Friday, February 26, 2010

make an ash out of yourself

Since Ash Wednesday occurred just last week, the phrase taken from Genesis 3:19 should be fresh in your mind: “for dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return”.

Broadly interpreted, it’s a reminder that we all came from humble beginnings, and all that we accomplish in life is meaningless unless we prepare properly for the next stage of our existence.

The T-shirt saying above is actually a bit conservative, since we actually share 50% of our DNA with a banana, and 98% of our genes with a chimpanzee.
When Al Capone’s rival, Dion O'Banion, was gunned down in his flower shop across the street from Holy Name Cathedral on November 10, 1924, his family spared no expense in laying him to rest. His casket cost $10,000, and the funeral procession to Mount Carmel Cemetery was a mile long, with 26 cars and trucks just to carry the flowers. The procession and burial included 15,000 mourners.

Ironically, O’Banion is buried in Mt. Carmel, just a short distance from Capone’s grave, and both men are just a short walk from the final resting place of a number of the former Archbishops of the Diocese of Chicago.

At some point in time, I came to the realization that having a “traditional” burial makes about as much sense as O’Banion’s lavish funeral did in 1924. In today’s dollars, his casket would have cost $127,000, more than I paid for my last house in 1986.

Both of my parents, and my father-in-law, are buried at Ft. Snelling National Cemetery in St. Paul. Although I now live about 400 miles from the cemetery, the times that I’ve been there have been comforting, since it gave me a chance to “talk” with my parents and father-in-law again. After my dad died, my mother actually drove to the cemetery to consult with him about a car purchase that she was considering.

I’ve been to Arlington National Cemetery twice in my life, and will admit that the place does produce a feeling of both awe and gratitude. I recently learned that the property was originally stolen from the crippled wife of an Army general, which doesn’t diminish its importance as a national cemetery.

The problem that I see with traditional burials is the trips to the cemetery are normally very infrequent, which makes it more difficult to “keep in contact” with the departed.

I’ve long considered having a VERY traditional Irish wake (Bushmills and all), and may still somehow manage to carry it off when I go to my reward in about 40 years. What I’m opposed to, though, is putting my old Irish body in a box and planting it in the ground somewhere.

Cremation has been practiced since the time of the Ancient Greeks.

Cremation rates vary widely from country to country. In India, cremation is nearly universal due to the high number of Hindus and Buddhists, but the rate is also surprisingly high (71%) in England and Denmark. The percentage drops dramatically in countries that have a high percentage of Greek Orthodox or Roman Catholic adherents.

In 2010, the average cost of a funeral in America is $7000, but prices can vary widely by region. Most of the funerals that I’ve attended in the Midwest were considerably more expensive.

In contrast, the Cremation Society of Illinois charges $1295 for a cremation. Although the containers available from the society are elegant and tasteful, anyone whose ancestors came from Ireland should at least consider the products that are available from a company called The Irish Wake.

Although I plan to be around for a few more decades, it’s not too soon to start thinking about the “proper disposal of my remains” when I go to that great bicycle trail in the sky.

Since I’ve already lived “three score and two” years, I feel that I’ve URNed the right to decide what the Tom Brennan of the future will become.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

the great grave robbery

Alsip, Illinois is a predominantly white community in southern Cook County that is home to two graveyards (Burr Oak and Restvale), both of which are predominantly African-American.

Restvale is the final resting place for a number of blues musicians (including Muddy Waters)

and Burr Oak is the burial site for Emmett Till, whose 1955 murder ignited the modern civil rights era. Burr Oak gained national prominence in 2004 when Emmett Till’s body was exhumed to assist in the murder investigation.

Burr Oak was again in the news last summer, but for a far more sinister reason: grave robbing.

Three men and one woman allegedly dug up more than 100 graves (including Emmett Till’s), dumped the bodies into unmarked mass graves, and resold the the plots to unsuspecting members of the public. On July 9, 2009, Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart charged each of them with one count each of dismembering a human body.

Graves in cemeteries DO get moved on occasion, but always with the full knowledge of the next of kin.

Officials at O’Hare airport have moved 24 graves from 161 year old St. Johannes cemetery to other cemeteries with the full consent of family members, but a state appellate court barred any further transfers on February 18, 2010.

Lincoln Park in Chicago began as a small cemetery on the northernmost boundary of the city in 1843, but all graves (except one) were moved to other cemeteries over time. Ira Couch is the only remaining “resident” of the original cemetery.

