Staying green after death

I got a press release not long ago from Maryrest Cemetery in Mahwah, N.J., which is run by the Archdiocese of Newark.

It was promoting “green burials,” something I had not heard of before.

Apparently, there is a small but growing movement for green burials, which, as you might guess, are natural or environmentally friendly burials.

We’re talking about biodegradable caskets or even shrouds. No embalming or “natural” embalming that avoids the usual chemicals. Natural stones instead of cut headstones. Natural gardens and wildflowers instead of the traditional manicured look (and NO pesticides).

There are two people buried in the cemetery’s new green section and another 30 or so families have reserved spots.

One question that occurred to me is how Catholic families would have multi-day, open-casket wakes without traditional embalming. Organic embalming fluid, I’m told, will work for a while.

A spokesperson got back to me with this explanation: “According to the funeral director, it really depends on the circumstance of death and how long after the death the funeral takes place that will dictate if an open casket funeral is viable for someone who has chosen a green burial.”

Maryrest is undergoing a multi-million-dollar expansion and renovation.

On this side of the Hudson, Sleepy Hollow Cemetery has recently set aside a green burial section called the Riverview Natural Burial Grounds.

They’re marketing the grounds now.

“For those seeking a burial in harmony with the environment, Riverview is the ‘Natural’ choice,” David Logan, president of Sleepy Hollow, says on its website.

Religious coalition stands up for Bible Belt mosque

A new coalition of religious leaders, many based in New York, has started working to defend groups trying to open mosques in different parts of the country.

The group, the Interfaith Coalition on Mosques, took its first action this week in filing a brief opposing a lawsuit that is trying to stop the building of a mosque in Murfreesboro, Tenn.

According to a release from the group:


Opponents of this new mosque had asked a judge to block the project arguing that in approving the mosque, county officials violated Tennessee law by failing to give proper public notice of a meeting discussing the project and placed county citizens at risk because, they claimed, “there was considerable evidence of elevated risks to the public safety of citizens of Rutherford County from the proposed ICM compound.”

ICOM’s amicus brief to the Chancery Court urges the court to rely on “Tennessee’s and America’s well-settled and robust history of religious tolerance and acceptance as its guiding principle,” and argues that nothing in the complaint established the highest-order government interest that would justify interfering with the religious freedom of the mosque’s builders.


A key player in the new coalition is the Anti-Defamation League, which took a lot of criticism for its opposition to the proposed Islamic center near Ground Zero. In that case, the ADL recommended that a different location be found in order to spare 9/11 survivors “more pain.”

The ADL’s Abe Foxman has been trying to explain the group’s position ever since.

The charter members of the new coalition are:

  1. Ambassador Akbar Ahmed, Chair of Islamic Studies, American University
  2. Dr. Saud Anwar, founder and co-chair of American Muslim Peace Initiative (AMPI)
  3. Rabbi Elliott Cosgrove, Senior Rabbi, Park Avenue Synagogue
  4. Abraham H. Foxman, National Director, Anti-Defamation League
  5. Rev. Dr. C. Welton Gaddy, President of the Interfaith Alliance
  6. Rabbi Yitz Greenberg, founder of Center for Leadership and Learning (CLAL), former chairman, the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum
  7. Rev. Dr. Katharine Henderson, Executive Vice President, Auburn Theological Seminary
  8. Bishop Paul Peter Jesup, American Representative for the Ukrainian Orthodox Autocephalus Church
  9. Dr. Richard Land, President, The Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, Southern Baptist Convention
  10. Msgr. Guy A. Massie, Vicar for Ecumenical and Inter-Religious Affairs, Monsignor, Diocese of Brooklyn
  11. Dr. Eboo Patel, founder and director, Interfaith Youth Core; member of Advisory Council of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships
  12. Father Robert Robbins, Director, Commission for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs, Archdiocese of New York

Who is that Dalai Lama guy, anyway?

