Rabbis assuage concerns over Marin Jewish cemetery

Members of the Gan Yarok Burial Association, a cross-denominational group of Bay Area rabbis and synagogue leaders who three years ago founded a Jewish cemetery in Mill Valley, brushed aside concerns this week about fraud allegations leveled at the owner of the Forever Fernwood cemetery, which houses Gan Yarok.

Tyler Cassity, who also owns the Hollywood Forever cemetery in Los Angeles, where he lives, is a defendant in a civil lawsuit in his native Missouri. The suit charges him, his brother and father with looting millions of dollars from insurance polices and trusts that were supposed to be spent on customers’ pre-paid funeral expenses, according to a recent report by the Center for Investigative Reporting.

A path at Gan Yarok Cemetery in Mill Valley photo/foreverfernwood.com

While his father and brother pleaded guilty three months ago to felony fraud charges — stemming from a now defunct family holding, National Prearranged Services — Tyler Cassity has not been indicted. However, he is a defendant in the ongoing civil suit and, according to the CIR report, federal prosecutors claimed that both Hollywood Forever and Forever Fernwood were operated with illegally obtained funds from NPS.

The chair of the Gan Yarok Association, Rabbi David Cooper of Kehilla Community Synagogue in Piedmont, issued a statement this week to members of the association and others who might be concerned.

“When the association began working with Fernwood, we understood that Tyler Cassity’s father and brother were indicted in Missouri for fraud in regard to their cemetery holdings but that they were not involved in any ownership of Fernwood itself,” Cooper wrote. “Cassity himself was not indicted and apparently was not involved according to inquiries the Association made at that time.”

As for the misuse of funds, Cooper wrote, “That claim has not been proven and if it were, it does not invalidate the consecration of Gan Yarok.”

Gan Yarok was consecrated and billed as the country’s “first green Jewish cemetery” in March 2010, after roughly two years of planning by a consortium of Bay Area congregations: Reform Rodef Sholom in San Rafael; Conservative Netivot Shalom in Berkeley; Orthodox Beth Jacob in Oakland and Beth Israel in Berkeley; and Jewish Renewal Kehilla in Piedmont. It has space for 500 graves; of those, 174 have been purchased and there have been 32 burials, Cooper wrote.

He added that most graves at Gan Yarok were not purchased with a “pre-need arrangement” — which covers services such as a hearse and funeral home, and was the specialty of National Prearranged Services.

“We cannot see any way that the purchasers of gravesites at Fernwood have been affected by the Missouri case involving the Cassity family,” Cooper wrote. “Their gravesites are secure.”

Representatives from Forever Fernwood declined to comment for this story.

Sam Salkin, executive director of the Bay Area’s Sinai Memorial Chapel, expressed concern about transparency on the part of Fernwood as a for-profit cemetery.

“There are significant differences between for-profit and not-for-profit funeral homes and cemeteries, and clearly the missions and fiscal goals are not the same, so we often see Jewish congregations and burial societies having real differences of attitude and philosophy when they’re working with a for-profit [cemetery],” said Salkin.

He noted that, as a nonprofit, Sinai Memorial Chapel keeps its clients’ assets in individually named trusts at FDIC-insured banks.

“It pains us that there are funeral service providers that compromise the public trust by not being transparent, and we believe the funeral industry should respond with immediate and powerful remedies and sanctions,” Salkin added.

Rabbi Stuart Kelman, the founding rabbi of Netivot Shalom, backed up Cooper’s claim that the Cassity case would not affect families who had purchased plots at Gan Yarok, regardless of the cemetery’s ownership.

“When [the association] consecrated Gan Yarok, we had the guarantee that it’s in perpetuity,” he said. “And the reason we established it is because we wanted to make it possible to have a green burial in a consecrated Jewish cemetery.

“This was done as a mitzvah to the Jewish community,” Kelman added.

Emma Silvers

Emma Silvers is a former J. staff writer.