Synagogue Sued Over Missing Remains

Two daughters have sued a synagogue after they found a potato chip can in place of their mother's remains behind the locked, glass door of her niche in a mausoleum.

When the women visited Vivian Shulman Lieberman's niche in a Houston mausoleum a year ago, they found the cedar chest containing her ashes missing and a can of sour-cream-and-onion potato chips in its place.

The ashes are still missing, said Philip Hilder, an attorney for Lieberman's two daughters.

"We have been devastated," Marcelle Lieberman said this week. "We hope we will be able to find her remains before we die, to give us closure of some sort."

Marcelle Lieberman and her sister, Harriet Lieberman Mellow, filed the lawsuit recently against Congregation Beth Israel and two funeral businesses.

Officials with the synagogue and the two companies deny responsibility.

"It is obviously very upsetting to the family and to all three of the defendants," said Neal Manne, a lawyer and Beth Israel board member who is representing the synagogue. "But a lawsuit is about whether there is any legal responsibility, and Congregation Beth Israel did not do anything wrong."

The sisters are also suing the companies that arranged for their mother's cremation and inurnment, Levy Funeral Directors (search) and Schlitzberger's Family Craft Monumental Services (search). The lawsuit seeks unspecified damages, saying each defendant intentionally inflicted emotional distress.

In July 2003, Marcelle Lieberman visited the niche. Harriet Mellow visited that fall.

They said they returned to the mausoleum together on their father's birthday, June 10, 2004, and discovered the potato chip can in their mother's niche.

A locksmith opened the niche and Houston police took custody of the can, which still contained potato chips.

"To their added horror," the lawsuit states, "Harriet and Marcelle learned that the can had been visible in the niche for at least six months."

The lawsuit alleges that Schlitzberger's failed to close and lock the niche.

None of the employees have a key, company co-owner Dianne Schlitzberger said.

"Putting the name tag on the box is a little thing," she said. "We wouldn't ruin our reputation by losing something so valuable."

The lawsuit also claims that Levy Funeral Directors failed to ensure that Vivian Lieberman's ashes were in a secure place.

Greg Bolton, a spokesman for Service Corporation International (search), the parent company of Levy, said the funeral home upheld its responsibilities.

"We fulfilled the family's wishes by arranging for the cremation and delivering the remains to the custody of the mausoleum," he said. "We had no involvement or knowledge of anything that happened after that."