Friday, April 12, 2013

A Night at the Palace

I'm sitting here bored, staring at the trailing drops running down the outside of the windows, listening to the rumble of the charter bus next to me. I peer past the drops at one of the Detroit areas finest venues for sports and concerts alike, the Palace of Auburn Hills. Tonight, I find myself in the limo lot once again. Surrounded by some of the worst looking limousine drivers I've ever had the pleasure of witnessing. Before me is a row of classically styled limousines made from luxury cars such as Lincoln, Cadillac and Chrysler. There's an over sized Hummer stretched to the maximum allowed on the streets of Michigan. To my right, a newer charter bus, better known as a party barge. To my left, and uncomfortably close I might add, is an old school bus that has been painted a sleek silver with black stripes, trying to disguise just how ugly it really is.

The weather is a cool 35 degrees f with a wind chill knocking it down to well below freezing. I've been in the limo now for over 6 hours and it will be at least another 2 to 3 hours before this whole thing can be called over. I'd stand up outside for a while if it wasn't so darn miserable out there. But this weather would only make me have to pee even more than I already do. And the company of the other drivers is less than desirable.
I'm happy to drive these people to the Bob Seger concert and keep them from driving intoxicated themselves. But next time you wonder why it cost so much to "pay a driver that only sits outside all night", remember me on this night fit only for a duck.

An hour later.
After managing the post concert traffic outside the Palace, I've made my way to the Royal Park Hotel. Undoubtedly, the nicest hotel in the state. Since my passengers have raced yachts to Mackinac Island with Mr. Seger in the past, they've been invited back to the hotel for a cocktail. At least my view has improved as I sit watching the Clinton River swell it's banks next to this prestigious landmark. It's been raining for two days and we still have one more day before there's a break in the clouds. As I watch the river flow by, I'm reminded of this morning when the severe weather sirens sounded because of the flash flooding in my neighborhood on this very same river.

It's amazing some of the things you hear when driving this sort of client. Especially when you get a few cocktails in them. But, part of why I get these jobs is that these lips are sealed. I can tell you though, that we all put our pants on one leg at a time. And that deep down, we are all the same.

Four hours later.
It's been a long night. I,ve been behind the wheel of a car half of a full day and I could use a rest. I'm finally home. It's no palace, but it's my home. It's now 3AM, my dog Pugsley is excited to see me. Life is good.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

A Jewish Perspective: The Completeion

Even more so than the Catholics, the people of the Jewish faith, maintain their own cemeteries and have their own customs when it comes to preparing the dead for burial. This is a peek into the views of the church on the subject of cremation.

For part one of this article, see yesterdays post.

When we left off yesterday in Rabbi Levin's article, Adam had just buried his first son. Let's rejoin the Rabbi to get the rest of his perspective.

Burials became the norm and until the pagan tradition of burning on the pyre, burial in the ground was the accepted practice. Throughout history, Jews have been described as the people who bury their dead. The Torah commands us to "surely bury" – even the executed criminal. It's a shame that the People of the Book need to become copy cats of the latest culture; a culture that now has such a large percentage of people agreeing to cremation. Maybe subconsciously people want to be cremated – because if we respect our bodies due to the holiness it carries, then we are expected to live that way – a sublime responsibility – one that many don't necessarily want to commit to.
When Adolph Eichmann, one of the most despicable humans ever, was tried in Israel in 1962, the leadership of the country forbade burial for him – no shrine for this degenerate. They ordered cremation and dispersion of his ashes onto the Mediterranean. Now, isn't this exactly the opposite of what we want for our loved ones?
When Adam was created, G-d, says the Talmud gathered earth from all corners of the globe to make up Adam (adama in hebrew means earth), in order that wherever he dies, earth again will be able to absorb him – ready for hiding until t'chiyas hamaisim.
Years ago, when I was invited to speak at a conference of Jewish burial practices, I pleaded with the group of Rabbis and laypeople not to offer cremation as an alternative practice. Our generation, I said, the generation after the Holocaust should understand this better than most. (In fact, according to a South Florida editorial, the further away we Jews get from this period of the Holocaust, the less distasteful cremation becomes.) We are not the refuse that the degenerates of society thought we were and practiced with us. We are G-d's children, G-d's jewels. We should be hidden after life in "mother" earth, and not disposed of.
It is for these reasons that Jewish law says "no shiva is observed – no Kaddish said, no mourning or burial practices to those who are willfully cremated. They are considered by tradition to have abandoned Jewishness and have surrendered their rights to a posthumous honor.
For so many monumental questions people of the world look to the Jews for answers. When the Chief of Staff of Columbia Presbyterian Hospital in New York was asked "when is the moment of death" regarding the complex issue of brain death – he answered simply – "when the little old Rabbi on the lower east side tells me – then I'll know." He was, of course, referring to Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, the premier decider of halachic issues for a half a century. (Rav Moshe was about 5 feet tall). Before the President of the USA weighed in on capital punishment, he needed Rabbi Feinstein's opinion. I wonder why, then, the people who are described as "the light to all nations" need to look to darkness for their direction in life?
Some people have stated that the reason they want to be cremated is so they should not be a burden on their families, not to use up ground space (for environmental reasons) and obligate funds for grave care and monuments. I wish they would consider that maybe their families appreciate that burden. Sure funerals, caskets, burials and the erecting of monuments are financially difficult and psychologically taxing, but this is the price we pay for love. For family and friends to forever be able to visit, pray and even cry at a loved ones grave site is an honor, not a burden. To read a tombstone and feel uplifted by the sweet memories of a life that has been loved and shared contributes to the totality of the human experience. This inspiration allows us to transcend the difficulties of the moment and the pressures of the pocketbook. Let us also remember the affirmation to us and to all of mankind, that life is not over with the tragedy we call death, but rather the everlasting soul – the G-dly part of us, truly lives on eternally. This unfortunately is so lost by the sad, immediate destruction of cremation.
So let us, the people that G-d himself describes as his special nation, embrace the instructions of our Creator with gratitude that our way in life and indeed in death has eternal ramifications. Ashrainu ma tov chalkainu. (Fortunate is our lot).

