by Paul Margolis
A walk through the Hebrew Free Burial Association's (HFBA) Mount Richmond Cemetery on Staten Island is a tour of the dark side of the American Jewish experience. Buried here, in the largest free cemetery in the Diaspora, are those Jews who didn't "make it" in America. They and their families had to rely on charity for a traditional, dignified Jewish funeral.
Since 1888, the HFBA has buried over 50,000 such unfortunate Jews. With Jewish immigrants flooding into New York during the late 19th century, the Jewish community needed a cemetery for its poor and indigent. They purchased two sites on Staten Island, then an undeveloped borough of farms.
The HFBA still has the sad duty of burying 400-500 poor Jews a year, 50 percent of whom are immigrants from the former Soviet Union. Other burials are of the elderly who have outlived family and friends, the homeless, AIDS victims and suicides. Families that can't afford private funerals - which average over $4,000 in the New York area - turn to the HFBA so that their loved ones won't be cremated or buried in a potter's field.
Rabbi Shmuel Plafker is the full-time rabbi of the HFBA. He officiates at funerals and counsels families. An Orthodox rabbi, Plafker says that the saddest burials are those where there are "unaccompanied burials". These account for 40 percent of the HFBA's work. "That's the most terrible thing to me," says the rabbi. "Imagine people without anyone to mourn for them. Terrible."
In a tree-shaded corner of the seven-acre cemetery lie the victims of the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire of 1911. Mostly young immigrant women, they died when flames engulfed the Lower East Side sweatshop where they worked as seamstresses. They were 17, 18, and 19 years old; many of the stones say "Killed in the Triangle Fire" as the sole eulogy. Staring out of photographs mounted on weatherworn tombstones are young men dressed in early 20th century clothing; fathers, sons and brothers whose lives were cut short by overwork and disease. (The use of photographs is strictly forbidden today.) Children, carried off by diseases long since eradicated by modern medicine and better sanitation, are buried in rows and rows of stones with lambs carved on them. Young mothers who died in their 20s and 30s lie under stones with inscriptions reading "Gone But Not Forgotten."
Hebrew Free Burial Association Cemetery. Photo: Paul Margolis
Many, perhaps as many as half of the Jews buried here, have no markers over their graves. The families were too poor to afford a monument, or the dead had no family in this country. The HFBA has a campaign to put names, which now appear only on microfilmed records, over these unmarked graves.
Despite the myth that all Jews are well off in the U.S., the poor and abandoned still need HFBA to give them the traditional Jewish burial that their families can't - or won't - provide. These are the people for whom the HFBA performs the final mitzvah.
For more information, please contact: Sandra Wiesel, Administrator, The Hebrew Free Burial Assoc., 363 7th Ave. NY,, NY 10001, tel. (212) 239-1662
(Paul Margolis is a writer, photographer and film maker)
International Survey of Jewish Monuments
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