Bamboozled: Promise to keep, trials to go before final rest

Suzanne Cooper was determined to keep a promise to an old family friend.BB branding

Before Carol Perez died eight years ago, Cooper pledged she would oversee the care of Carl “Billy” Sieben, Perez’s brother. Sieben was mentally handicapped, lived in a nursing home and had no other living family members.

“He had no one else,’’ Cooper said.

Before Perez died, she prepaid for interment services for her brother so he could be buried near his mother and father at Hollywood Cemetery and Memorial Park in Union.

“When Billy was still alive, the one thing he was afraid of was being buried in a potter’s field and I always told him that would never happen,’’ said Cooper.

112210But when Sieben died on Oct. 18 at age 65, a mass of red tape tied up his burial for weeks.

“I want to be able to keep my word to him,’’ Cooper said, so she asked Bamboozled for help.


Cooper didn’t learn of Sieben’s death right away. The nursing home somehow misplaced her contact information.

Sieben had already been in the morgue at Saint Michael’s Medical Center for a week when the nursing home finally called Cooper with news of his death.

He was then transferred to Cotton Funeral Service in Newark.

Cooper contacted the funeral home to start making final arrangements.

She thought the process would be relatively simple. Sieben, who was on Medicaid, would be eligible for state public assistance funeral benefits. Costs for the plot and the grave’s opening and closing had already been prepaid by Sieben’s sister.

Before Cooper was notified over Sieben’s death, the funeral home confirmed that Sieben, a Medicaid patient, qualified for state benefits: up to $2,770 for funeral and cemetery services. Included in the initial estimate was a line item of $524, a charge for the cemetery plot at Evergreen Cemetery in Hillside, where Sieben would have been buried in a “non-title grave,” which is one in which multiple people are buried. That is exactly what Sieben feared, and what Cooper assured him would never happen.

Once Cooper told the funeral home that Sieben already had a plot at Hollywood, the group grave idea was sacked. The funeral home contacted Hollywood to make the arrangements.

But there was a problem.

Hollywood, like many New Jersey cemeteries, requires a burial vault — a lined and sealed container that surrounds a coffin before it’s placed in the ground. The vault is supposed to protect the ground from settling from the weight of the earth and any heavy maintenance equipment that may pass over the grave.

The vault’s cost was an additional $756 and would not be covered by any state benefit, the funeral home said. Cooper, or someone, would have to pay.

“I’m a single mother with four children. I just don’t have that kind of money,’’ Cooper said.

In reviewing the funeral home charges, Cooper realized there might be $524 in benefits that were unused — the funds that were originally to pay for Sieben’s grave at Evergreen and no longer needed.

Cooper asked the funeral home to use the $524 for the vault, and she said she’d somehow come up with the remaining $232.

The funeral home said no, that the $524 could only be used for cemetery charges.

“I just want to keep my promise and have him buried at Hollywood,’’ Cooper said. “If I had the money, I would pay it.’’

It was now more than two weeks after Sieben died, and Cooper said she felt trapped by bureaucracy. That’s when she called Bamboozled.


Bamboozled called Cotton Funeral Service to get the lowdown.

“He can go to Hollywood but they require the vault, and the $524 can’t be used for the vault,’’ said Cotton representative Geralda Hill. “It’s probably illegal.”

Illegal? Okay, there are rules governing what charges the state will cover for public assistance funerals. But illegal?

Hill further explained that the funeral home is allowed to apply for up to $2,246 for its services, but the $524 is a benefit specifically earmarked for the cemetery. The cemetery is the only one permitted to ask for that amount, she said. If the funeral home took the $524, it would be “fraud,” she said.

Not necessarily.

We called New Jersey’s Department of Human Services (DHS), which oversees public assistance funeral benefits, to get a better understanding of what is and is not covered.

The benefits are more flexible than what Hill described.

“If the decedent is eligible and if the amount of the prepaid funeral is less than $2,770, all or part of the $524 benefit may be applied to the cost of the vault,’’ said DHS spokeswoman Pam Ronan.

She said the vault cost is not listed as an allowable expense in the manual that covers such costs, but on a case-by-case basis, DHS may authorize a one-time payment to cover a particular item that is not specifically addressed in the manual.

Before calling the funeral home to explain that DHS said the funeral home could apply for the benefit to pay for the vault, we wanted to double-check the cost of the prepaid funeral to make sure Sieben was still eligible for the benefits.

We called Hollywood, which sold the prepaid plan to Sieben’s sister.

A total of $2,550 was paid in 2001 for the plot and the grave’s opening and closing, said Bernard Stoecklein, chairman of CMS Mid-Atlantic, the company that owns Hollywood.

That puts the prepaid burial within the amount allowed by the state.

Stoecklein also explained that cemeteries are not permitted by law to sell vaults, so it could not apply for the $524 benefit.

Then Stoecklein said there are charitable organizations that donate burial-related funds for needy families.

Bamboozled asked if he knew anyone who could help. He offered to make a phone call, and in less than an hour, he called back.

“It’s taken care of,’’ he said.

A donor foundation that wished to remain anonymous would take care of the vault expense, and Stoecklein had already called Cotton Funeral Services. Cooper would be contacted by the funeral home to make arrangements.

Sieben could finally be buried.

Thirty days after Sieben died, he was laid to rest at Hollywood. The funeral was attended by Cooper and her youngest son.

“It went well. He’s where he’s supposed to be,’’ Cooper said after the ceremony.

Many thanks to Stoecklein and the anonymous donor for making it happen.