I’m not at all surprised that Americans don’t know much about religion in general.

But the findings of a new Pew Forum poll are still kind of shocking.

45% of Catholics don’t know that their faith teaches that the bread and wine become the actual body and blood of Jesus Christ during Holy Communion?

53% of Protestants cannot identity Martin Luther as the father of the Reformation?

47% of respondents know that the Dalai Lama is Buddhist?

43% of Jews don’t know that Maimonides was Jewish? (This might not seem like a big deal to non-Jews, but M. was one of the most significant figures in Jewish history.)

What do people know?

The Pew Forum asked people 32 questions about faith. The highest average scores went to…atheists and agnostics. This isn’t terribly surprising, given that non-believers tend to be very educated, but it’s still pretty embarrassing for all those who call the U.S. a “Christian nation.”

Catholics, on average, got only 14.7 questions right — fewer than Jews, Mormons and Protestants, not to mention atheists and agnostics. On the one hand, this is surprising because Catholics are generally a very educated group.

On the other hand, it’s well know that the quality of Catholic education for those who do not attend Catholic schools has been quite low for decades. And it’s long seemed to me that Catholics, in general, know less about faiths other than their own than other religious groups. Many Catholics, in fact, know little about Protestants — what they believe and why.

What else? I’m kind of surprised that 62% of Americans know that most people in India are Hindus. I would have expected 30% based on the other results.

And 51% know that Joseph Smith was a Mormon? Could have been worse.

Here’s a Pew Forum summary:


Atheists/agnostics, Jews and Mormons still have the highest levels of religious knowledge, followed by evangelical Protestants, then those whose religion is nothing in particular, mainline Protestants and Catholics. Atheists/agnostics and Jews stand out for high levels of knowledge about world religions other than Christianity, though they also score at or above the national average on questions about the Bible and Christianity. Holding demographic factors constant, evangelical Protestants outperform most groups (with the exceptions of Mormons and atheists/agnostics) on questions about the Bible and Christianity, but evangelicals fare less well compared with other groups on questions about world religions such as Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism and Judaism. Mormons are the highest-scoring group on questions about the Bible.

Dolan: Catholics must be prepared to defend their faith

Archbishop Dolan gave a strongly worded and provocative speech the other morning in Los Angeles that is getting a lot of attention in the Catholic blogosphere.

At the L.A. Catholic Prayer Breakfast, where he was introduced by Cardinal Mahony, Dolan called for new era of Catholic apologetics to help prepare Catholics to defend the faith.

He described apologetics as “the art of credibly, convincingly and compellingly defending and presenting our faith.”

Dolan described an annual rite of September, when Catholic parents tell him that their son or daughter, a freshman in college, has a new roommate or friend who has terrible things to say about Roman Catholicism.

He said that Catholics need a “steady, humble, cheerful confidence, a rational grounding in our Catholic faith.”

They need to be able to explain why “The Catholic Church is the one, true, holy, catholic and apostolic faith.”

He also asked young people in the audience: “Are you prepared to defend your Catholic faith against those who want to take it from you and who will feel they are doing you a big fat favor by liberating you from the shackles of this oppressive, corrupt, superstitious, unbiblical, irrational, anti-Christ church?”

In L.A., Dolan also described the mass exodus of Catholics from their church as the “number one pastoral problem we confront today.”

“People are renouncing membership, leaving the church or joining others,” he said.

In addition to practicing apologetics, he said, Catholics need to emphasize a new model of the church — “The church as our spiritual family” — and to “fess up” to the sinful, human side of the church.

“One of the reasons we have a growing number of ex-Catholics is that they have been shocked, saddened and scandalized by the sinful actions of Catholics, including her clergy and hierarcy.”

It was a passionate talk, which you can watch HERE, and was well received by what appears to be a large audience.

