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Manager Kills Self Over Florida Funeral Scandal

 

JANUARY 4, 2002

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Manager Kills Self Over Florida Funeral Scandal

By JULIE KAY
FORWARD CORRESPONDENT

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — A South Florida cemetery scandal took a bizarre and tragic turn last week when a manager of a funeral home company under investigation for wrongdoing committed suicide, even though investigators said he was not directly involved in the probe.

Peter Hartmann, 45, was found dead in his car last week, the victim of carbon monoxide poisoning. Mr. Hartmann's wife said he had been under a great deal of stress following allegations that Service Corporation International, the nation's largest funeral home firm, had desecrated graves and dug up bodies at five South Florida cemeteries.

Mr. Hartmann managed four funeral homes in Broward and Miami-Dade counties, but none of them had been targeted in a scandal that now includes a class action suit and an investigation by the Florida attorney general's office.

More than 1,000 people have contacted lawyers bringing a class action lawsuit against the cemetery company. Of the five cemeteries targeted in the suit, two are primarily Jewish, Menorah Gardens in Fort Lauderdale and Menorah Gardens in Palm Beach County.

The lawsuit, filed in Broward Circuit Court December 19, accuses the cemeteries and their parent company of desecrating remains, breaking open burial vaults, mixing body parts of different people, smashing burial vaults and throwing bodies into nearby woods. The lawyers reportedly are seeking a $35 million settlement.

Rep. Mark Foley, who represents the area, has called on Attorney General John Aschcroft to investigate. A Justice Department spokesman said the agency was reviewing Mr. Foley's request. The Florida Department of Law Enforcement is also considering joining the investigation.

Members of the local Jewish community have also become involved. Last week, representatives of the Palm Beach County Board of Rabbis visited the Palm Beach Gardens cemetery at the request of cemetery managers, who wanted advice on how to allay the fears of people contacting them.

Rabbi Alan Sherman, the board's executive vice president, said people with relatives buried at the cemeteries have been calling him, fearing their loved ones had been dug up. If the allegations turn out to be true, Rabbi Sherman said he would ask Service Corporation International to sell its mostly Jewish cemeteries to a Jewish owner.

Service Corporation International bought full-page advertisements in local newspapers to defend its behavior. In one ad, the company stated: "The activities attributed to these businesses could not be further from the policies, procedures, ethics and common decency exercised on a daily basis by nearly 30,000 SCI-affiliated employees throughout North America. And the slightest suggestion that our company would be associated in any way with disrespect for the dead is absolutely intolerable. We consider our work to be a sacred trust. In consultation with rabbinical authorities we will continue to respond to the needs of the families we served with adherence to the highest standards of Jewish tradition."

Questions about improprieties at the Palm Beach County Menorah Gardens first arose in 1997, when the cemetery was sued for losing a woman's amputated legs. When a $1.25 million verdict was reached, other families began calling with questions about their loved ones.

Lawyers involved in the present case said they doubted the deceased manager, Mr. Hartmann, was involved in any wrongdoing.

Jewish Funeral Practices Committee of Greater Washington