Rabbi Boruch E. Levin

I look not to offend anyone by posting this article. I do have respect for the Jewish faith as well as all faiths. I make no claims that one is right and another is wrong. I have formed my own beliefs over the years; An educated belief. But I do not discount any one's beliefs or rituals. Each person should be allowed to form their own opinions and practice their own life as they see fit.

I do find this to be an intriguing topic and may expand more on it in future post.

In contrast to what the Rabbi has written here, I tend to agree more with our friend Anne who wrote about part one....
 " My people (traveller types - children of the earth) believe that you have to burn the body, and anything too closely associated with it, to ensure that the soul can be free. If you keep too many of the dead person's things you hold them back from the next life. Traditionally they would burn the caravan and everything in it - with the body inside. 
Same idea - completely different approach."

In the end, whatever you choose, must satisfy your grieving process. That is what a funeral is for.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

A Jewish Perspective

Working in the funeral business over the years, I've had the opportunity to take part in many different types of funerals. One that I have never been a part of is one that you would think that I would, is a Jewish service. After all, I am named after my Uncle Stewart Winstein. My aunt married Stewart before I was born. Although she was raised Catholic, she chose to convert and raise my cousin in the Jewish faith.

That being said, I do know a little about the faith and I know that in the Jewish faith, they believe that the body must be buried whole. I won't go into detail just yet. But basically, that means that they will not go for the ever popular trend of cremating the body. So while putting together the showroom/ selection room at the funeral home, I ran across a catalog that contained urns with the Star of David engraved on them.

There were wood urns that resembled books.

 There were metal urns that were sleek and modern.

There were classically styled urns that colored the Star of David with the color of the flag from Israel.

There was even jewelry that could contain a small amount of ashes to be carried with you wherever you went.

The whole idea of urns and cremation in general seems a little strange when thinking of a Jewish funeral. So I decided to look up what the official views on cremation are in the Synagogue.

I found this article from Rabbi Boruch E. Levin. It's a little long but as someone that makes a living taking people to the cemetery, I found his words to be intriguing and even entertaining. I almost wish other religions felt this way. That being said, I'm looking forward to being put into the oven when I'm done.

A Perspective on Cremation

Did you ever notice that when the news channels want to show the ultimate desecration that protesters have for an opposing country, they display pictures of flag burnings or forms of our leaders burned in effigy? Tragically, in the year 1244, when Gentiles wanted to disgrace our religion, they took 24 wagon loads of Torah scrolls, Medrash and the Talmud and burned them in the center of Paris. Around that period, Maimonides' books were also defamed through burning. We burn that which we wish to discard, humiliate or degrade. Before pollution concerns, we routinely burned our garbage as a quick elimination of a problem. But we never burn or discard something holy or precious.
The experts have predicted that in the very near future a full 50% of United States dispositions of human remains will be cremated. After death, families will choose to turn their loved ones into ashes, gases and vapor. Unfortunately this practice has influenced Jewish families as well and more and more are considering this end. I think it behooves us to look at our Jewish teachings and traditions before such a decision is made and since our reaction to death is really governed by how we lived, lets begin there.
Our belief is that all of Creation was made to assist humans on their journey. Why else can we slaughter animals and enjoy their succulent meat? Why can we skin leopards for their beautiful fur? Why are we 'better' or more important than beautiful trees that we use for gorgeous wooden bookcases?
Practically everything we do and own, shouts the message of a higher purpose. But this comes with a price – you – humans – better be greater – wiser, and even holier than the rest of creation and you better have an elevated calling, because if not, then we should be vegetarians and maybe we should think of building nursing homes for old chickens that should never see the inside of our ovens.