One priest from Alabama cheered Dolan’s call for a new apologetics on his blog: “No one wins a chess match by making one move and waiting to see what the opponent might do. Part of the strategy of great chess player is anticipating the opponent’s move and being prepared for it. We want our young people (who are the laity of the present and the future) to be able, calming and confidently, to deflect all these sad, stereotypical objections with ease. But such ease, even on a football field or in a battlefield, comes only with practice and proper equipment.”

And a Carmelite sister who was at the breakfast wrote of his remarks: “As Archbishop Dolan speaks I am captured by the truth of his words and deeply moved, strengthened in my love for the Church which is weak and broken like me, but outside of which I would be completely lost.”

Dolan was, in the end, typically hopeful and positive. And he did share some good news, too: “Thanks to immigration, the church is still growing.”

Jim Russell wants to talk about jobs, not Jews

Have you been following this story about Jim Russell, who is running for Nita Lowey’s seat in Congress?

He’s well known as an anti-immigration advocate from Hawthorne. Now he wants to talk about the economy as he aims for Washington.

But the Republican Party has pulled its support for him — although he still may appear on the ballot — because of an “essay” he wrote in 2001.

The essay will be described in many ways. Controversial. Racist. Anti-Semitic.

I read the whole thing — all 16 pages — twice. To me, it was like reading early Nazi propaganda.

I don’t normally throw around that particular N word. I hate it when politicians and commentators casually describe opponents as Nazis or Communists. I think those labels should be saved for the real deal.

But the N word is what comes to mind when I read Russell’s “The Western Contribution to World History.”

His whole point is that European contributions to Western civilization are being destroyed because Europeans are getting too close to non-Europeans.

Everything started going wrong, he writes, when Alexander the Great conquered Persia and married a Persian princess. He became “the first apostle of multiculturalism and demonstrated the ethnocultural dangers of empire-building.”

He later laments that people in “so-called underdeveloped nations” are living longer because of Western medicine and that Western advances in transportation have reduced the West’s isolation. “As a result,” he writes, “we must develop a heightened awareness of alternate social isolating mechanisms, such as physical appearance, if we wish to enhance our prospects for survival.”

So get to work, Dr. Mengele.

Russell also embraces eugenics (“improving” the human gene pool), promotes psuedo-scholars with far-right and Nazi backgrounds, and offers that “Welfare does away with natural selection.”

And, boy, he doesn’t like the Jews.

He writes: “From Samuel Morse, Nikola Tesla and Guglielmo Marconi to Thomas Edison, Alexander Graham Bell and Philo Farnsworth came great inventions with the potential to enlighten and fortify our People. Yet this potential was never realized. Instead these inventions were hijacked by Mayer, Thalberg, Warner, and Cohn et al who sought to utilize our media for their financial gain, or worse, to manipulate our opinions and behavior.”

Sounds like a page from Mein Kampf.

Russell later praises Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot for for seeking to “preserve our culture.”

He drops in Eliot’s conditions for an “optimal society,” including “The population should be homogeneous” and “…reasons of race and culture combine to make any large number of free-thinking Jews undesirable.”

And there’s this: “There is now afoot a conscious effort to de-Europeanize and to re-Judaize Christianity, through scriptural revision, internal treachery and external pressure.”

During a press conference yesterday and an appearance today on Phil Reisman’s radio show, Russell simply refused to address the points he made in his article. He clumsily changed the subject or said that certain points were being overemphasized or taken out of context.

He said he likes the way minorities dress well at church.

But he’s still running for Congress.

He wants to talk about jobs.

This year’s Rabin Peacemaker Award goes to…

Way back in 1979, during a period of tension between African Americans and Jews, Rabbi Amiel Wohl and Rev. Vernon Shannon of New Rochelle started the Coalition for Mutual Respect.

They brought together members of Temple Israel of New Rochelle and St. Catherine AME Zion Church to talk things out and get to know one another better. Before long, many others in New Rochelle were getting involved.

