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Lawsuit Claims Profit Over Ethics At Jewish Cemetery In Mission Hills PDF Print E-mail
Written by Bill Hetherman   
Thursday, 13 February 2014 03:35

Comedy legends Lenny Bruce (left) and Groucho Marx are among those interned at Eden Memorial. Below is the grave
marker for Bruce.

LOS ANGELES (CNS) - Management at a Jewish cemetery in Mission Hills put profit over ethics and allowed mass disturbances at graves without telling clients about the improper practices, an attorney alleged this week. "For 25 years, Eden Memorial Park Cemetery repeatedly desecrated graves, broke outer burial containers, damaged coffins and mishandled human remains,'' lawyer Michael Avenatti alleged in his opening statement to a Los Angeles Superior Court jury hearing trial of a lawsuit brought on behalf of nine named plaintiffs.

Defense attorney Steven Gurnee denied any wrongdoing on the part of his clients. "Not a single one of the plaintiffs have been able to establish that a grave of a loved one was damaged or tampered with in any way,'' Gurnee said. The nine plaintiffs represent a class of an estimated 25,000 Eden clients and family members who collectively spent nearly $100 million for services over a quarter of a century, Avenatti said.

Many of the remains were placed in a section of the cemetery known as "the dump,'' Avenatti alleged. The 67-acre cemetery opened in 1954 and its assets were acquired in 1995 by SCI California Funeral Services Inc., codefendants in the lawsuit with Service International Corp. Comedians Groucho Marx and Lenny Bruce are among those buried there.

Gurnee said that the plaintiffs' case is based largely on internal memos generated during a two-day training session for groundskeepers in October 2007. In the memos, groundskeepers were critical of the burial practices at Eden Memorial Park and said they worried they would be fired if they complained. Gurnee said many of those groundskeepers, as well as some cemetery officials, gave sworn testimony that sharply contradicts what is stated in the memos. Avenatti said the class period extends from February 1985, when SCI acquired the cemetery, until the filing of the lawsuit in September 2009.

The class members were induced to choose Eden Memorial Park instead of other burial grounds they would have selected had they known about the alleged misconduct there, according to the plaintiffs' attorneys. The lawsuit alleges that SCI and its employees purposely desecrated hundreds of Jewish graves and improperly disposed of human remains and bones.

Attorneys for the plaintiffs have estimated damages at more than $500 million. In July 2012, the state Supreme Court denied SCI's attempt to have Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Anthony Mohr's classcertification order overturned.

The lawsuit alleges that groundskeepers were repeatedly instructed by cemetery management to secretly break outer burial containers with a backhoe and remove, dump and/ or discard the human remains -- including human skulls --in so-called "spoils piles'' in order to make room for new burials. New graves were then placed over the areas where the discarded remains were placed, Avenatti alleged.

Avenatti played for jurors excerpts of the video deposition of an Eden. Cemetery groundskeeper who said he sometimes saw bones fall out of burial containers during digging to make space for new graves. Some of the bones were put back in the containers, but others were discarded, according to the employee, Elias Medina. "You throw away people's bones in the dump?,'' Medina was asked.

"Yes,'' Medina replied. Avenatti also played the deposition of the supervisor, Zeke Perez, who said he would replace bones in containers if they spilled out. "The bones would come out and we would place them back, return them,'' Perez said. Asked if he would use a shovel to return the bones to the containers, Perez answered, "No. My hands.'' Avenatti said such a tactic was improper.

"Not a single witness will appear in this case ... and testify that the conduct of handling remains with one's own bare hands is acceptable in the industry,'' Avenatti told jurors. Avenatti previously said he believes the alleged improper burial practices continue today at Eden Memorial Park.

All of the actions were done to increase profits, according to the lawsuit. SCI concealed the alleged wrongdoing by threatening employees and witnesses with retaliation and the loss of their jobs, according to the complaint. Gurnee said the cemetery was damaged in the 1994 Northridge earthquake and that the materials the plaintiffs' attorneys claims are human remains are actually concrete and other debris, including dirt from the Ronald Reagan (118) Freeway. Gurnee's opening statement will conclude Thursday Feb.13, after which the first plaintiffs' witness will take the stand.