After failing to reach an agreement with Congregation Poale Zedeck, the family of Howard Tobin is pursuing a court order allowing it to exhume his remains for re-burial.
Tobin, who died in 1965 at the age of 45, is buried in the Poale Zedeck Cemetery in Richland Township. His son, Steven, who passed away in 2008, is buried in the Star of David section of Homewood Cemetery in Point Breeze.
Tobin’s wife, Roberta, who is struggling with cancer under hospice care, wishes to be buried in the Star of David section along with Steven, and to have her husband moved there as well.
When Steven died, Roberta, a resident of Squirrel Hill, chose the Star of David section for his burial because it was more convenient than Poale Zedeck’s cemetery, said Shelly Frankel, Tobin’s daughter.
“She could visit him whenever she wanted,” Frankel said. “It gave her some comfort. She never thought she’d have difficulty moving dad.”
Frankel added that Steven’s twin sister, Nancy Gottlieb, who lives in Monroeville, visits his grave about twice a week. The family does not want to move Steven to the Poale Zedeck Cemetery because it would be a far drive for Gottlieb. Moreover, there are no available gravesites close to Tobin’s in which to inter Steven, Frankel said.
About a year ago, the Tobin family asked Rabbi Yisroel Miller, Poale Zedeck’s senior rabbi at the time, for permission to exhume his remains. Miller declined the request, saying that such an exhumation would violate halacha.
Last summer, Miller moved to Calgary, Alberta. Since then, the Tobin family has been in discussion with Poale Zedeck’s associate rabbi, Ari Goldberg.
“We had some hope with Rabbi Goldberg,” Frankel said.
That hope was dashed last week, however, when Goldberg e-mailed Frankel informing her that Poale Zedeck concluded it could not allow disinterment under Jewish law.
Goldberg recently told Frankel that if they could be sure the casket had not deteriorated, disinterment might be allowed, as the remains of the deceased would not need to be disturbed. Accordingly, the Tobin family was planning on inserting a probe into the plot to test the condition of the casket.
“Now they’re not allowing us to do the probe,” Frankel said. “I guess they thought it would be too invasive a procedure.”
Goldberg said that while it was never his intention to overrule Miller, details regarding the matter surfaced that “Rabbi Miller was not aware of,” and that might permit disinterment.
“We re-examined the case to see if there was any way in Jewish law that we could allow this,” Goldberg said.
Poale Zedeck’s cemetery committee retained a geophysics firm — Arm Geo- physics — to provide ground radar of caskets similar in age and composition to Tobin’s. But from the images provided by Arm, Goldberg concluded that an image of Tobin’s casket would be inconclusive, and that it therefore would not be possible to determine whether Tobin’s casket was intact.
If the casket is not intact, disinterment cannot be allowed, Goldberg said. “You can’t tamper with the remains.”
“We did the legwork to see if we could help this family out,” said Joel Ungar, chair of the cemetery committee. “The results were completely inconclusive.”
The matter now lies in the hands of Judge Lawrence O’Toole of Orphan’s Court, where an initial hearing is scheduled for later this month.
Frankel hopes the court will expedite the process, as her mother’s health continues to decline.
“She’s slowly going downhill,” Frankel said. “In her heart, she knows Poale Zedeck is not going to let this happen.”
(Toby Tabachnick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-687-1263.)