By Virginia Breen, originally published in THE CITY
Comedian Elayne Boosler says her elderly Jewish cousin, who died last month, inexplicably got saddled with a pricey Christian burial package while in a Brooklyn nursing home.
“Now my beautiful Jewish cousin is clutching rosary beads after a fake funeral that never — couldn’t have — happened because of coronavirus,” Boosler, who grew up in Sheepshead Bay, told THE CITY from her California home.
She noted that her first instinct was to “go for the funny and try not to bleed on my audience, if you will. Also, going for the joke is how I distance myself and my emotions.”
But she confessed she hasn’t slept in days.
“I am horrified at how she must have died,” she said, “at how she was swindled and at how she is now far from her family in a strange grave.”
‘Are You Sitting Down?’
The ordeal began, Boosler recalled, when her cousin Harriet Saltzman phoned her from Florida on April 14 and said, “Are you sitting down? Pull the chair closer to the table in case you fall over.”
Saltzman told her that she had been trying to reach their mutual first cousin Dorothea Buschell at the Hamilton Park Nursing & Rehabilitation Center in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, to wish her a happy 83rd birthday.
When no one answered in Buschell’s room, Saltzman said she began leaving voicemails at the main number, but no one returned her calls for weeks.
Finally, on April 14, a frazzled staffer who happened to pick up the phone said, “Oh, no one called you yesterday? Uh, she died this morning.”
“And then Harriet said, ‘Why would someone have called yesterday if she died this morning?’,” Boosler said.
Buschell died April 13.
By the time Saltzman called, Buschell’s body had already been transferred to Forest Green Park cemetery in Morganville, N.J. — not her intended, already-paid-for, family plot in New Montefiore Cemetery in Farmingdale, L.I. She was buried on April 15.
“Because they figured it was the virus that she died from, there was no autopsy,” Saltzman wrote Boosler in an email. “She was double bagged, put into the coffin, doubled bagged again and shipped.”
Saltzman noted that Forest Green “will not be able to dis-inter her for a while because of the pandemic, and they will call me when they are ready to do it.”
The Plot Thickens
In a phone interview with THE CITY, Boosler added, “But wait. There’s more. Much more.”
The saga began in either late 2016 or early 2017, Boosler recounted, after Buschell, an artist who had taught English on U.S. Army bases in Italy for a quarter century, landed in Hamilton Park after a series of mini-strokes.
On April 28, 2017, she was sold an irrevocable $15,000 pre-need funeral plan which she never signed — and which Boosler stressed Buschell never would have consciously agreed to since she already had a family plot.
During an August 2018 visit, Boosler had taken steps to ensure that copies of the family-plot paperwork were in her cousin’s nursing home file, she said, along with up-to-date family contact numbers for Saltzman and herself.
“Dorothea was in there for physical health reasons, but she was mentally a hundred percent,” Boosler said. “She probably never even saw the pre-need documents.”
Richard J. Brum, an attorney for the Allure Group, the company that owns Hamilton Park nursing home, said he was unable to provide any details regarding residents “for privacy reasons,” in accordance with the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA).
“Whenever a resident passes away, our policy is to immediately notify their family representative who is then responsible for making final arrangements for the deceased,” Brum said in a statement. “When family is not involved in the resident’s care, we notify the court-appointed legal guardian who then makes those arrangements.”
According to state law, if a resident has no known relatives, “the chief executive officer…of a facility in which the person alleged to be incapacitated is a patient or resident” may petition the state Supreme Court to appoint a guardian.
Boosler said she was never told of any court-appointed guardian.
The pre-need plan, which lists Buschell as the purchaser, was signed by one David Blau, a person unknown to Buschell’s remaining family.
While Blau’s affiliation is listed nowhere on the document, he works for New York Guardianship Services, where his staff profile on the company website lists his former experience at “Merry Lynch.”
A copy of the pre-need plan, provided to THE CITY by Boosler, includes a long itemized list of costs that runs the gamut from $34 for bridge and road tolls to $95 for makeup to $400 for a dress to $4,950 for a mahogany casket.
“AND THE GREATEST PUNCHLINE OF ALL TIME:” Boosler wrote in an all-caps Facebook post, “CLERGY, $500. GRATUITIES $60. CROSS AND ROSARY BEADS $200.
The total bill: $15,005.75
“That’s right folks,” Boosler continued on Facebook, “they buried my Jewish cousin, who never wore makeup & never spent more than $25 on an outfit, who always tipped 20% and would have known to take the Queensboro Bridge to avoid tolls, IN A CATHOLIC CEMETERY HOLDING A ROSARY FOR A…FUNERAL THAT NEVER HAPPENED.”
Boosler stressed to THE CITY that she was not looking to sue.
“We understand COVID’s a bitch, and if the nursing home had apologized and ensured she was in the right place, buried next to her mom and dad and sister, we would understand,” she said. “But it’s been two weeks now and no communication. They’re not being upstanding. Do the right thing, don’t make it harder.”
Boosler said the family would like a copy of the death certificate and Buschell’s personal effects “if they didn’t already burn them” — and access to her bank accounts to see “what was docked by the so-called guardian.”
“Where are her things?” Boosler asked. “Her jewelry from Italy? Her photo albums? We have nothing.”
Blau of New York Guardianship Services did not respond to calls from THE CITY.
Saltzman, however, received an email from Kristina Billini, a case manager at New York Guardianship Services, blaming the nursing home for “unacceptable negligence.”
“Hamilton Park wrongfully informed us that Ms. Buschell had no family and neglected to inform us of her Jewish faith on the date of her death,” Billini wrote in the email, which was shared with THE CITY.
“They informed us that the morgue had come for your cousin and that they would get us back the information, however, they never did and began to ignore our calls.”
Billini noted that Kehila Chapels of Brighton Beach claimed Buschell’s remains “and were able to respectfully bury her.”
“Unfortunately,” she added, “as we had no knowledge of her Jewish faith, it appears that she was not laid to rest in a Jewish cemetery.”
Boosler, called “The Comedy Master Who Hasn’t Gotten Her Due” by The New York Times, noted on Facebook, “Every great punchline has a great tag: The funeral home now wants us to pay $10,000 to transfer Dorothea to her actual plot next to her family.”
Kehila Chapels did not return calls for comment.
“I have no horse in this race,” Boosler told THE CITY. “It’s not about the money. It’s about doing what’s right.”
The state Department of Health, which oversees nursing homes, referred questions about the case to the State Attorney General’s Office.
The State Attorney General’s Office, which investigates allegations of abuse or neglect in nursing homes, said it could not comment on Boosler’s allegations, but noted its Consumer Frauds Bureau’s online complaint form.
In 2018, the Allure Group was required to pay $750,000 in penalties and costs in a settlement after the attorney general investigated the closing of two of its nursing homes, Rivington House on Manhattan’s Lower East Side and the CABS Nursing Home in Brooklyn.
Hamilton Park earned a two- out of five-star rating from the state Department of Health, which received 48 complaints about the facility from March 1, 2016 to Feb. 29, 2020. The DOH issued 15 health and safety citations against the facility during the same period, compared to a statewide average of 31. All citations were resolved.
Boosler said she had not hired an attorney. But she said she would do so if Hamilton Park and the funeral home didn’t sort out the mess, move Buschell to her rightful plot and return the charges Boosler believes to be bogus to her estate.
“And if she’s still holding a rosary instead of a pastrami,” Boosler added, “then I’m getting a lawyer.”