John Burns was baptized at St. Paul the Apostle Roman Catholic Church in Jersey City and later was an altar boy there. Then, after a teenage apprenticeship that taught him about headstones, he bought a century-old monument company in North Arlington, N.J.
It depends on the cemetery across the street for much of its business, but Burns is embroiled in a battle with the cemetery’s owner, the Archdiocese of Newark. He says the archdiocese muscled in on his business when it began offering headstones and mausoleums to customers 18 months ago. Burns tried unsuccessfully in court to stop the archdiocese.
He also has fought for legislation that would prohibit the archdiocese from competing against the private funeral industry because, he says, the church’s tax-exempt status gives it an unfair economic advantage.
The church, he says, enjoys another advantage, customer convenience — in effect, one-stop shopping. He says grieving families could arrange to buy monuments through the church without having to go to his shop or others within a few blocks of Holy Cross Cemetery, one of 10 run by Catholic Cemeteries of the Archdiocese of Newark.
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Others in the funeral business say they worry that the Newark archdiocese could follow the lead of other dioceses across the country that have moved beyond providing solely monuments. In Denver and Los Angeles, for example, funeral homes are on the grounds of church-run cemeteries.
Burns, 54, who owns Albert H. Hopper Monuments, said the fight was “hard because it’s the church.”
“Where in my life did I ever think I’d go to my state legislator and ask for legislation against the church to keep my livelihood?” he said in an interview. “It’s a shame.”
The bills before the Legislature would prohibit religious entities that own or operate cemeteries from manufacturing or selling memorials, funeral vaults and mausoleums. The bills also would ban religious cemeteries from renting or leasing space to funeral homes and from arranging management contracts with any company that owns funeral homes.
The archbishop of Newark, John J. Myers, has urged Catholics to oppose the bills, saying they would violate the separation of church and state.
“We cannot stand by and watch the Legislature ignore the religious freedom we enjoy in this country as they attempt to insert themselves into the religious practice of Christian burial,” Myers wrote in a letter distributed at churches this month.
He also took aim at the monument builders.
“They now want to change the law and protect their own business interests,” he said.
He has characterized the bills as anti-competitive and anti-consumer.
Andrew Schafer, executive director of the Catholic Cemeteries for the archdiocese, said the church began dealing in monuments because of demand.
“Families asked, ‘Can we purchase a headstone from you, can we purchase a headstone from you?’ ” he said.
But Schafer said the church had set specific limitations to avoid siphoning off the monument makers’ business.
“We do not sell to the general public; we sell to our Catholic families,” he said, and the headstones go only into the cemeteries run by the archdiocese. The monument makers can sell headstones for placement in other cemeteries as well as the Catholic ones, he said.
Wilson Beebe, the executive director of the New Jersey State Funeral Directors Association, said the archdiocese had captured 25 percent of the Catholic monument market in less than 18 months, and he predicted its share would increase to as much as 50 percent in a couple of years.
Schafer said the archdiocese did not mean to take money away from the monument companies.
“We don’t want to hurt anybody,” he said. “Our intention is not to put anybody out of business.”
He noted that Catholic Cemeteries do not sell headstones themselves, just what the archdiocese calls “inscription rights.”
“You don’t own the headstone — we own the headstone,” he said. “If in Hurricane Sandy, if trees come down on the headstone, it’s the responsibility of the cemetery” to repair the headstone. He said a cemetery had no obligation to tend to headstones bought from monument builders that were damaged once they were in place.
In the lawsuit, Burns and the monument builders accused Schafer of reneging on a promise made several years ago that the archdiocese would never sell monuments. The archdiocese said in court papers that Schafer’s comment was not binding and that officials had rethought the idea because of vandalism and damage from Hurricane Sandy in 2012.
In April, Judge Frank Ciuffani of Superior Court in Middlesex County ruled in favor of the archdiocese, finding that its graveyards “are not ‘public cemeteries’ ” because only Catholics can be buried in them. The monument builders are challenging the decision in the state Court of Appeals.