Easing The Pain
Joe Winter maintains Beth El cemetery
with compassion in every season.
| Stacy Gittleman
| Special to the Jewish News
Winter, especially the record-breaking one Detroit just endured, can be isolating and depressing. It is harder still for those observing an anniversary of a loved one’s death to visit their grave in a snow-covered cemetery.
Fittingly so, a man named Joe Winter, caretaker at Beth El Memorial Park in Livonia, eases the sorrow of the mourner bymaking sure that certain graves and the paths leading to them are cleared of snow.
For almost three decades, Winter, 56, has cared for the cemetery and lived in a house just outside the ground Joe Winter where he and his wife, Claudia, raised their four children.
Trained as a horticulturist, Winter always enjoyed working outside and saw his occupation as a peaceful one. He started out as a groundskeeper at Gethsemane Cemetery in Detroit and then became superintendent of the Beth El Memorial Park in 1985.
Growing up, his children never thought the location of their house was odd.
“They always just considered it as one quiet backyard. I’d let them ride their bikes
on the paths after the gates had closed for the day,” he said.
As superintendent of the cemetery, Winter’s responsibilities include keeping in daily contact with local rabbis and funeral directors to schedule burials. He also is the cemetery’s main record keeper.
The cemetery is open every day from morning until 5 p.m., except Saturday. If a mourner needs to linger a bit after 5 p.m., he says he does not mind keeping the cemetery gates open a bit longer.
As the weather warms, Winter and his staff keep the lawns mowed and the bushes trimmed. He provides a supply of American
flags come Memorial Day weekend and makes sure they stay up on each grave until Flag Day on June 14.
“Of all the mourners, the toughest ones to see when they come here are the parents of
young children,” Winter said. He recalled a woman who lost a young son and visited the
grave nearly every day for eight years.
“Joe Winter deals with human beings during the most vulnerable moments of their
lives,” said Rabbi Daniel Syme of Temple Beth El of Bloomfield Hills. Syme, who has
worked with Winter for 17 years, said overseeing a cemetery is a job that not many can
“He supports all who come to the cemetery at a time when they are looking for
kindness, when their own inner coping resources are not there,” Syme said.
One such person Winter has comforted in his work is Julie Unatin of Huntington
On Valentine’s Day, Feb. 14, 2000, Unatin gave birth to a son, Ryan. Five days later,
baby Ryan died. What should have been the happiest of days for her, husband, Brian,
and their two daughters turned out to be the worst.
In March of that same year, Unatin, a teacher consultant for the blind for the
Oakland Intermediate School District, learned that another co-worker, Kate
Salathiel, also had lost a child. The deaths of their children have created a special bond between the two women.
Each winter, they support each other as they visit their children’s gravesites in different
cemeteries — not on the anniversary of their death, but on the day they were born.
Expecting her arrival at Beth El Memorial Park, Winter clears a path to Ryan’s grave
in advance of her visit. Winter also makes sure that any snow is brushed away from the
“Every year I know what I will find,” Unatin said. “A beautiful stone that has been
dusted and cleared; sprinkled with 14 years’ worth of small tokens. Without even being
asked, Joe makes my unbearable Valentine’s Day a bit more bearable.”
Do you believe that houses have feelings? I think they must. If they are old enough, and if they hold decades of family memories, of laughter and conversations and arguments, and now they are quiet, I think they must.
The house next door has got to feel very lonely this Christmas. For the first time since it was built, in 1925, it stands empty. No tree. No family cooking dinner inside. No rush to open presents. Inside linger memories of 87 Christmases. It must be waiting for the time it will once again be loved and lived in by another family.
My neighbor sadly passed away shortly before Thanksgiving.
The first time I met Charles “Bud” Strobel; he knocked on my door and politely asked if he could use my telephone. His was out of service, and he had to make an urgent phone call. At the time, Bud was a real estate attorney working on a house closing. At the time, Bud was 90 years old.
Bud lived to be 102. Bud lived independently in the house that was his wife’s parent’s home for nearly all of those 102 years. He lived a life that set examples for us all to follow. He always greeted us cheerfully from his walkway and bestowed other-era salutations to my children like “Hello chum!” and “How are you, my Huckleberry friend?”
Bud, according to his daughter’s beautifully written eulogy, was very athletic in college and throughout most of his life. Even into his nineties, my husband and I could see a sihlouette of him lifting small handweights through his bedroom curtain.
No matter the season, he took daily walks around the neighborhood. Using a cane and a walker in recent years did not deter him from getting out for a stroll. He drove his car until he reached his mid nineties. He always left the house dressed in khakis and cashmere sweaters to socialize with his friends at the Rochester Yacht Club.
One winter night, his daughter from South Carolina called me, worried that her dad was not answering his phone. Indeed, his car was not in the garage. It turns out that he was out for dinner at the yacht club with his “younger” friends who were in their 70s and 80s.
Bud loved the gardens around his house though he didn’t do much to care for them. That was his wife’s passion. After she died in 1997, her flowers and roses seemed to thrive on benign neglect.
From her bed, as she lay dying, she watched the pink flowers of our crabapple tree bloom. Bud said seeing that tree bloom gave her great pleasure in her final days.
Each spring Bud came out of his house to mournfully gaze at the pink of the tree. We could only imagine he was thinking of his wife as the petals fell to make a pink carpet on the lawn.
I never met Bud’s wife, as we moved here in 1999, the first family to move onto the block with kids in a generation. In some ways, like my gardening, Bud said I reminded him of his wife. He said that she and I were both “demon gardners.”
After the first year of tolerating these thorny barberry bushes that separated our properties, I asked if he would be receptive to removing them and replace them with a perennial flower garden.
In his dry sense of humor, he quipped, “My mother-in-law planted those bushes decades ago. I’ve always disliked them. She’s long gone, so I can’t see why they can’t go now too!”
This narrow garden became a vehicle for many conversations between Bud and I in the summer. Each spring, he would come out of his house and ask me “Hey demon gardner, what are you going to plant this year?” And I would show him my bags of spring bulbs or the perrineals in pots I would plant.
I’m going to miss Bud. He spent the last year of his live living down south near his daughter and he died peacefully there.
The end of Bud’s life means the end of three generations, maybe four, who had memories in that home. Those memories, and the house that houses them, is a hefty bag to unload. Even now, that there is no one in the house, his daughters hung a wreath on the door before heading back south after Bud’s funeral.
Bud was a good neighbor and though I know I was busy with raising my kids for all the years we lived next door, I hope he thought we were good neighbors too.
I don’t know what is going to happen to the house. I don’t know how or when Bud’s family, who live in Texas and South Carolina, will return to Rochester to go through 87 years worth of stuff and put his house on the market. And, after 87 years, the house will need some love and TLC and a good hefty rennovation before it finds a buyer.
So, even though I’m not Christian, all I want for Christmas – for next Christmas – are new neighbors.