The 18th of May should have been Raziel Zisman's son's 20th birthday.
Instead, Zisman found himself submitting a complaint to the Bereavement Authority of Ontario (BAO) over how Benjamin's Park Memorial Chapel — a prominent Jewish funeral home in Toronto — was handling memorial donations made in his son's name.
"Instead of focusing on grieving and healing, we have to relive, every time we deal with this, some very, very painful moments," Zisman told CBC Toronto.
After his 19-year-old son, Liam Jacob Zisman, died in January 2022, Zisman signed an agreement with Benjamin's to hold a funeral service and to collect memorial donations on the family's behalf before dispersing the money to charities.
His issue is with the funeral home's failure to tell him about a 10 per cent administrative fee taken from each donation that comes into its charitable foundation, and its refusal to let him see an accounting of the money that has been collected.
"I have the right to receive an accounting," said Zisman. "As of today, those funds, to my knowledge, are still sitting in their bank account."
Bereavement authority weighs in
Though the fee amount was included in a contract he signed, Zisman says it wasn't communicated clearly to him — something the BAO ultimately agreed with after he filed his formal complaint.
After investigating, the BAO instructed Benjamin's to do more to tell its prospective customers about the 10 per cent fee, and to refund the fees collected by its charitable foundation over the last six years to the charities that would have received them.
Benjamin's has agreed to update its website and re-train staff so that the amount taken by the foundation is communicated more clearly, but is now seeking a judicial review of the BAO's order that they pay back years worth of fees.
It has also promised to temporarily pause the practice of charging the 10 per cent administrative fee "pending the appeal of the BAO decisions," according to a statement from managing director Michael Benjamin.
That pause "is good news for grieving families," said David Brazeau, BAO's manager of communications.
As for the refunds, it's "still up in the air because of the challenge from Benjamin's funeral home," Brazeau said.
"And that will go to the Superior Court of Justice."
Zisman has also filed a lawsuit against Benjamin's, but says he expects it will be at least a year before it moves to the next stage.
Within 'industry guidelines'?
In a statement to CBC Toronto, Michael Benjamin expressed regret that "a small dispute has become a lengthy legal battle" with the Zisman family.
He also wrote that the reason for the challenge to the recent BAO decision is that "the foundation clearly and unequivocally does not fall under the jurisdiction of the BAO and is already regulated extensively and thoroughly under existing Canadian laws and regulations as well as the [Canada Revenue Agency]."
Finally, he wrote that the practice of taking a 10 per cent fee falls "well within industry guidelines" for non-profits, and in fact only covers about a quarter of the costs of running the Benjamin's charitable foundation.
That runs in contrast to what Brazeau says he has seen in the wider funeral industry.
"Most funeral homes either charge a one per cent, or a very low percentage fee, or nothing at all for simply taking charitable donations," he said.
"It's very unusual for us to see a 10 per cent charge."
Other fee complaints
Zisman's complaint is not the first time Benjamin's has been investigated by BAO, who say they've looked into five complaints against the funeral home since it was founded in 2016.
A news release online describes a series of decisions made in 2020 and 2021 in which Benjamin's was ordered to refund nearly 260 people for being charged extra fees, including being charged a "special care fee" during the pandemic even if the death was not COVID-19 related.
"Benjamin's settled that with us in April of this year. And they paid back almost $76,000 of those charges," said Brazeau.
As for Zisman, he's still waiting to receive the money raised in his son's memory, which Benjamin's says it is compelled to hold until there is a legal resolution.
Liam Zisman, who was an environmental geoscience major at Brock University and a former intern at the Northern Miner, a mining trade journal, was also a cancer survivor.
The money donated on his behalf was meant to go to Chai Lifeline and Camp Quality, which run camps and provide supports for children with cancer.
"Liam attended those camps and benefited hugely. He was involved and much loved," said Zisman.
"The funds donated in January … should have been dispersed to sponsor kids who would benefit from these camps this summer. And here we are in September. This is not right."
In early October, Brock University is set to hold a forum on sustainable resource development in Liam's memory, part of a larger initiative of his father to "attract, inspire and motivate young people" to get involved with the sector.