A final act of kindness for St. Louis

Ellen Futterman, Editor

This is a bittersweet story that was passed on to me by Daniel Brodsky, executive director at New Mt. Sinai Cemetery. And while it’s an example of just one of many mitzvot that happen around us — especially when it comes to lifecycle events — it’s good to pause to appreciate how these acts of kindness make our community a better place.

Earlier this month, there was a traditional Jewish graveside burial at New Mt. Sinai for a local man who recently died broke and homeless. Brodsky suspects this man might have ended up cremated and buried in an unmarked grave had it not been for the kindness of an old college friend, who also is Jewish, as well as several strangers who wanted to do the right thing. 

The college friend is now a successful Chicago businessman who had attended Washington University with the St. Louis man in the 1960s. For privacy reasons, the businessman asked that neither his name nor his friend’s be used. So for purposes of this story, I’ll call the Chicago man “Chicago” and the deceased man “St. Louis.”

In truth, calling them friends might be a stretch. While they were friendly in college, the two lost touch not long after they graduated. St. Louis was extremely bright, but became increasingly withdrawn as he fell victim to mental illness, which turned him into a recluse. Brodsky was told that after college he lived with his mother in south St. Louis, but he wasn’t able to hold a job.

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After his mother died in 1978 (his father had passed away in 1949), St. Louis inherited the house and lived there off and on. He would occasionally rent the home to make some money, and take to the streets to live. Eventually, though, St. Louis could neither afford the upkeep nor the property taxes and lost the home to the city.

Meanwhile, Chicago rose to great prominence in the financial arena. He accumulated several residences, including one abroad, and makes what my mother would describe as “a very comfortable living.”

About eight years ago, St. Louis became seriously ill. He asked an acquaintance here if he would contact Chicago for help. Chicago knew people who knew people at Barnes Hospital, who arranged for St. Louis to receive treatment there. Thanks to Chicago’s help, St. Louis was able to make a full recovery.

But living without a home or any money is far from easy and took its toll on St. Louis. He eventually wound up in the hospital again and passed away this past Memorial Day. Because Chicago’s name was listed in Barnes’ records from eight years ago, the hospital contacted him and asked if he was going to take care of the funeral arrangements

“At first (Chicago) felt like he had done his part eight years ago, given that the two hadn’t been friends for more than 50 years ago,” said Brodsky. “But he quickly stepped up and did the menschlich thing.”

Actually, Chicago did some research and found out both of St. Louis’ parents were buried at New Mt. Sinai. He then contacted Berger Memorial Chapel to have St. Louis buried at Mt. Sinai, too.

George Schuler, a longtime funeral director at Berger, called Brodsky and implored him to bury St. Louis near his parents with a proper burial rather than a cremation burial, which is generally the protocol with charity cases.

“I have known George for many years, and he really isn’t the insistent type,” said Brodsky. “So I did some digging — pardon the pun — and found a grave literally feet away from (St. Louis’) parents’ graves. It had recently been donated back to the cemetery and had not been sold yet.”

Brodsky spoke to the cemetery’s board president, Rob Loewenstein, who agreed a proper Jewish burial would be the right thing to do. “This was a case of bashert,” said Brodsky. “It seemed destined to happen.”

When Brodsky called Chicago to tell him of the plan, Chicago insisted on handling the cost of the grave. Brodsky said New Mt. Sinai would pay the grave opening charges. 

Berger agreed to discount the funeral costs and even arranged for a rabbi to officiate at the service. Rabbi Lawrence Glestein had visited St. Louis in the hospital toward the end of his life.

“I emailed my entire board of 28 members and told them about this wonderful chain of events,” said Brodsky. “Several wrote me back and offered to come to the cemetery for the funeral in order to make the service even more appropriate.”

So on Tuesday, June 2, a group of 11 — Rabbi Glestein; Chicago and his wife and daughter; another friend and fellow Wash U alum; four members of the cemetery board, Schuler and Brodsky — gathered to pay tribute to St. Louis at a graveside service.

“Everyone agreed that this was a remarkable ending for a man who would have otherwise had a totally unremarkable conclusion to a difficult life,” said Brodsky.

He added that Chicago is even making arrangements with Rosenbloom Monument Co. to erect a stone on St. Louis’ grave.

Finally, this man, who for so long was without one, now has a home.