in 2000. “Usually, when I go to the cemetery, I’m sad, because I miss my mom. But I’m also at peace because I’m talking to her. Now I won’t be at peace because I’m not even sure she is still there.”
Jewish law dictates that the body be buried intact, according to Rabbi Mark Blazer of Temple Beth Ami in Santa Clarita. “Judaism teaches us that the body is holy. That holiness doesn’t end when the person dies. That’s why [these allegations] are a nightmare for us, if this is true.” Blazer stressed that nothing has been proved, and cautioned people not to jump to conclusions. “We know it’s possible, but we hope it’s not true. I hope the charges are false. It’s such a serious thing for us, especially in the Jewish tradition,” Blazer says. “We cannot have a body moved, or desecrated, or even re-interred. The body should be left in peace. Moving it should be avoided at all costs.”
Avenatti says the lawsuit is seeking an injunction to protect the interests of the claimants. They are requesting that the property be placed into receivership so that the current management cannot be involved in the future activities of the property. They also are seeking compensatory damages for the families, as well as punitive damages “to punish those responsible for the conduct and to send a message to the people not to do this,” he says.
Eden Memorial Park management referred all queries to the parent company, SCI. Lisa Marshall, managing director of corporate communications for the Houston-based company, says that SCI is conducting its own investigation into the allegations. “It would be reckless of us to flat-out make a statement that the allegations are untrue or true without claims,” she says. The investigation, she says, currently consists of interviews with employees, though she could not confirm whether that meant current or former employees-or both. She also said she is unsure if a physical inspection was being performed at the property. In a portion of a prepared statement, SCI indicated: “Out of respect for our families and the court system, we will not and cannot try this case in the media. We will deal with this within the system and in an honest and forthright manner.”
Avenatti stresses that in addition to this civil action, his firm is aggressively pursuing other legal avenues. “We are going to be doing everything in our power to see that the Attorney General of the State of California conducts a full investigation,” he says.
While the allegations are serious, more questions have been raised as to how the information came to light in the first place. Avenatti says that his clients believe that Eden Memorial was “not honest and forthright with consumers who were purchasing the plots in an effort to boost their profits. We are aware of instances where loved ones have visited gravesites and there were no bodies in the gravesites,” he says. Citing the current legal proceedings, he said he was unable to divulge the sources of his information at this time.
In an amended complaint filed in Los Angeles on Monday, the claimant accuses SCI and Eden Memorial Park of fraud and false advertising.
Avenatti is requesting that anyone with pertinent information about the case contact his office, or visit www.edenclaims.com. Anonymous information will be accepted. Families concerned about their loved ones’ remains also can contact Avenatti directly at firstname.lastname@example.org.