‘Climbing’ Mount Sinai is a daily honor for Scott Eirich

Scott Eirich has been working with New Mt. Sinai Cemetery since 1980. Photo: Kristi Foster

By David Baugher, Special to the Jewish Light

Many people make prearrangements for where they will spend eternity. Scott Eirich is no exception, though, in his case, the choice wasn’t difficult.

He already lives there.

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“I’m all ready,” he said.

“Well, I’m not ready yet but you know what I mean,” he adds with a chuckle.

Not everyone would feel comfortable residing in a burial ground but for Eirich, a three-bedroom house at New Mt. Sinai Cemetery is the perfect home. In his role as superintendent of the cemetery, it also turns out to be the perfect job – one he’s held for three decades.

Actually, Eirich, who celebrated his 50th birthday this week, grew up here. His father held the position before he took over in 1980. The house itself was originally constructed for Eirich’s grandfather who began overseeing the facility in 1915. The bloodline doesn’t end there. Eirich’s grandfather took over the job after supervising nearby New St. Marcus Cemetery, where his own father had worked.

It’s a four-generation family tradition Eirich takes obvious pride in, and one which hasn’t escaped the notice of others. He was recognized with a plaque and cake by New Mt. Sinai’s board earlier this week for his long service to the institution.

If you’ve never thought of cemetery work as fast-paced and demanding, then you haven’t met Eirich, who peppers an impromptu golf-cart tour of the grounds with phrases like “new adventures,” “always on the go” and “constantly changing” as he ponders possible design ideas, enthuses over new equipment opportunities, and talks about the advantages of granite stones over marble.

“It’s always exciting around here,” said Eirich, a St. Louis Community College horticulture graduate who has been landscaping since age 12. “It’s always something new and something different. Things are happening all the time.”

Not necessarily good things either. There are ice storms that bring down branches, severe weather events that uproot trees or the memorable blizzard of 1982 that dumped 24 inches of snow on the ground. Eirich remembers drifts as high as 15 feet. He had to clear the grounds with a single truck.

“There are days with huge rains and you have water to deal with on graves. There’s rough stuff that isn’t easy, graves caving in,” he said. “It’s stuff nobody ever thinks about but it’s what I have to do to make sure it gets done.”

Then there are the changes Eirich himself makes, like the Veterans Memorial Walking Garden he installed, the trees he’s planted or the addition to the cemetery’s centerpiece mausoleum. The marble was ordered special from Italy in order to match the building’s previous construction. In the early 1990s, Eirich also oversaw the removal of all the gravesite mounds and ivy coverings.

Recently, Eirich inaugurated a five-and-a-half acre section of New Mt. Sinai, the first new grounds he’s had the opportunity to open in his tenure. The three graves already in place there are among the 2,500-3,500 plots he estimates have been dug in the cemetery since he took on his responsibilities. There are about 11,000 graves total, he said, many dating well into the 19th century and Eirich believes he can locate about half from memory.

That’s the other kind of change he notices.

“With every stone you get a new addition. It’s constantly changing,” he said. “There’s more history being made every time somebody comes in here.”

At New Mt. Sinai, where the landscape is dotted with everything from elaborate modern sarcophagi to tiny marble markers so worn the engraving can barely be read, history is ever present. Founded in 1850, the 50-plus-acre South County site is listed on the national Register of Historic Places and is home to some of St. Louis’s most prominent Jewish names including architects, businessmen, mayors and community leaders. Ten rabbis from B’nai El, Shaare Emeth and Temple Israel, the three congregations who run its association, are interred there. One rabbi from Congregation B’nai Amoona is buried on the grounds as well.

Looking out onto Gravois, Eirich is happy to share some of that history.

“Grant used to ride his wagon up and down the road here,” he said of the former president and Civil War general. “Some of the first stretches of asphalt were laid from the city line to the county out through here.”

The cemetery isn’t Eirich’s only concern. He has also run his own landscaping business for the past 29 years and just got married to his sweetheart Janice two months ago.

For the record, by the way, Eirich said he believes in ghosts but has never met one – and doesn’t expect to.

“Everybody always asks that question,” he said. “I guess this is a peaceful place and they don’t bug us here.”

Dan Brodsky has been executive director of the cemetery since 2007 but has been on its board for 25 years. He said the grounds are more than a job for Eirich. They are his passion.

“The thing that’s really cool about Scott is that if you have a question about something that’s happened, he’s lived here all his life,” he said. “These aren’t just graves to Scott. He’s known some of the people and he can tell you stories about them as well as some of the family members. He’s kind of our resident historian.”

Brodsky said that Eirich’s connection to the cemetery goes beyond his role in taking care of its residents.

“It’s always interesting to watch when there are funerals here because most of the families walk up to Scott and greet him like he’s a long lost friend,” he said.

Eirich agrees that it’s all about people – those who are gone and those who miss them. He said about 70 to 100 funerals take place at New Mt. Sinai each year and everyone mourns differently. Some may move on quickly while others can take decades to heal from a loss.

“Sometimes it’s very tough,” he said. “We’re over there crying with the families. It’s just never easy.”

Eirich is still energized by the challenges of opening the new section but he also knows it won’t be the last to see use at the cemetery. He estimates there is enough room for new graves to span the next four centuries at the present rate of use.

In the meantime, it’s his duty to maintain the posterity of one of St. Louis’ most historic institutions. It’s something he takes pride in.

“It’s been a great first 30 years. If I can make another 30, that’d be great too,” he said. “Sixty years, that’d be something, wouldn’t it?”