FEATURE: Jewish funeral costs vary by location


It’s something none of us likes to think about, but we all know it’s coming. 

Death is inevitable, yet it remains a taboo subject in our society, surrounded by secrecy and swirling with the mystery of the unknown, even among many Jews. 

In an effort to get some cold, hard facts The CJN did some research into the cost of Jewish burial across Canada. Not surprisingly, the price tag differs vastly according to the city in which you’re laid to rest and the status of your membership at a particular synagogue in that locale. 

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Members of Shaar Shalom Synagogue in Halifax, N.S., for example, will pay $4,500 for Jewish burial, which includes burial fees of $2,000 and perpetual care of the gravesite for $2,500. The price also includes the cost of the coffin, the chapel fees for the eulogy service and the fee for the chevra kadisha. If you’ve not been a member of the synagogue for five years, or if you’re not a member at all, the cost of burial jumps to $8,225. Extras in both instances are hospital pickup of the deceased, funeral home services and headstones. 

In Winnipeg, a plot, Jewish burial and perpetual care costs $10,000 for members of Congregation Shaarey Zedek and $14,000 for non-members. Members don’t have to pay extra for use of the chapel, but if you aren’t a member, you’ll be forking out more for that, as you also will if you hold the service at Chesed Shel Emes, a funeral home in the city, or elsewhere. 

Saskatoon’s Congregation Agudas Israel charges about $8,000 for Jewish burial for its members and $12,000 for non-members. Those prices are going up this year, warns Ralph Katzman, who heads the shul’s cemetery committee, adding the fee includes the use of the synagogue’s chapel and is a complete service, encompassing hospital or home pickup, coffin, taharah, a signing book and the burial plot. The price fluctuates with inflation and has gone up by about seven per cent over the past three years, he says. Another variable controlling the price of burial is the cost of the hearse, which is contracted out to a local funeral home. 

If you’re planning on dying in Vancouver, you’d better save up for the event. A plot at Schara Tzedeck Cemetery runs about $11,000 on average, though the price drops if you have a blood relative buried there or if you’re a member of Congregation Schara Tzedeck. Less expensive plots can be found at other Jewish cemeteries in Metro Vancouver, like the one in Surrey, B.C., where plots cost $3,000 for synagogue members and $5,000 for non-members. 

A funeral at Schara Tzedeck Cemetery, which includes use of the cemetery chapel, casket, halachic preparation, clergy fees, transportation to cemetery and administrative fees, among other items, adds another $11,000 to the equation. The costs include a licensed funeral director at $800, the chevra kadisha and halachic preparation at $1,260, and services of staff and overhead at $1,000. 

Digging and filling the grave is an $1,100 expense, and having clergy at the funeral costs $800. One rabbi who spoke on condition of anonymity noted that he is paid $375 per funeral, but added that the rituals surrounding death are time consuming and involve visiting with family and preparing a eulogy. He estimated his total time at 10 hours.

For those without the funds, price is never a barrier to Jewish burial, says Howard Jampolsky, executive director of the Schara Tzedeck Cemetery board. When individuals or families can’t afford the cost, efforts are always made to ensure that every Jew has a right to a Jewish burial. In the 2014 fiscal year, he estimated, the cemetery board subsidized between $150,000 and $170,000 worth of funeral expenses, including burial plots. 

While expensive, the price of plots at Schara Tzedeck Cemetery is on par with other cemeteries in Vancouver, Jampolsky noted. “The City of Vancouver charges $22,500 for a two-person plot and at Ocean View Cemetery [in Burnaby, B.C.] they start at $32,000,” he said. 

In Richmond, B.C., Beth Tikvah Congregation charges members $14,000 for Jewish burial, including headstone and burial plot. But that’s just for Jews who have been members three years or longer. If you’ve been a member for less than three years, you’ll pay $19,000, and if you’re not a member at all, $21,000. The synagogue refused to share a breakdown of how those costs were allocated.

Out east, in Ottawa, plot costs vary considerably by cemetery. At the Bank Street cemetery, plots cost $3,750, while at the Osgoode cemetery, they cost $2,400. Tammy Torontow, executive director of Ottawa’s Jewish Memorial Gardens, said the funeral homes in the city handle coffin fees and hospital pickups for the deceased. Additional costs are for the opening and closing of a grave, which costs $2,700 in the winter and $2,200 in the summer. 

