It was a perfect early spring day: acres of blue sky, the lightest of breezes moving past the graves of Mount Richmond Cemetery on Staten Island. Here, 55,000 Jews are buried in plots owned by the Hebrew Free Burial Association.
These are the graves of the poor, which, under Judaic law, do not differ from those of the rich. The ritual of burial is a rope across time: families who lived a century ago at 108 Orchard Street on the Lower East Side — now known as the Tenement Museum — are buried at Mount Richmond. The maternal grandparents of Mel Brooks are down one row. In another corner are 23 of the girls and boys who were killed in the Triangle shirtwaist factory fire in 1911.
On Tuesday afternoon, in Section 35, it was the time to lay Jeffrey Lynn Schneider to rest, in a box of raw pine, the lid barely held on with three wooden pegs.
As the rabbi worked, a man named Stanley Weinstein, a cousin of Mr. Schneider’s, picked up another shovel and pushed earth into the hole. A spray of cousins and friends stood around the grave, a dozen or so, waiting their turn. After a minute of work, Mr. Weinstein drove the shovel back into the mound. “We don’t hand it off to the next person, to show that we don’t want to pass on death,” Rabbi Plafker said.
It was the rabbi’s third funeral of the day. At the first two, for elderly people, he and three men who work in the cemetery were the only people at the graveside. The rabbi said the prayers; the men performed the ritual with the shovels.
“We are the only friends all the time for poor people,” said Joe Shalem, the superintendent of the cemetery, nodding to the two gravediggers, Cesar Bustamante and Wilson Montes Deoca. The free burial society began in 1888, after the first waves of immigrants from Eastern Europe. The society bought the 23 acres on Staten Island and began burials at Mount Richmond in March 1909. The aim is to provide traditional Jewish burials to people who cannot afford them, said Amy Koplow, the society’s executive director.