A statement from the new group emphasized that “we are peoples tied together who can achieve more working in concert than in our separate ways.”

The coalition also began to award the annual Yitzak Rabin Peacemaker Award. This year’s honoree is the Rev. Martin L. Nelson, senior pastor of Bezer Holiness Church in New Rochelle.

I had the chance to chat with Nelson, a soft-spoken gentleman, several times over the years at various events. I think I saw him last at an interfaith seder.

He always stuck out to me because you don’t often see pastors from evangelical churches at interfaith events (at least around here). The Protestant ministers are generally from mainline traditions.

According to a press release from the coalition:


Pastor Nelson firmly believes in the church serving and improving the local community by becoming involved. In pursuit of that vision, in 2009 he founded and launched New Life Outreach, a faith-based program that aims to help individuals with harmful addictions as well as provide after care support to those recovering from substance abuse in New Rochelle and surrounding communities.

His passion for and commitment to helping others and improving the community is evident in his contributions through multiple organizations. He currently serves as President of the Interdenominational Pastor’s Council. He is former treasurer of the Inter Religious Council of New Rochelle and is a member of the Coalition for Mutual Respect. He is a New York State certified Chaplin and serves on the Board of Trustees for Isaka Memorial Foundation, a non-profit organization that provides essential services to children orphaned by AIDS in Kenya, Africa.

Born on the island of Grenada, West Indies, he migrated to Antigua where he served as an Officer in the Antigua Police Force, rising to the ranks of Special Agent to the Prime Minister. He received Advanced degrees in Religious Education from Anchor Theological Seminary in Texas and the Manhattan Bible Institute in New York. He is also a graduate of New York School of the Bible and Nyack Mission College. He is currently pursuing a license from Lehman College as a substance abuse counselor.

Honoring Dolan at Dunwoodie

St. Joseph’s Seminary in Yonkers will hold its annual fundraising dinner on Wednesday, Sept. 29 and the honoree will be the boss — Archbishop Dolan.

(NOTE: I originally had Sept. 22 as the date. My mistake. Apologies to anyone I confused.)

The dinner helps cover the costs of educating the future priests of the Archdiocese of NY. It ain’t cheap: $500 a ticket or $5,000 a table.

For info: 914-968-6200, ext. 8292.

Reception at 6 p.m. Dinner at 7:30.

Westchesterites are playing key roles in this year’s dinner, as a press release explains:


Chairpersons of the event are Ollie and Bill Griffin of Hastings-on-Hudson, NY. Managing partner of the Griffin, Coogan, Blose & Sulzer law firm in Bronxville, NY, as well as founder and chairman of the board of Hudson Valley Bank, Mr. Griffin is a member of the seminary’s Development Committee.  A graduate of Manhattan College and Villanova University School of Law, Griffin is a Knight of Malta, president of the board of the Thomas and Agnes Carvel Foundation and director of St. Joseph’s Medical Center Health Fund.  He and his wife, Dr. Margaret Ollie Griffin, a member of the Festival Chorale of the Archdiocese of New York, have three children and six grandchildren. They are parishioners of St. Matthew’s church in Hastings-on-Hudson.

Religion affects thinking on some issues more than others, poll finds

So our religious beliefs affect our thinking on some social issues more than others, according to a new poll from the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life.

Not a surprise, I suppose, but an interesting subject to consider.

The issue colored most by religion is same-sex marriage. 35% of respondents said religion was the most important factor in determining their position.

26% said their position on abortion was most influenced by religion. I would have expected the percentage to be much higher, at least 40%.

Religion is far from the chief influence on other hot-button subjects, such as government assistance to the poor (10%), immigration (7%) and the environment (6%).

The immigration result makes sense on at least one level. The Catholic Church is strongly in favor of immigration reform, including amnesty for illegal immigrants already here. Catholics make up a quarter or so of all Americans, but many have their own thinking on this most emotional issue of the day.

