This photo of cemetery workers picketing at Hills of Eternity appeared in our June 11, 1971 issue. (Saul Miller)
This photo of cemetery workers picketing at Hills of Eternity appeared in our June 11, 1971 issue. (Saul Miller)

In the ’70s and ’80s, Bay Area Jewish cemeteries faced a series of labor strikes

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Nestled alongside the serene slopes of Oakland’s Mountain View Cemetery, the Jewish community’s Home of Eternity Cemetery has been witness to history, both tranquil and tumultuous. 

Established by the Hebrew Benevolent Society in 1865, Home of Eternity continues to serve as a final resting place for Jews. A July 21 walking tour hosted by Oakland Heritage Alliance will go in depth about the history of this two-acre cemetery. 

A dive into the J. Archives revealed that Home of Eternity’s history includes significant labor disputes that reverberated far beyond its grounds. The cemetery gained national attention when it was one of the first to become embroiled in a series of strikes in the 1970s and 1980s led by Local 265 of the Cemetery Workers and Green Attendants Union. These strikes were part of broader labor actions that ultimately affected most cemeteries across the Bay Area, both Jewish and non-Jewish.

In 1971, workers at 11 Bay Area cemeteries, four of them Jewish, organized the region’s longest cemetery strike — lasting four months and leaving more than 1,800 bodies in need of burial. Those included 195 bodies held at Sinai Memorial Chapel.

The Jewish community was outraged, with some peacefully counterprotesting by holding a symbolic burial of an empty casket, and others even suggesting violence. 

Rabbi Jacob Traub, the then-spiritual leader of Adath Israel Congregation, told this publication in 1971 that he would call for a show of force at cemeteries “for the purpose of burying our dead, regardless of the consequences” if a recommendation from the Jewish cemeteries for an interim agreement with the unions wasn’t accepted. 

“I hope we will not be compelled to take militant action,” Traub said.

In 1981, the cemetery union called another strike. This time it lasted for 22 days. In that period, Sinai Memorial Chapel was forced to hold 30 bodies set to be buried in the four Jewish cemeteries in Colma: Eternal Home Cemetery, Salem Memorial Park, Home of Peace Cemetery and Hills of Eternity Memorial Park.

“The cemetery workers, whose daily wages were $76 [worth about $255 today] before the strike, will receive an immediate pay increase to $84 a day. In 1982, wages will be $92 a day, and in 1983 daily wages will go up to $100,” this publication wrote. Also included were better pension and health insurance benefits.

“We’re happy this strike is over because the families can now have peace of mind that their loved ones can be laid to rest.” said Robert Schlesinger, the then-executive director of Sinai Memorial Chapel. “We feel bad that the families had to suffer through this traumatic ordeal.”

A picket sign rests at the entrance to Salem Memorial Park, one of the Jewish cemeteries in Colma affected by the 1988 strike. (Tom Wachs)

In 1985, the workers once again went on strike. For six weeks the bodies of 47 Jews were kept at Sinai Memorial Chapel, and it took two additional weeks after the strike ended to complete all the burials.

The series of strikes left rabbis and mourners scrambling to figure out how to properly mourn without burial.

“According to Jewish law, interment should take place before sundown the day after death,” Sinai’s then-executive director Gene Kaufman explained when the cemetery workers struck yet again in 1988.

But extraordinary circumstances can lead to exceptions, such as strikes or during winter months in the Midwest or East Coast when ground may be too frozen to dig a grave. In modern times, rabbis have been forced to address new and unusual conditions, Kaufman said. 

Rabbi Malcolm Sparer, then-president of the Northern California Board of Rabbis, advised that “mourning should begin when the deceased is brought to the mortuary.”

Jewish law “dictates that mourning should begin as soon as possible even if interment has not taken place,” this publication noted, and the “recitation of the Kaddish, the prayer for the dead, should begin immediately.” 

Sparer also suggested that families “not to go to cemeteries” when the burials would finally take place. That way, they could avoid having to undertake a symbolic shiva after already having gone through the mourning ritual.

The series of strikes here led to new policies and practices within the cemetery industry and ensured that cemetery workers were more fairly compensated. 

While the strikes of the 1970s and 1980s are long over, they still resonate as a testament to workers seeking better treatment but also a sad memory for families who suffered as their loved ones waited months for burial.

As visitors and families pay their respects at Bay Area cemeteries, they honor those laid to rest as well as the memory of those who sought justice on hallowed grounds.

Lea Loeb
(Photo/Aaron Levy-Wolins)
Lea Loeb

Lea Loeb is engagement reporter at J. She previously served as editorial assistant.