What’s not well known is that one of the largest public cemeteries in America (Calverton National Cemetery in Long Island. is the largest) is built on grounds that were stolen from the disabled wife of an Army general.

In essence, she was robbed of her land so that the Union army would have a place for the graves of its soldiers killed during the Civil War.

Mary Anna Custis Lee was the wife of Confederate General Robert E. Lee.

At the outbreak of the Civil War in 1861, Virginia seceded from the Union. Colonel Robert E. Lee, who at that time had served in the U.S. Army for 35 years, was offered command of the Union Army. Lee had disapproved of secession, but felt that he could not turn his back on the citizens of Virginia, his native state. Instead of accepting the Union command, he decided to resign his commission in the army, which he did in writing while still residing in the home. After his resignation, Lee reported for duty in Richmond, as commander of the Virginia Provisional Army. He soon joined the Confederate States Army and was promoted to general.

Mary Anna Curtis Lee is a direct descendant of George Washington, our first President (her father was George Washington Parke Curtis, who was George Washington’s step grandson).

She married her longtime friend Robert E. Lee at her parent’s house (Arlington House) on June 20, 1831, and she inherited Arlington House on her father’s death in 1857.

As she got older, she developed rheumatoid arthritis, and by 1861 she was using a wheelchair for mobility. She stayed at Arlington House for about a month after the outbreak of the Civil War, but moved out for good on May 15, 1861. At the end of the Civil War, she was only able to see her beloved Arlington House once more before her death in 1873, but was unable to leave her carriage.

The federal government had confiscated the mansion property, in 1864, claiming that property taxes had not been paid (she was roughly $9 in arrears)

Robert E. Lee and his wife never legally challenged the return of the home. In 1870, after his father's death, George Washington Custis Lee, the eldest son of Robert E. Lee, filed a lawsuit in the Alexandria Circuit Court which resulted in a later Supreme Court decision in 1882 awarding Custis Lee just compensation for the house and 1,100 acres (4 km2). Lee originally asked for $300,000, however, the court only awarded $150,000 (about $3,200,000 in today's money), considered the fair market value of the property.

More than 300,000 people have been buried at Arlington National Cemetery since its inception in 1864, and my guess is that very few of them knew the history of the grounds they were buried in.

If you have occasion to visit Arlington Cemetery (my last visit there was in 1986) say a prayer of thanks to those 300,000 veterans who have paid the ultimate price for our freedom, but don’t forget to thank Mary Anna Curtis Lee for her contribution to America’s history.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

no joke - it's a Juke

The North American International Auto Show was held this year in Detroit from January 11 to January 24, and was quickly followed by the Chicago Auto Show, which will run from February 12 through February 21.

Nissan Corporation recently reversed itself, and will now be an exhibitor at both shows. Although a number of the company's current products will be on display, Nissan will NOT be displaying a radical new vehicle that will be introduced to the North American market next fall.

The Juke (based on a European concept car called the Qazana) will make its world debut at this year's Geneva Auto Show, which will run from March 4 through March 14.

According to Nissan, Qazana has no specific meaning, but it IS true that the Hebrew word for "cockroach" is pronounced "jook", which may lead to a name change in some markets.

It's one of eight new products that Nissan will be releasing within the next 12 months, a courageous move in view of the horrific drop in world wide car sales in the last 18 months.

Nissan’s website provides a hint of things to come, but more information can be found in a “first look” article that was recently published by Motor Trend magazine. When the Juke is released to the North American market in September of 2010 as a 2011 model (three months before the introduction of the new Leaf), it’s definitely a vehicle that will command attention.

It’s 20 inches shorter than the current small SUV offered by Nissan (the Rogue), but it will have more horsepower (188), an amazing feat in view of the fact that the engine is the same size (1.6 liters) as the one found in the least expensive car that Nissan makes – the Versa 1.6.

Styling is definitely on the aggressive side, and Nissan plans to offer an option of a genuine manual transmission instead of the anemic “paddle shifter” that was available during the first year of Rogue production. To give you some idea of its performance capabilities, the Juke will incorporate side-to-side torque vectoring - a principle shared by the previous-generation GTR, and the new-generation Porsche 911 Turbo and the BMW X6M among others.

I’m not sure if it’s going to be a sales success or not, but one thing is for certain – I can’t wait to get my hands on the steering wheel!