The Pew poll cover A LOT of ground. Check it out.

On the abortion question, the Pew people write: “On the issue of abortion, half of Americans (50%) say abortion should be legal in all (17%) or most (33%) cases while fewer, 44%, say it should be illegal in all (17%) or most (27%) cases. Support for legal abortion has edged upward since last 2009, when 47% said it should be legal in all or most cases.”

And on gay marriage: “On the issue of same-sex marriage, about four-in-ten Americans (41%) say they favor allowing gays and lesbians to marry legally while 48% are opposed. A slight majority of Democrats (52%) favor same-sex marriage, while independents are evenly split (44% favor, 45% oppose) and two-thirds (67%) of Republicans are opposed. Democrats are divided sharply along racial lines; 63% of white Democrats favor same-sex marriage, compared with just 27% of black Democrats and 46% of Hispanic Democrats.”

And on gays in the military:


By a two-to-one margin, most Americans support allowing gays and lesbians to serve openly in the military (60% favor vs. 30% oppose). The level of support has been consistent in recent years. Majorities of Democrats (67%) and independents (64%) favor allowing gays and lesbians to serve in the military, while Republicans are more divided (47% favor and 43% oppose).

Large majorities of white mainline Protestants (68%), white Catholics (71%), Hispanic Catholics (60%) and the religiously unaffiliated (66%) favor allowing gays and lesbians to serve openly in the military, while support is lower among white evangelical Protestants (43%) and black Protestants (46%). Even among the least supportive religious groups, though, less than half oppose allowing gays and lesbians to serve in the military.

The imam’s troubles, Woody Allen, Jewish day schools and messy ice cream ads

A few matters great and small:

1. I’ve written in the past that I’ve heard only good things about Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf from those who know him. Rauf is, of course, the lead figure trying to develop the much-disputed Islamic center near Ground Zero.

But now Rauf is facing some pretty serious allegations about being, of all things, a slumlord in Jersey.

The Record of Bergen County, N.J., has written some disturbing stuff about a low-income apartment building in Union City that needs serious repairs. Its owner, Rauf, hasn’t been making them and is now being taken to court.

The Record’s Mike Kelly writes:


Then, on Friday, on the eve of the anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, Union City officials rushed again to Rauf’s building. PSE&G had shut off the electricity in the hallways. The reason: Rauf failed to pay a bill of almost $5,000, Stack said.

Not only were the hallways dark, but the electric-powered smoke detectors and fire alarms were not working. In other words, the building was now a fire trap.

When Union City officials persuaded PSE&G to restore electricity, they discovered yet another code violation – the fire alarms were not working anyway, even with electricity.


Explanations, anyone?

AP Photo/Hasan Jamali

2. Woody Allen has always been associated with a certain New York, Jewish sensibility.

A lot of Americans in the Heartland probably learned some of what they know about Jewish humor and even Jewish ways of looking at the world from Woody’s movies.

It didn’t make much of a difference, in this regard, that Woody was never a real religious guy.

But, still, many Jews probably winced while reading the NYT’s interview with The Woodman yesterday. He pretty much disowned the Tribe.

He didn’t want to be wished a “Happy New Year” for the Jewish new year, telling the Times: “That’s for your people. I don’t follow it. I wish I could get with it. It would be a big help on those dark nights.”

He also says: “To me, there’s no real difference between a fortune teller or a fortune cookie and any of the organized religions. They’re all equally valid or invalid, really. And equally helpful.”

Manu Fernandez /AP file

3. The Jewish Week reports on the first-ever study of how Jewish day schools handle the abuse of students — sexual, physical, psychological.

Yeshiva U in NYC conducted the survey and got responses from more than 40 percent of 320 schools polled. These included mostly modern Orthodox day schools, some Conservative schools and some Orthodox yeshivas.

