Lambda sues cemetery for refusing to honor couple's legal contract

NEW YORK -- Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund filed a lawsuit against a Pennsylvania cemetery that refuses to erect the headstone requested by a lesbian and her now-deceased partner.

Sherry Barone and Cynthia Friedman, Philadelphia natives who moved together to Los Angeles, were in a relationship for 13 years when Friedman succumbed to cancer at age 35 in 1994. Following her 1989 diagnosis, Friedman signed extensive documents in an effort to assure that her relationship with Barone would be given legal force. Just as most people in a 13-year partnership would, Friedman wished to rely on Barone's judgments about her medical care and arrangements after her death.

In several discussions about her headstone, Friedman had asked that Barone include the inscription: "Beloved life partner, daughter, granddaughter, sister, and aunt." Within days of Friedman's death, Barone purchased two adjoining plots in a Philadelphia-area cemetery. Friedman's grave remains unmarked because of the cemetery's refusal to act on Barone's instructions.

Before she died, Friedman explicitly rejected any relatives' authority to challenge actions by Barone on her behalf. But despite having given Barone full legal authority, the Har Jehuda Cemetery in Upper Darby, Pennsylvania, insists it cannot follow Barone's instructions for the headstone. The cemetery asserts that, because Friedman's parents do not agree about her wishes concerning the headstone epitaph, a court order must resolve that Barone has authority to determine Friedman's epitaph.

"This couple did everything a lesbian or gay couple can do to make sure their relationship was given legal effect, including drawing up wills, powers of attorney, health proxies, and explicit instructions to the survivor for carrying out wishes," said David S. Buckel, Lambda's staff attorney on the case. "Those legal precautions are supposed to allow a survivor to focus on grieving and healing. Sherry Barone instead has faced the pain and stress of seeing her partner's explicit wishes disrespected and of having to fight for the most basic respect for their relationship," he said.

Suing on the surviving partner's behalf, Lambda filed Barone v. Har Jehuda Cemetery in federal court in Philadelphia. The case asserts there is no legal basis for any party to contravene Barone's authority to carry out Friedman's wishes. Furthermore, the lawsuit asserts, the cemetery breached its contract and caused emotional distress by refusing to honor those wishes.

Both women were raised in Jewish families and have relatives buried in the defendant cemetery. As a result of the cemetery's refusal to respect its contract with Barone, the traditional "unveiling" of the headstone occurred without a grave marker. The unveiling is an important Jewish tradition that officially marks the end of the grieving period one year after a loved one's death.

"I didn't complete the grieving process that a person should have after losing a loved one, and I will never recover from the emotional and spiritual agony of the unveiling at Cynthia's unmarked grave," said Barone, who is 36. "My life cannot go on fully until I know that Cynthia's spirit is at rest, her wishes having been carried out," Barone said.

Attempts at mediation failed, despite statements of support Barone gathered from joint friends and some of Friedman's relatives. The cemetery insisted on having the consent of Friedman's parents to a headstone inscription or a court order requiring it to follow Barone's instructions.

"It would be unimaginable for a cemetery to question a husband's or wife's authority to act after a spouse's death. This couple did everything possible to assure that they would be treated appropriately," said Lambda Legal Director Beatrice Dohrn. "This case illustrates that even when lesbian and gay couples have lawyers draft all the recommended documents, they are vulnerable to the homophobia of those who will not respect our families," she said.

Friedman and Barone met and fell in love when they were teenagers in Philadelphia. In their early twenties, they committed themselves to each other for life, later moving to the Los Angeles area. Barone remained dedicated to Friedman through years of illness, caring for her and even sleeping on the floor of her room when she had to be hospitalized.

"In response to a grieving partner's efforts to honor the wishes of her loved one, we have had to go to court to get justice for Sherry and Cynthia," said Abbe F. Fletman of Klehr, Harrison, Harvey, Branzburg & Ellers in Philadelphia, Lambda's cooperating attorney on the case. "We hope this will be a lesson for everyone about the need lesbian and gay couples have for legal protections."

The headstone requested by Barone includes the Star of David and Friedman's Hebrew name, Sheva, and states:

Cynthia L. Friedman July 11, 1959 - October 3, 1994 Beloved life partner, daughter, granddaughter, sister, and aunt A spirited and compassionate woman who will be forever in our hearts

Lambda is a national, non-profit legal organization that defends the civil rights of lesbians, gay men, and people with HIV and AIDS. With its national headquarters in New York, Lambda has aMidwest Regional Office in Chicago, a Western Regional Office in Los Angeles, and will open a Southern Regional Office in Atlanta later this year.

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