Stanley Brenner’s funeral plans were simple and specific.
He wanted to be buried next to his wife, Sandra, at Shalom Memorial Park, the Huntingdon Valley cemetery located just over the Northeast Philadelphia border, where they had purchased side-by-side plots in 1970 — Lot No. 202. Section M2.
“He bought it when I was in high school,” said Brenner’s daughter, Marjorie Schaefer, formerly of Roxborough. “He liked that it was under a tree.”
Sandra was buried there in 2002. But when Stanley died this June at the age of 92, his carefully planned funeral was upended.
The day before Brenner was to be buried, the cemetery informed Schaefer that someone else was buried next to her mother, partially in her father’s plot.
“They gave me the choice of disinterring my mother and burying her twice as deep, with my father on top,” Schaefer said, “or moving them both, which was not acceptable.”
Schaefer reluctantly accepted the third option: Transfer her father’s body from a normal casket to a thin, undersized casket with no handles and bury him in what she called a “ridiculous position” — without a concrete liner and wedged tightly between his wife’s casket liner and that of the stranger in his plot.
“The funeral was the next morning,” Schaefer said Friday. “I had to make the decision right then.”
Schaefer is the lead plaintiff in the latest lawsuit filed against Service Corporation International, the Houston-based company that operates more than 2,000 funeral homes and cemeteries, including Shalom, and describes itself as North America’s largest provider of funeral and cemetery services. Her attorneys, who filed suit Friday, are seeking class-action status to represent similarly affected families.
SCI, a publicly traded company that generates about $3 billion a year in revenue, did not respond to a request for comment on the latest lawsuit.
“It’s just not right,” Schaefer said. “They’re taking advantage of the people that bought these plots a long time ago.”
Those allegations are familiar. The Inquirer and Daily News reported in April that an unknown person was discovered in a prepaid plot for Edna Waxler, 99, who died in June 2016 and was supposed to be buried next to her husband at Shalom.
Waxler remained above ground for more than a month until after SCI’s Pennsylvania subsidiary could obtain a court order in Montgomery County to dig up the unidentified remains and rebury them elsewhere in the cemetery.
“The funeral parlor said they’ve never heard anything like this before,” her son, David Waxler, said in April. “We went through the whole ceremony, then the funeral parlor took her back and put her back in the refrigerator, which is unbelievable.”
David Waxler, the vice president of finance at a pharmaceutical manufacturing firm, has an open lawsuit against SCI in Philadelphia Common Pleas Court.
In 2014, SCI was sued by Maya Devinskaya, 73, whose 42-year-old daughter died in 2013. Devinskaya sued SCI after her daughter was buried in a plot that overlapped someone else’s. That case was later resolved on confidential terms.
Susan Helfand also described haggling with the cemetery in 2010 on the morning of her mother’s funeral after she was told there was no room in the prepaid plot next to her father. The service for her mother, Edith W. Taylor, took place a few hundred feet from the burial site, and cemetery staff later lowered her father deeper into the ground so Taylor could be buried on top.
“It didn’t make any sense, but we felt as if there was nothing we could do,” Helfand told the Daily News in 2014. “The whole thing just seemed bizarre.”
Attorney Bryan Lentz, who is representing Schaefer in the potential class-action lawsuit filed against SCI last week, said the company doesn’t appear to be improving, despite paying out several eight-figure legal settlements around the country.
“They bought a lot of these ‘legacy’ cemeteries, and they didn’t do the due diligence,” Lentz said. “Really, they’ve got to do a full audit of the cemeteries in order to anticipate and avoid these problems. They’re trying to avoid the cost of fixing the problem globally.”
SCI has previously declined to respond to questions from the Inquirer and Daily News about its burial practices at Shalom or elsewhere, saying only that Shalom is “committed to honoring its commitments with families.”
Schaefer, who flew in from Florida for her father’s funeral, said his service was undignified and didn’t properly honor the World War II veteran.
“It wasn’t what it should have been,” she said.
The pallbearers struggled to carry the casket because it had no handles, she said, and the U.S. flag draped atop hung far too low because the casket was so small.
“When they got it on the rollers, the whole thing was tilted because it wasn’t wide enough,” she said. “I was angry.”
She’s also concerned that a heavy storm could cause her father’s casket to rise because it’s not inside a concrete liner.
Although past lawsuits apparently haven’t forced SCI to reform its cemetery practices, Schaefer hopes a class-action lawsuit might bring change.
Like other families who have clashed with the company, Schaefer feels as if she let her father down by not following his instructions.
“I could not do what he wanted,” she said. “I know it wasn’t my fault, but it was the last thing he was going to have any control over, and it didn’t go the way he had wanted.”