Saying Kaddish a century later

Brennan Rimer
Rabbi Susan Talve of Central Reform Congregation leads a funeral service Monday at New Mt. Sinai Cemetery for Jacob Weinthal, who died in 1917.  Photo: Mike Sherwin

BY ROBERT A. COHN, Editor-in-Chief Emeritus

Monday afternoon at New Mount Sinai Cemetery, 15 people gathered for the funeral of a man they had never met. In fact, the man died decades before anyone attending was born.

One hundred years after his death, Jacob Weinthal’s remains were laid to rest during a service led by Rabbi Susan Talve and attended by a minyan of strangers who could recite Kaddish.

I have written hundreds of obituary stories for the St. Louis Jewish Light over the past four decades, but this one, about Mr. Weinthal’s burial a full century after his death, is by far the most unusual. 

Mr. Weinthal, a native of Germany, immigrated to St. Louis in 1892; he was 52 at the time. He became an American citizen in 1905, according to Pat Weinthal, his distant cousin, who resides just outside of Boston.

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Mr. Weinthal was a bachelor with no known survivors. He was an upholsterer and saddle maker in what was probably a one-person operation. Later Mr. Weinthal became a resident of the Home for Aged and Infirm Israelites, one of the two original facilities for frail elderly members of the local Jewish community.

On Jan. 2, 1916, Mr. Weinthal executed a will, leaving everything to the Home for Aged and Infirm Israelites. Mr. Weinthal died on April 9, 1917, at the age of 77.  His cause of death was listed as anemia and arteriosclerosis, a term often associated with dementia in the early part of the 20th century.

Since Mr. Weinthal had no local family to claim his body, and was apparently indigent, his remains were cremated and were stored initially at the Hillcrest Abbey Crematory. Around 1998, they were transferred to the Valhalla Cemetery in North County, which has thousands of unclaimed sets of remains.  

The box containing Mr. Weinthal’s remains was stored at Valhalla for decades until Pat Weinthal set in motion through emails and phone calls a search to locate the remains and then plan a proper Jewish funeral in a Jewish cemetery.

“It felt unseemly and unjust that the remains of this citizen of St. Louis were treated ignominiously. Now at last he will get the decent Jewish burial he deserves,” Pat Weinthal said.

In early March, Pat Weinthal reached out by email to me to enlist my help in tracking down her relative’s remains. I connected her with Diane Everman, director of the St. Louis Jewish Community Archives at the Brodsky Library, and Daniel Brodsky, executive director of New Mt. Sinai Cemetery.

With Everman and Brodsky’s help, the remains were found and transferred to New Mt. Sinai. Brodsky got approval from the cemetery’s board to provide a grave space for Mr. Weinthal’s remains to be interred. 

Rabbi Talve of Central Reform Congregation joined in the effort and organized a minyan to attend out of respect for Mr. Weinthal. 

At the service Monday, Talve addressed remarks to the open grave for Jacob Weinthal in a moving, conversational tone.  

“Well, Jacob, I guess you did not expect a woman rabbi would be addressing you at your funeral,” she said, before paying tribute to the life and work of Mr. Weinthal. She also praised the work of his distant cousin, Pat Weinthal, who was unable to attend the service. 

Also offering remarks at the service were Rabbi James Stone Goodman of Neve Shalom and Rav Shulamit Cenker. Leslie Caplan chanted “El Maleh Rahamim” at the service. Also attending was Susan Ing of the Missing in America project, which works to connect families to unclaimed remains stored at Valhalla. She took photographs to share with Pat Weinthal.

After Kaddish was recited, those in attendance gently shoveled the earth into Jacob Weinthal’s grave to bring a literal “closure” to the century-long journey from his death to his burial.

Nancy Weigley, executive director of CRC, said the ceremony was “a beautiful and moving hour of my life.  I am so grateful to have had the opportunity to participate and lay Jacob to rest.”

Rabbi Goodman commented that “each person, regardless of status or position takes up the same physical space of a single human being, and each life matters.”

And so, Mr. Weinthal was finally laid to rest — thanks to the efforts of his distant cousin and the support of members of the current Jewish community.

May Jacob Weinthal find perfect rest in the shadow of God’s wings, and may his memory be for a blessing.