Sunday, February 3, 2013


Aaron was my third cousin and the fact that we never met is all the more remarkable when you consider that his bar mitzvah was a year and a week after mine and was held in the same shul. His birthday is this week.

About ten years ago, I was corresponding with a heretofore unknown cousin on my father's father's mother's side and she gave me contact information for her second cousin Aaron and his sister, third cousins of mine. Aaron lived outside New York and the sister in Illinois.  I wrote both and Aaron replied. I learned that Aaron was a single man, who spent alot of time travelling the world. He was visually handicapped and could only correspond the old-fashioned way, by mail, in large printed letters.

Subsequently we exchanged letters two or three times a year, quite devoid of genealogical content. He would tell me about his travels and occasionally include some clippings about Israeli or Jewish issues.

About four years ago, he sent me a letter asking for assistance in planning a trip in the fall. He wanted to go with an organization called Jewish Historical Seminars on a tour of Uzbekistan, but was having trouble dealing with their computerized sign-up system. As Jewish Historical Seminars is a Jerusalem company, he wanted me to call them to help facilitate his registration. I spoke to a woman named Debbie and we worked it out satisfactorily. (I remain on their mailing list and have even participated in one of their pre-tour events - about the Jewish presence in Mexico.)

The tour group met in Tel Aviv just before Rosh Hashanah, and Aaron and I spoke about perhaps meeting there either on his way to Uzbekistan or on the way back, but it didn't work out.

On 8 October, I received an email from Debbie asking if Aaron and I were cousins. I said that we were and asked if the trip worked out well. She replied:
Aaron was wonderful on the trip and really a lovely person. But unfortunately I received an email from his friend who received emails for Aaron that he passed away. I was very upset about this since he was really someone special. Here's the email I received and apparently they are having problems contacting family.
And this is what the friend Scott had written her.
When Aaron returned from Uzbekistan he called me to say how much he enjoyed the trip and especially the other people in the group. As you know he was already planning the next one and his travels were the thing he enjoyed more than anything else. He was not yet on NY time so said we'd arrange to meet in a week or so and he'd tell me all the details of the trip. I tried calling several times and there was no answer but he has often in the past turned his phone off when he was feeling especially ill. While he had said he was in unusually good health on the trip, he tends to take a while to recover from these adventures.

Last Friday I got a call from the police saying that they had found Aaron dead in his apartment, and that he had probably died at least a week earlier. They have been trying to reach his relatives in [Illinois] or Pittsburgh but since none of his friends had contact information, they have been unsuccessful so far.
Aaron and I had been friends for over 30 years although he was outgoing and always looking for exotic experiences and I am almost the opposite. He will be greatly missed.
Apparently Scott knew that Aaron had been in touch with me, so he contacted me through Debbie. Scott told me that the police would no longer talk to him because he was not a relative, but he had learned from the "public adminstrator of the court" that they had gone through Aaron's address book and left a message at the phone of someone in Pittsburgh.

Aaron had just the sister. On his mother's side (my side) there were no first cousins. But there are Pittsburgh relatives on his father's side, none of whom I know.

I contacted Aaron's Pittsburgh second cousin - the one who had given me Aaron's name and adddress to begin with. She knew nothing and had not seen a notice in the Pittsburgh Jewish Chronicle. She also phoned Schugar's, the local Jewish funeral home, to see if they had done a burial, but they had not. (Aaron's parents are buried in Pittsburgh.)

On 18 October, a Sunday, I wrote to the County Medical Examiner to find out what had happened to the body. I was being the genealogist and just wanted to know where he was buried. She replied the next day, telling me that
Aaron [case number] "was deceased on October 2, 2009 at 3:44 PM, body is still with us. A Funeral Home has not pick him up as of yet. It was ruled a Natural Death."
That's a week later and they can say 3:44 PM exactly.

The local paper in the town where Aaron lived had nothing for me at all.

I passed on the Medical Examiner's reply to Scott and he said that the public administrator's office had asked if he (Scott) would pay for burial, otherwise "they would turn the task over Common Services for a 'common burial' " It seems that he signed on Aaron's bank account and planned to arrange for a burial in New York, unless a relative wanted to arrange for a Pittsburgh burial.

The Medical Examiner said we had until the beginning of the next week, otherwise they would dispose of the body in a common (=communal) grave.  I tried to find out Aaron's precise Jewish name, which is how I learned that his bar mitzvah was in my shul a year and a week after my own. The records of the most logical Hebrew School were off in Arizona someplace and the second most logical had undergone reorganization and claimed to have no records of students from fifty years ago. I had a photo of Aaron's father's grave so I knew that his paternal grandfather was Aharon Yaakov. I figured we could go with that when we got to that stage.

By this time, it was Friday and time was running out. I decided to send out an mail to all the relevant family members in the US to see who could contact Schugar's and deal with the Pittsburgh arrangements. It was becoming urgent.

It was my son, the rabbi in suburban Chicago who answered the call. Of course it would be. He is supposed to know how to do things like this and dealing with an unclaimed body is a very big mitzvah. I gave him contact information for Scott and the Medical Examiner and told them they would hear from them. That was the end of my week.

My son decided that the right thing to do - legally as well as halachically - would be to make another effort to contact the sister, though it was obvious by now that they were seriously estranged. I suppose there were potential issues of legal liability if we bypassed her without making an effort. He found her and called. She said she'd take care of it. By having him cremated. He asked her if this was a financial decision or some kind of principle. She said it was principle. Obviously there were issues.

Sometimes you lose.

May his soul be bound in life.

PS - The sister told my son that I am welcome to contact her and gave him her email address. Maybe someday. Maybe not.


  1. I remember this: the urgency, how sad you felt at being confronted with the results of all your effort. You tried. I think you can be comforted with the knowledge that you did all you reasonably could.

    1. There is neither comfort nor consolation in that.
      But there is a message about making sure your affairs are in order.