By Andy Sheehan

CRAFTON (KDKA) — Elizabeth Wojtaszek died on April 7 but had planned for that eventuality eight years before, purchasing a crypt in a mausoleum to be built at Chartiers Cemetery in Crafton.

But when her husband, Stanley, came to the cemetery the day before the funeral, the manager told him the mausoleum and crypt for his wife of 34 years did not exist.

“She goes, ‘Well, we never built the mausoleum and we don’t have anywhere to put her.’ I almost fell over. I was hyperventilating,” Stanley said.

In 2011, Elizabeth signed a contract with Chartiers for two crypts, one for herself and one for husband, and paid more than $19,000 in installments over 60 months — $15,000 for the crypts and $4,000 more in interest.

But neither she nor her family were ever notified that the plans for the mausoleum had been scrapped. Without it, the cemetery offered to put Elizabeth in a grave.

“Well now, I was getting a little frustrated. I was getting a little angry. I says, ‘It’s ridiculous to suggest that.’ She bought a mausoleum because she didn’t want to be in the ground. That was the main purpose of the mausoleum,” Stanley said.

Stanley says he’s never been given an explanation, but when KDKA’s Andy Sheehan visited the cemetery office, the manager did not wish to talk.

“You’ll need to call our corporate office and talk to our PR there,” she said.

Chartiers is owned by StoneMor, the second largest cemetery corporation in the country. It’s headquartered in eastern Pennsylvania with eight large cemeteries in our region, including Mt. Lebanon and Mt. Royal. In a statement, they said they regretted the situation with the Wojtaszek family but are committed to serving families with dignity.

“In this instance, we have fallen short of our standards. The matter is being addressed, and we want to reassure our families and the local community that we are committed to serving them and their loved ones,” the statement said in part.

StoneMor would not say why the mausoleum wasn’t built or what was done with the Wojtaszek’s funds in the meantime. But, the company — which is struggling with massive debt, falling stock prices and plunging bond ratings — has drawn criticism in recent years for its handling of other pre-need burial funds.

According to the small print in one contract, if you purchase a gravesite with StoneMor, they can use your pre-need funds to open the grave and install a burial vault at any time.

Sheehan: “And why are they doing that?”
Funeral Director Jim Stover: “To get the money upfront, get the money today rather than waiting 10, 20 years for the person to die.”

Stover says cash-strapped StoneMor buries the vaults to get around a state law requiring them to keep 70% of the pre-need funds in a trust and that these pre-burial vaults often become waterlogged and damaged.

StoneMor did not respond to this criticism but have denied the allegation in published reports, citing a Federal Trade Commission report condoning the early burial of vaults.

Unconvinced, a number of state legislators co-sponsored a bill last year to ban the practice. The legislation passed in the state senate but not the house. Still, Stover says families should be aware.

“I think it definitely needs investigated. At this point, I don’t think it ever been investigated,” he said.

In the Wojtaszek case, Stover was able to secure the family another crypt at Resurrection, the Catholic cemetery in Coraopolis.

“This was the result of a last-second scramble,” Stanley Wojtaszek said.

It’s a single crypt, meaning that when he dies, Stanley will share it his wife, Elizabeth. But now, he can at least get on with a his grieving process and not have to worry about arrangements that were supposed be taken care of years ago.

“It’s supposed to be smooth. You’re not supposed to put extra burden on your loved ones when you die. It’s just not right,” Stanley said.

Stanley says he has now received a check from StoneMor reimbursing him for the crypt that was never built. Although funeral directors are critical of the practice, the Federal Trade Commission does support StoneMor’s pre-burial vaults. The FTC said banning the practice could limit competition and potentially drive up prices.