In Toronto, caskets can range in price from $800 up to $35,000, according to Marc Benjamin, vice-president of operations at Benjamin’s Park Memorial Chapel. Established in 1922, the chapel takes care of everything related to the death of a Jewish individual. The costs can easily add up to $10,000-plus, and that’s only for the least expensive burial plot and the cheapest casket. 

Families of deceased should anticipate fees including $900 in vehicle charges (which includes transportation of the deceased, registering a death at city hall, picking up the chevra kadisha and the provision of a funeral hearse for the cemetery), facility charges of $2,000, staffing charges of $2,000, chevra kadisha fees ($385 for taharah and $230 per calendar day for a shomer) and cemetery fees for digging, which range between $800 and $1,600 depending on the cemetery. And all fees are subject to HST.

Some 40 per cent of families have pre-arranged their burial fees, Benjamin said, a strategy that makes sense if you’re planning a decade or two ahead of your death. “When you buy now, you get the prices at today’s price, so for someone who makes the purchase when they’re between 40 and 60, they could be saving several years of inflation,” he explained. 

For families that can’t afford burial fees, or in the case of deceased individuals with no next of kin and no funds, Benjamin’s has arrangements with local municipalities whereby they cover one-third of the burial costs and the memorial chapel covers the remainder. 

The fees are similar at Steeles Memorial Chapel in Thornhill, north of Toronto, a 70-year-old community-run business. Anticipate chapel staff and funeral director services of $2,225, $525 for facilities to prepare and shelter the deceased, vehicle services at $825 (including hearse and transportation), documentation fees of $280 and the costs of casket ($965 up to $3,995), burial plot and cemetery fees. Don’t forget taharah, the shomer, a tallit, the burial shroud and the cost of having a rabbi and/or cantor at the funeral.

When it comes to caskets, choices vary depending on where you are and whose services you use. 

At the Schara Tzedeck Cemetery in Vancouver, there’s only one type of kosher casket available, and it costs $480. 

Where there is a range of options, casket costs vary depending on the wood used to create the casket, the workmanship involved, the finish and the colour. At the Star of David Memorial Chapels in New York, for example, halachically acceptable (all-wood) caskets range in price from $895 (US) for the most basic pine box, up to $11,995 for an African ribbon grain mahogany version – which has been designed “with rounded corners and a flat top foot end, giving it a majestic appearance.” 

At Benjamin’s in Toronto, made-in-Canada caskets start at $800 and go up to $35,000. The choice for Jews is more limited at Canadian casket retailers such as Casket Outlet in Toronto and Montreal, and Casket Depot in Scarborough, Ont. Both companies retail a poplar casket that complies with Jewish law for $1,290. At Casket Canada, an online, Calgary-based distributor, a matte finish, poplar, standard-size casket costs $1,499, including ground shipping to major cities in Canada. 

Co-founder Paul Frank, the company’s, customer service director, said he and his two partners opened shop in 2013 after he buried a relative. “We couldn’t believe what the funeral home was trying to charge us for a casket, so we started looking online,” he said. After some research, he learned the funeral home was charging four times the price of the same casket he could purchase online. 

Burying a loved one is a difficult time for most people, and few ask for a breakdown of prices or have the inclination, in their grief, to start shopping around. The company’s caskets are typically made in Asia – mostly China or India – Frank said, because “you can’t get the materials from a sustainable source in North America for that cost.” 

The “made in Asia” label shouldn’t cause any alarm, though, he added. “We’ve had no returns and no issue with quality,” he said. (Of course, returns are usually not possible, since once caskets are lowered into the ground, the point of no return has passed.)

Some Jews request that the base of the casket be perforated, in which case holes are drilled into the base. Marc Benjamin said all the caskets at Benjamin’s contain six golf ball-sized holes in the base.

Curious about what size casket you’ll need? A standard size fits an individual measuring up to seven feet tall and weighing up to 300 pounds. People who are taller or heavier require a custom or extra-large casket.