A cemetery's grave insult

The columnist at Mrs. Hyatt’s grave at Har Zion Cemetery.

I SHOULD STOP being surprised where this job takes me.

But I still can't believe it took me to a skinny little cemetery tucked behind an Aldi market where, shovel in hand, I was determined to bring some dignity to the grave of Susan Hyatt.

Mrs. Hyatt was 86 when she died on April 1. She was laid to rest on April 3 at Har Zion Cemetery on MacDade Boulevard in Collingdale.

Mrs. Hyatt's parents are buried at Har Zion, a Jewish burial ground in a part of Delaware County so crammed with cemeteries, more people reside under the ground than above it. Mrs. Hyatt's husband's remains are also at Har Zion, as are those of his parents and sister. So Mrs. Hyatt's family buried her there, too, on that cool, dry Sunday morning.

Two days later, her son, Glenn Hyatt, visited the grave with an out-of-town niece who had been unable to make it to the hastily arranged burial.

He was made heartsick by what he saw.

Two sheets of battered plywood were atop his mother's grave, weighted down with a cinder block and bricks. He could see, through a gap beneath the wood, that his mother's grave was only partially filled in (although the casket was not visible). A mound of excavated dirt remained next to it, atop the graves of other Hyatt loved ones.

The following Saturday, when the family returned, the mess was worse, muddied by that day's heavy rain. Water drizzled off of the plywood, into the grave.

"Needless to say, it was distressing emotionally," says Glenn Hyatt, a physician who practices in Willow Grove. "I had just lost my mother. To find her gravesite in such a state was overwhelming."

He said as much in a subsequent phone conversation with Har Zion's owner, Robert Feldman, a lawyer who inherited the cemetery from his parents. Feldman lives in Miami, and travels north twice a month to check the site and meet with staff.

Feldman assured Hyatt that his mother's grave was receiving standard care. The practice at Har Zion is to fill in a grave, he explained, then cover it with wood to protect it from the elements while the dirt and casket settle into the ground. The caretakers then add dirt as needed and let it settle naturally.

Depending on the weather, the final settling could take weeks or months. So, Feldman said, what Hyatt observed at his mother's grave was not the disgrace that he believed it to be. It was just a natural settling process.

"I felt his response was inadequate," says Hyatt, whose son had contacted me for help in getting Mrs. Hyatt's grave fully filled and groomed.

I visited Mrs. Hyatt's grave on April 13, 10 days after the burial. I brought a shovel. Because if anyone deserved to be fully buried in a tidied-up resting place, it was Mrs. Hyatt.

Her son describes her as a dignified, lovely, and strong mother and grandmother whose life had been defined by her faith and guided by love for her family. She had been shattered by the sudden death of a daughter in an accident in 2002, and had handled with duty and grace the long illness of her husband, who died in 2012. Her greatest joy in her final years was in her grandchildren and their accomplishments.

"She was a wonderful woman," he says.

By the time I got to Har Zion on the 13th, caretakers had filled her grave. In fact, the dirt was mounded a foot above, and spilled around it in clumps. The plywood had been moved to the side.

It all looked really sloppy.

It was in close to the same condition when I returned on Monday. I attempted to break up the clumps with my shovel, to smooth things out. But the Delaware Valley was in the midst of a glorious stretch of sunny weather, and the dirt had baked too hard for me to dig into and scatter.

Next time, I'll bring a better tool. Or stronger biceps.

When I caught up by phone with Feldman - an affable, charming man - he was at a loss as to what the fuss was about.

He reiterated to me what he'd told both Hyatt and Rabbi Greg Marx of Maple Glen's Congregation Beth Or, who had overseen Mrs. Hyatt's services and also spoke with Feldman about the grave site's messy condition.

"I don't understand what the issue is," Feldman said, sounding puzzled after his recent visit to the gravesite. "This is not a case where a grave has been neglected. I do not understand how anyone can say it was not attended to after the funeral. When I look at it, I see a grave that looks like it had a recent burial and the dirt is naturally settling."

Yes, I said, but other cemeteries handle settling differently.

At historic Laurel Hill Cemetery, for example, grounds foreman Frank Rausch described the pains his workers take to make sure a grave is filled in and raked off immediately after a burial. Debris is removed, dirt is trucked away, and a green, Astroturf-like tarp is laid atop the burial site so it looks presentable. As the ground settles, the workers return with more dirt, but continue to keep the spot tidy.

They do it for loved ones of the deceased.

"The families often return to the cemetery the next day," says Rausch, who has worked at Laurel Hill for 15 years. "They might even come back the same day, if the burial was early in the morning. It's all part of the grieving process. There's a certain closure for the family when they come back to the cemetery."

For him, he says: "It's all a matter of how you want to present yourself as far as this business is concerned. We want to make everything as nice as possible for families at a very difficult time."

When I described Laurel Hill's process to Feldman, he shrugged.

"I don't know what other cemeteries do and I don't discuss with them what we do," he said. "I can tell you it's been done this way at Har Zion for as long as I can remember. And I've seen piles of dirt at other cemeteries, too."

I wondered if there were official aesthetic standards in the state burial industry, so I contacted the Pennsylvania Cemetery Cremation and Funeral Association. But no one returned my many requests for comment.

Maybe there was a death in the family.

I don't think Feldman is a bad guy. But I think there's a bad misunderstanding between him and the Hyatt family.

Feldman repeatedly mentioned to me a past-due bill that Mrs. Hyatt never paid for some kind of ongoing care on the plot she now shares with her husband. I saw the bill - Hyatt shared it with me, along with a copy of an outraged letter Mrs. Hyatt wrote to Feldman when she received it. She wrote that she never agreed to the services she was being charged for.

That was four years ago, and it appears nothing got resolved before her death.

But that's a separate issue from the practice of allowing a grave to look as bad as Mrs. Hyatt's did two weeks after the burial.

Let's allow Mrs. Hyatt's rabbi, Greg Marx, to break it down for us. He says he's often dismayed by the appearance of many of the region's older cemeteries.

"In the Jewish faith, we have standards of kavod hamet" - respect for the dead, he says. "Great effort is made to treat the dead with respect, dignity and reverence, from the moment of death until interment. It's tragic when, at the last stage of that process, you arrive at a cemetery that looks like a dumping ground. The emotional distress this places on a family is tremendous."

Feldman promised to reinspect Mrs. Hyatt's grave again on an upcoming visit. Not because he thinks it didn't look right the last time he saw it. But to accommodate the family's wishes.

If he needs a shovel, I have one in my trunk.

polaner@phillynews.com

215-854-2217 @RonniePhilly

Blog: ph.ly/RonnieBlog