According to the JW:


Underscoring the need for more data on a problem little acknowledged until a decade ago, 80 percent of respondents report that “behavioral signs” are the primary means of identifying abuse, but only 15 percent of respondents said they could “easily identify abuse, with a full 48 percent disagreeing altogether,” according to the report.

“The headline here is that the community is recognizing a challenge and responding,” said Goldberg. He added that support is coming from rabbis, educators, lay leaders and philanthropists, and that efforts over the last decade have led “to what we expect is a ‘tipping point,’” where the community can face the challenges of abuse.

Yitzchak Schechter, a psychologist who headed the study and program with Goldberg, noted that “as a reflection of the changing times, 88 percent of the respondents agree or strongly agree that reporting abuse is accepted by the Torah.”

Though no statistical data is available for comparison, the study team said this represents “a very significant change in attitude” in the Orthodox community, where some still insist that rabbinic leaders, not secular authorities, should handle such cases.

4. Why would an ice cream company in Italy want to challenge the Vatican?

The company has an ad depicting a pregant nun eating ice cream. The ad promises ice cream that is “Immaculately Conceived.”

The same company produced an ad last year showing a nun and preist about to kiss.

The ads have faced all sorts of opposition. But the company, Antonio Fedirici, plans to press on. They have a bigger agenda, saying that the pregnant nun ad is supposed to “comment on and question, using satire and gentle humor, the relevance and hypocrisy of religion and the attitudes of the church to social issues.”

Relics of two Catholic giants coming to NY

Relics of two significant Catholic figures will soon be coming to the New York area.

On Sept. 23, Archbishop Dolan will bless the first U.S. shrine dedicated to Cardinal John Henry Newman at the Church of Our Savior in New York City.

This will be only a few days after the pope beatifies Newman in England. That’s a big step toward possible sainthood.

The shrine will include a relic — a piece of Newman’s remains.

Newman was a priest in the Church of England who converted to Catholicism in 1845. He is much beloved by his fans for his intellectual approach to faith and his clear, powerful writing.

One week later, on Sept. 30, a relic of St. John Bosco, the founder of the Salesian order, will be at the Marian Shrine in Haverstraw-Stony Point. There will be a day-long youth rally and Dolan will celebrate Mass in the evening.

The relic (in this case, known to be an arm bone) will also be at St. Patrick’s Cathedral on Oct. 1 and 2.

The relic is the middle of a five-year trip around the world to celebrate the Salesians’ 150th anniversary and Bosco’s 200th birthday. Here’s a full explanation from Father Mike Mendl of the Salesians’ Eastern Province, based in New Rochelle:


St. John Bosco, very often called simply Don Bosco, was an Italian saint (1815-1888), apostle of young people, founder of a religious congregation of men (priests, brothers) whom he called the Salesians (after St. Francis de Sales as patron) and a congregation of sisters called the Daughters of Mary Help of Christians—commonly called the Salesian Sisters.  He also sent out missionaries to Latin America; today the Salesians are in 136 countries and are the second-largest order of religious men in the Catholic Church (about 16,000 in number), and the sisters are the largest order of women (about 14,000).

Last year our superiors started a relic from the body of Don Bosco on a trip around the world that will take over five years to complete, visiting every province (geographical division) of the Salesian world.  The occasion for this pilgrimage is to link the 150th anniversary of the Salesians (last December) and the 200th anniversary of Don Bosco’s birth (2015) while stirring up a renewed fervor for the spirit and apostolic work of Don Bosco (young people, missions, etc.), and among the Salesians themselves a rededication to our religious consecration, ideals, and mission to the young.

Catholics honor the relics of the saints as reminders that the saints were human beings like us, and we can imitate their virtues, welcome God’s grace, and become saints too.  In honoring the saints we honor God, who worked through them.

Insofar as some relics of saints are from their bodies (as distinguished from objects that they used), we also pay respect to the human body that will be raised up on the Last Day, as Jesus was raised from the dead.  The just will share in the eternal life of Christ.