But what is this higher purpose? What does our Creator expect from us?
As Jews we are told through the Torah, 'to emulate our Creator, to do loving kindness, to respect our elders and to fulfill the commands of G-d'. All these Mitzvos are avenues, Kabbalah tells us, designed by the Chief Designer, for us to become incrementally closer to Him – to become holier and less animalistic. Why were we given such wonderful talents, such awesome abilities, such powerful minds, if all we are expected to do is to eat, drink and be merry? G-d fused in each of us a Neshoma, a holy soul to be our light, our conscience, and our driving force, to do the good that is expected of us. We are, however, constantly, challenged by the darker side of a human, the evil side that pulls us down, and emphasizes only our physical. It is precisely that challenge that G-d appreciates and G-d rewards. But, understandably, if He rewards us here then that challenge diminishes. In order to see who really are the "few good men" – the rewards are given in the next world – a world in which we must have faith.
G-d promised a resurrection of the dead - t'chiyas hamaisim. Our Rabbis write that in nature we see a fascinating example of this in a caterpillar, a lowly creature that crawls ever so slowly. However, at the end of its existence – its first existence – it "dies", curls up in a cocoon and if we would dissect it then, it would look rotted. But amazingly, it re-incarnates to a beautiful existence – to a flying butterfly with gorgeous wings. Truly a t'chiyas hamasim. Maybe G-d wanted us to see an example of t'chiyas hamasim to "bring home" this phenomenon, this fundamental Jewish belief, because denying the resurrection is a major Jewish offense.
One of the reasons cited for the Jewish prohibition of cremation is that cremation demonstrates by its active destruction of the body, the disbelief in t'chiyas hamasim.
Cremation also indicates a lack of sensitivity to our lofty existence – our purposeful life – which contrasts so clearly the difference between us and that which we routinely eliminate. If we are truly the fusion of a G-dly soul to our body, then the body must be respected for housing that soul. "Man", the pinnacle of creation (indicated by man's existence coming chronologically last during creation) this tzelem E-lokim a form made in the "image of G-d" – surely cannot be shown the same quick end as something we wish to throw away. A Sefer Torah that has aged and is not readable, never ends up in a trash heap or burned but is buried in a place called geniza, which means hiding place, – so too should man. Just as the burning of a national flag is a moral offense because of what it signifies, so too, is the act of cremation.
No one, certainly not a son or daughter, would dream of mutilating their loved one after death. Judaism directs us to lovingly wash the deceased and dress them in spotlessly white shrouds after the taharah, the purification ceremony is performed, and we carefully place them in a casket to be lowered into the ground. The body is treated with the utmost respect. It is never left alone and we are not permitted to show any frivolity in its presence. The stark difference between this and a crematorium is so evident.
The Talmud tells us that if the torah wasn't given to us, we would learn much from animals. We would learn modesty from the cat. We would learn morality from the dove. We would learn integrity from the ant. In that light, I wish to mention a Midrash. When Adam sat in front of his dead son Hevel – the first dead human in history, he did not know what to do with the lifeless body. A raven flew near him carrying a dead raven in his beak. The raven proceeded to scrape the ground until a furrow was dug – large enough to place the dead bird in and then the raven covered and literally buried the dead bird. Adam saw this instinctive act of the raven and proceeded to do the same for the body of his son.

We will finish this article tomorrow. For now, go and slaughter an animal and enjoy it's succulent meat.

Friday, April 5, 2013


For years, I have been trying to figure out the thought process behind the design layout of the road system in the metropolitan Detroit area. For the out-of-towner, the roads are labeled in numerical order by mile, running East and West. Just to confuse everyone, some cities rename the road with a name of someone of historical importance, that used to live there a long time ago. For instance, I live near 21 Mile Road. A mile North of me is 22 Mile Road. But a mile South, you will not find 20 Mile Road. Instead, you will find M-59 or Rosso Hwy or Hall Rd. or Highland Rd. depending on what city you are in. Sometimes due to rivers or whatever, the road is discontinued for a while only to show up again with a different name. You constantly have to translate what road it is to give directions.

But that's not the worst part.
The worst part is that all these Mile Roads run straight East and West. Therefor, at sunrise and sunset every day. this is what you see as you drive along the road. With other cars turning on and off the road as well as signal lights at the intersections, sunrise in the morning heading East and sunset in the evening heading West can be a challenge.

All week long has been busy with funerals in the morning. And everyday this week, this is what I have been faced with to get to my garage and then off to the job. And for the record, as you can see in the picture, there is a turn lane approaching on the right. That also indicates there is a busy intersection directly ahead of me and yes, the light is red.

My regular readers know that I love a sunrise in the morning. It brings with it infinite possibilities. But mostly, this brings with it the possibility of disaster.