Thursday, February 4, 2010

turning over a new LEAF

Since I sell Nissans for a living, I was delighted to see that Nissan Corporation will start selling an all-electric vehicle called the LEAF by the end of 2010 in selected markets. Motor Trend published an article about the LEAF in September of 2009, but it’s gotten some press lately in other areas as well.

The LEAF is actually a VERY cool vehicle, and the information found on Nissan’s website provides a LOT of additional information about the vehicle.

When it’s released to the public, the LEAF won’t be the only all electric vehicle on the market. The Tesla Roadster is already available, but its six figure price tag will be out of reach for most people. In spite of its price tag, it's a VERY popular vehicle in the San Francisco area. Since its release, the company has sold 150 vehicles (at $109,000 a pop) in the Bay Area.

The much-anticipated Chevrolet Volt is scheduled to be released in November of 2010. Although initial pricing estimates were in the range of “slightly over $20,000”, the latest estimate of the MSRP is around $40,000, considerably higher than the $25,000 MSRP of the LEAF.

I've lost count of how many companies had "plug in" hybrids at the Chicago Auto Show, but they ranged from a very inexpensive Fiat 500 all the way up to a stunning vehicle called the Fisker Karma.

Strangely enough, the most viable competition for the LEAF will be from a nameplate that’s been in existence since 1920 - the Detroit Electric.

The original Detroit Electric was produced from 1907 until 1939. The cars were advertised as reliably getting 80 miles (130 km) between battery recharging, although in one test a Detroit Electric ran 211.3 miles (340.1 km) on a single charge. Top speed was only about 20 miles per hour (32 km/h), but this was considered adequate for driving within city or town limits at the time.

The brand was revived in 2008 by a company based in Hong Kong, but the actual production of the vehicle will be in Malaysia

Apart from the fact that the NEW Detroit Electric will virtually eliminate the need for foreign oil, another advantage of the vehicle is that it will also eliminate ALL pollution, an ironic piece of information in view of the fact that 60% of the adult males in Malaysia are smokers.

Although Malaysia is not one of the eighteen countries where Nissan produces vehicles, the company DOES have production facilities in nearby Indonesia. What I find especially interesting is that Nissan plans to start building the LEAF in Guangzhou, China in 2011, a place that I'm especially fond of because I lived there for a year as an English teacher. North American production will be in Smyrna, Tennessee, and will be facilitated by a $1.4 billion loan from the Department of Energy that will allow modification of the existing production plant.

To give you some idea of how serious the government is about electric cars, we the people were also involved in a loan of $529 million to a tiny company called Fisker Automotive in September of 2009.

A vehicle called the Fisker Karma is the ONLY model made by the company.In my opinion, it was the most beautiful car on display at this year's Chicago Auto Show.

In an effort to stimulate interest in the LEAF, Nissan conducted a Zero Emission Tour last fall. The Zero Emission Tour of the LEAF started in Los Angeles on November 13, and finished on Valentine's Day in New York City.

If you have any sense of history, you may remember that General Motors leased a vehicle called the EV1 in the early 1990's.

If you believe the conspiracy theorists, the car was killed by (1) a lack of consumer enthusiasm, (2) limited battery range (3) the oil companies (4) car companies (5) the United States Government (6) the California Air Resources Bureau and (7) the hydrogen fuel cell.

Although there may be a grain of truth in all of the above, the reason that the EV-1 failed is simply because it wasn't the best product, and it also wasn't the best time to release an all electric vehicle.

In 2010, the auto companies, the utilities, and the government are finally working in concert to get electric vehicle produced. Carlos Ghosn, chairman of both Renault and Nissan, has predicted that 10% of America's auto fleet will be electric by 2020. To be perfectly honest, I think that he is being conservative in his estimates.

This time around, things should be different.

The government, the utilities, and car companies are starting to work together. One example of this new outlook is the fact that San Francisco will soon be the first city in the country that will require new construction to be wired for car chargers, and other cities are sure to follow.

The California Public Utilities Commission, whose headquarters are in San Francisco, has brought together utilities, automakers and charging station companies in an urgent effort to write the new rules of the road.

Of the 4 electric vehicles that will be in production within the next year, the LEAF is likely to be the one that will have the broadest acceptance in the marketplace.

If you'd like to motor into the future without using a drop of gasoline, stop by your nearest Nissan dealer.

Your reservation is waiting.