Ira Mann

Ira Mann stands in front of a new portion of Mt. Sinai Cemetery.

Mt. Sinai Cemetery in Phoenix is expanding.

The last time this happened was just four or five years ago, Ira Mann, Mt. Sinai’s general manager, estimates. The cemetery added about 500 plots then, and Mann didn’t expect to be needing another expansion so quickly.

Due to the growth of Greater Phoenix’s Jewish community, people with pre-planned arrangements who are passing away and the COVID-19 pandemic, burials have been up 50% compared to pre-COVID times. More families are also making provisions ahead of time. A 2021 survey by the National Funeral Directors Association found the pandemic motivated 37.8% of respondents to pre-plan their own funeral and/or memorial arrangements.

“This time, we expanded even more,” Mann said, noting 1,800 plots are set to open Monday, Dec. 6. “It’s been a wild ride these past couple of years.”

The cemetery opened in 2005 and sits on 32 acres, eight of which are developed. The Jewish community has grown exponentially in the years since. A 2019 Arizona State University report found the Jewish population in Maricopa County has grown by 19% since 2002.

“Our goal is to accommodate every single Jewish person in the Jewish community down here,” Mann said.

He said the vast majority of the staff’s work — 90% — is working with families on pre-planning arrangements.

“It’s not just people coming here and buying because somebody passed of COVID. They’re coming here because they don’t want their family to take care of it, to pass this burden onto their kids,” Mann said. “The worst time to make financial decisions is when someone has passed.”

The process is straightforward. An individual or a couple chooses which plot they would like — Mann calls this part choosing “their last condo” — a headstone, and whether they would like multiple sites. Some even choose the color of their monuments or design one themselves. The cemetery also recently started offering full ledger grave markers, something that completely covers the grave.

“We’re getting a lot of heritage in here,” he said. “Not only are the parents buying it, but the kids are buying plots so they can keep the family together.”

Mann plans to spend his afterlife at Mt. Sinai with his aunt, uncle and cousins. He has two plots.

The pandemic has created some challenges for the cemetery, but it has never had a problem offering burials within 24 hours of somebody’s passing.

“We were able to accommodate every single one that walks through the door, and we’ve become very close to a lot of the families,” he said. “It’s been a busy, busy, busy year and I am a little tired, but we made it through the rain.”

Mann has seen a fair amount of unexpected deaths over the past two years, and it’s been difficult every time.

“You kind of have to figure out your own way how to be at peace with yourself with everything that goes on,” he said. “I truly feel there’s an order, and I don’t believe a parent should ever be burying a kid. And it’s been very, very hard. There’s definitely been a lot more than normal the past couple of years.”

While other cemeteries in Greater Phoenix are attached to a synagogue or have explicitly Jewish sections, Mt. Sinai Cemetery is exclusively Jewish, with sections named after biblical matriarchs and patriarchs.

Mann said the owners traded 27% of burial space to ensure there would be a sidewalk in front of every grave.

“This way, no one is walking on anyone’s grave. I don’t have anyone driving over anyone’s grave. I don’t have any lawn mowers going over people’s graves because we’re a desert landscape cemetery,” he said.

This latest expansion should last quite a few years, Mann said. When it’s time for the next one, there will be plenty more space available.

“We have room for the next 100 years or so: For me, my successor, and his successor,” he said. JN