Jewish cemeteries unflapped by proposed tax on dead

A proposed initiative to tax each grave in Colma is raising ire among some funeral directors and could cost the Bay Area Jewish community more than $24 million.

But Jewish cemetery directors remain unflapped.

"I don't think [the proposed tax] is even legal," said Judith Edmonson, general manager of both Congregation Sherith Israel's Hills of Eternity and Congregation Emanu-El's Home of Peace cemeteries. "The state constitution states you cannot put special assessments on cemeteries."

Nonetheless, a proposed initiative would impose a $5 yearly tax on each grave, plus a one-time $50 tax on new burials.

Nearly a million people have been buried in Colma's 16 cemeteries since 1887. If passed, the tax would add $5 million annually to Colma's revenue.

Colma occupies just 2.2 square miles and is home to 1,100 residents. Seventy-five percent of the city's businesses are cemeteries. They contribute about $100,000 annually to the city's $5 million budget. The balance is supplied by several auto dealerships and two shopping centers.

Of Colma's 16 cemeteries, three are Jewish.

Sinai Memorial Chapel's Eternal Home Cemetery buries about 200 people each year and has 15,000 graves. Hills of Eternity has about 18,000, while Home of Peace maintains 16,000. Together, the two congregational cemeteries bury about 250 people each year.

If the initiative reaches the ballot and is approved, each cemetery would be charged an annual increase of more than $800,000.

But "I really don't think this is going to happen," said Gene Kaufman, director of Sinai Memorial Chapel. "I think it's a ploy to get cemetery directors to support the [Lucky Chances] card room."

Colma voters recently approved the establishment of the Lucky Chances card club. Backers of the club say it will raise at least $1.4 million annually.

Concerned over the possibilities of parking problems and odd hours, a number of cemetery directors have gone to court to oppose the club. The Jewish cemeteries have remained neutral. Developers agreed to cut the number of tables from 60 to 43 to appease cemetery directors.

Nonetheless, Pet's Rest Cemetery owners Philip C'de Baca and Eugene Daneluz are petitioning to force Lucky Chances to change from operating around the clock to staying open only between 4:30 p.m. to 8 a.m.

Both initiatives must collect 125 signatures within six months to qualify for the ballot. To date, the cemetery directors' association in Colma has not taken a united stand on either initiative.