Orange County Jewish Life caught up with Len Lawrence, the general manager of Mt. Sinai Memorial Parks and Mortuaries. Mt. Sinai, which has parks in Hollywood Hills and the Simi Valley, is committed to providing expert counsel and caring support at the time of need. Serving all streams of Judaism for more than 50 years, Mt. Sinai honors life while respecting the family’s traditions and wishes, according to Lawrence.
What are the key factors that distinguish Jewish funerals from other funerals? The quickness of the burial – within 24 to 48 hours after death – is a key factor, although families are usually committed to wait for the whole family to gather. The emphasis of Jewish burial rituals is to care for the living while honoring and protecting the deceased. It is important to help the living to get through the grief.
Since everyone will deal with a funeral at some point, how do you suggest that people prepare for the eventuality? It’s clear from my experience and tenure that preplanning is a gift that people should give to their families to eliminate stress and pressure, both emotionally and financially. By preplanning the wishes of the deceased can be known. Individuals can plan what they want and provide the structure to take care of it.
How does Mt. Sinai educate people about Jewish funeral customs and about Judaism’s views on cremation? We conduct seminars at various times of the year. We provide information during the pre-planning process and at the time of need. We also provide information on our website (www.mountsinaiparks.org).
We explain all options open to the family without judging their knowledge or level or observance. We discuss cremation in a way that doesn’t judge. We are opposed, but the family can bury the ashes, and Mt. Sinai will facilitate it under the rules that we abide by. It’s a tiny part of what we do.
Given Judaism’s views on quick burial, how much preparation time is needed to arrange a Jewish funeral properly? We can arrange a funeral in 8 hours or less. It depends on how quickly the family wants to react and how quickly the family can get the death certificate, which in turn depends on the family dynamics and circumstances of death. Sitting with a counselor can take 1 to 2 1/2 hours if just arranging the funeral. If purchasing the plot, the time goes up. We can do a preplanned funeral over the telephone.
We’ve had Orthodox funerals in which we’ve been notified of the death on Friday morning and arranged the burial for Friday afternoon, so that it was completed before Shabbat. We work with the full spectrum of people from the most Orthodox to the most secular, but the funeral itself has to fit within Judaism.
In what ways does Mt. Sinai give every family 100 percent of its attention for a funeral? We are well staffed and well trained as professionals. We’re fully concentrating on service. Staff members are assigned to particular families. It all boils down to people and the training of those people. We will stop a business meeting to become a minyan, because we’re dedicated to doing things the right way. In burials where the deceased has no family, we become the family.
How does Mt. Sinai accommodate people of all streams of Judaism? We do this by being versed in the tradition, being able to adapt the tradition to the needs of the family and having property that meets the needs of the community. We even have “pathway property” where you don’t step on another grave.
We train our employees to listen. They hear what the family wants, hear what the family needs and make it work within the constraints of Jewish law.
Rabbi Elliot Dorff, Ph.D., rector and philosophy professor at American Jewish University, is Mt. Sinai’s Halachic (Jewish law) expert. He was chosen for his broad knowledge of every stream of Judaism.
We also make adjustments based on what individual rabbis want. For instance, we were told that the washing fountain at the memorial park was not kosher because the water recirculated. We built a new one.
Does Mt. Sinai arrange for a rabbi when the family does not belong to a synagogue? We have a list of rabbis willing to do funerals, and we assign them to people based on their needs. We work with rabbis who are traditional, Conservative, Reform, male, female and so on. We have an established relationship with dozens and dozens of rabbis from all over Southern California who are willing to do the memorial service for non-members. Funerals can also be conducted by cantors. These rabbis and cantors meet with the family and help the family.
What is a ballpark estimate of Jewish funeral costs – casket, plot, rabbi and other factors? The cost depends upon the family’s individual selections. A funeral can cost $5,000 to $6,000 if pre-planned and using a simple pine coffin (starting at $900), or it can be $5,000 and up to purchase a plot now. Smaller costs include the rabbi’s fee (about $500), the death certificate and the limousines if desired.
Why would an Orange County resident want to work with Mt. Sinai on a funeral? We have a nationwide if not international reputation as a Jewish mortuary. We are here 24/7, so that nobody has to deal with an answering service. We have professionally trained staff to handle any circumstances, beautiful parks and the finest Jewish burial services anywhere. We’ve been here for more than 50 years, and we spare no time, effort, training and expense to serve people.
In summary, what distinguishes Mt. Sinai from other memorial parks and mortuaries? Our founding fathers made a commitment and a covenant with the community to serve it in a meaningful way for all aspects of Judaism. We will bury the non-Jewish spouse of a Jewish person, we will work with Jewish agencies and not turn an indigent family away and we will bury a child under 13 free. This is a different kind of place with serenity, peace and quiet. We honor and protect the deceased while we serve the living.
For more information call 800-600-0076 or visit