Fifth generation funeral director attests: This is no dead-end job

By Repps Hudson, SPECIAL TO THE JEWISH LIGHT

For half of his 44 years, Craig Roth has been actively involved in operating the family business, Rindskopf -Roth Funeral Chapel at 5216 Delmar Boulevard. The century-old building is surrounded by parking lots, a remnant of the Jewish community that once lived and worshipped near the intersection of Delmar and Union Avenue. Two blocks away was the Young Men’s and Young Women’s Hebrew Associations at 724 North Union, which housed the predecessor of the Jewish Community Centers Association.

Roth and his wife, Michelle, live in Wildwood. He has two daughters and a step-daughter. He attended the University of Missouri at Columbia for two years. He belongs to four congregations: Temple Israel, where he was confirmed; Shaare Emeth; Central Reform Congregation, and B’nai El, where he’s president.

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We spoke in the consultation room of the funeral chapel, where Roth meets families. Rindskopf-Roth is one of two Jewish funeral homes in the area and the only one that’s locally owned. Roth is the fifth generation in the business, founded in 1884.

Since so much of the Jewish community has moved away, why are you still here?

We moved here in the early 1900s to be in the heart of the community. As time has moved on, most of the cemeteries aren’t far from here. They’re in University City, 15 minutes away. There are seven Jewish cemeteries in the area: five in U. City, the new Chesed Shel Emeth in Chesterfield and New Mt. Sinai in south St. Louis County. And Bellerive Heritage Gardens [in Creve Coeur] has a Jewish section that opened about 10 years ago.

Between 75 and 85 percent of all Jewish funerals are either graveside or in the family member’s shul. It would cost a lot of money to replace this building. This building has to be specially designed. The last couple of new funeral homes [in the area] were anywhere from $2 million to $4 million.

Under Jewish law, can’t preparations be done in the home? Isn’t burial supposed to be very simple and within 24 hours of death?

Most people don’t want that done in the home. We can do burial within 24 hours, as the Orthodox require, if we can bring all the parties together.

Which cemetery seems to be most popular, if that’s the right word?

Chesed Shel Emeth in Chesterfield. People are buying lots there because of the old real estate hedge: Location, location, location. Tradition and family still carry some weight, so it’s not that the other cemeteries aren’t doing burials. If you are newer to the region, or you don’t feel that tradition or family pull, then there’s a good chance you’ll purchase property in Chesterfield because it’s closer to the community at this time.

How much of the market do you have?

About 35 to 40 percent.

How far from St. Louis do you provide your service?

We work across the country. There are several ways we try to get our name out. Every year we mail out about 10,000 Jewish calendars. About 92 percent of those are local. It’s not a Gregorian calendar. It has the holidays and lighting times for candles. It has all the Torah portions and everything else in it. I go to the post office every year to get the updated forwarding moves.

That’s a lot of work.

It’s a bit. There were more than 800 names this year that I had to adjust. It’s worth it. A lot of people call and say thank you.

Do you know ahead of time when someone is about to pass away?

I get calls all the time from families of relatives who are not doing well. Maybe they’re on hospice. Maybe there was an accident and they’re in ICU. Or they are just reaching the end of life.

It’s actually a pretty good thing to do because when it does come, you think you are prepared, but that really does something to people. People often talk about closure, but it’s awfully hard to do. The pain you feel is immense. The only thing I can offer the family is my help and try to make things as easy as I can. I can promise that over time it will get better, but it never goes away. You will never feel the same. That’s a blessing and at the same time, painful. That’s what makes us what we are.

How early did you start working in this family business?

When I was 16, I was down here cutting grass.

Were you scared of the funeral business?

I was never scared of it. It was table talk at our house. I give my dad a lot of credit. When he would talk about it, you could hear the emotion and pain in his voice. When you are in your teens, your twenties, even your thirties, you feel pretty immortal.

When you were a kid, did you ever lie in a casket here?

Never. It wouldn’t feel right.

Did you take courses on Jewish law so you would do funerals correctly?

I talked with rabbis. There were tests I had to meet certification by the state.

Your father (Norman Roth) was your teacher?

He really was.

Do you embalm, have open casket or is it the strictly Orthodox funeral with no embalming within 24 hours?

We do the spectrum. We don’t do any non-Jewish funerals, per se. We are here to serve the community. We do Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, Reconstructionist. We have traditional pine, kosher wooden caskets. We do the whole thing.

What’s the cost of a funeral if you follow traditional Jewish law?

I would say that $5,000 is close to the bottom. You have to understand what comprises a funeral. The most expensive funeral I can remember in the last 22 years was probably pushing $13,000 or $14,000. My caskets start at $800, and they go up to $6,300. I tell the family every time, no matter what you select, it’s going to do the same thing.

Are the caskets padded, with pillows?

Many are. The traditional, kosher, orthodox pine are not. The others are lined. Some are lined with linen with straw bedding to keep it all natural. They have certified-kosher cards in each one. New England Casket Co. is where most of ours come from.

What about cremation?

We handle that too. The numbers are increasing. Economics play a role. We do not do cremation here. We are not licensed for that. But we perform many every year. We make the same arrangements here.

Isn’t cremation taboo in Jewish law?

It’s incredibly taboo for a couple of reasons. One, it’s considered desecration of the body. We are created in God’s image, therefore you are burning that image. Another is why would we do to ourselves what someone else did to 6 million of us? If you are Reform or unaffiliated or atheist, you can do it. I cannot tell you no in your time of need.

When it comes to mixed marriages, do you do non-Jewish funerals too?

Rarely, but it happens. There are occasions, once or twice a year, where we have clergy other than a rabbi. I don’t go looking for non-Jewish business, but I’m not going to turn away an interfaith family.

If one person is Jewish and the other is not, are they buried in separate cemeteries?

It happens all different ways. The non-Jewish person could be buried in New Mt. Sinai, and we’d not be involved. There are only two Jewish cemeteries in St. Louis that allow that, Mt. Sinai and United Hebrew. None of the Jewish cemeteries, including Reform, will allow clergy of a non-Jewish faith to perform the service. A priest could attend, could even say a prayer and he’d better not mention [Jesus].

Why is it important to be buried in a Jewish cemetery?

It’s emotional, cultural. Burial is for a long time. You want to be where your relatives are. You want to be where your culture is, where your history is. Certain life-cycle events really have a religious overtone and bring you a little bit closer, in your own way, to your faith. You want your faith at those times.

How do you relax? Did you watch “Six Feet Under”?

People asked me that all the time. I watched it once. It was too close to home. I do this every day. If I want to be fresh for people, I don’t watch those kind of shows. I need to be here for the people who need me.

Who will take over from you some day?

My daughter, Rachel, will be joining me in January, God willing.