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Hearing considers compensation for Jewish cemeteries' desecration

Four elderly women testified Monday about the horror of discovering problems at two Jewish cemeteries where their relatives were buried but told a judge they support a $76-million settlement with the nation's largest funeral service company.

"I couldn't believe it. This is almost like holy ground," said Joan Light, whose mother and father were not buried where they were supposed to be. "I think anybody involved with what went on should be punished _ everybody."

Circuit Judge Leonard Fleet was attentive to both the emotional and financial implications of the agreement between relatives of people buried at the Menorah Gardens cemeteries and the cemeteries' owner, Houston-based Service Corp. International and its SCI Florida subsidiary.

The hearing, which is expected to continue today and perhaps Wednesday, represents the largest chunk of a total of $123-million in settlements SCI has negotiated with families and the state.

The worst complaints covered two graves that were broken open with backhoes and the bones tossed into the woods to make room for fresh burials. Other, frequent problems included misplaced burials in cemeteries with layouts that were too tight for casket liners and crooked rows where markers did not reflect what was underground.

"They sold me a pig in a poke. It's a horrible, disgraceful plot," said Gloria Zimmer, whose mother was buried in what she called "grave 4{."

Fleet wants the settlement money to cover replacement costs for any monuments that might have been discarded and DNA testing of remains to guarantee identification of buried remains.

"I want this settlement if approved to achieve the greatest degree of peace of mind for the people affected," the judge said.

SCI attorney Barry Davidson seemed hesitant to offer DNA testing at an estimated $750 per grave but committed to working out any issues.

Court-appointed examiner Richard Baldwin estimated 557 graves in the Broward and Palm Beach county cemeteries may require disinterment to make up for mistakes and make room for burial contracts, but he thought as little as $20,000 would be needed for DNA testing.

Under the Jewish religion, the dead are not supposed to be raised above ground level after burial. An elaborate religious ritual sanctified by a rabbi must be followed for proper reburials.

Baldwin said burial vaults, caskets, clothing, hospital bands and other kinds of personal identification would be checked before DNA testing becomes a consideration.

A rabbi, an engineer and Baldwin, an outsider brought in to oversee day-to-day operations at the cemeteries, are on an oversight panel supervising $11-million in efforts to correct problems and bring the cemeteries up to the requirements of state law and industry standards.

The primary objections come from Theodore Leopold, an attorney for families of 42 people buried at the Palm Beach County cemetery. He considers the total dollar figure "woefully inadequate" and wants his clients to be able to pursue trials and punitive damages above the $25-million covered by the settlement.

All four women who testified said the crucial part of the settlement to them was a change in cemetery operations.

"When you're grieving, you don't think that anybody's going to take advantage of you, and I don't think it should happen to anyone," said Shirley Eisenberg. She bought a double headstone for her cousin, a Holocaust survivor and father figure, and his wife but found out their graves were far apart. "The important thing is that the cemeteries are cleaned up."