The afterlife of publicist Michael Sands is becoming as bizarre and puzzling as his career.
At issue in the death of Sands, who died April 6 after choking to death on a piece of steak at the upscale Century City supermarket Gelson's, is a bitter, simmering family feud between family members on the east and west coasts.
A Hollywood press agent, sometime actor, male model and cheesecake maker, Sands boasted he was an undercover CIA operative who helped capture the Arab terrorist who hijacked the Achille Lauro cruise ship in 1985.
His 17-year-old son, Nick, wants to have his father buried in a traditional Jewish ceremony in a Jewish cemetery in Los Angeles.
But because Nick is still a minor, Sands' sister Barbara Promicell is considered next of kin, with control over the fate of the body, which is about to be released from Cedars Sinai Medical Center to a crematorium.
“No, he is not (going to be buried)” Promicell told TheWrap.
Promicell, who lives in the Boston area, wants to cremate Sands' body and put his ashes into a commemorative funeral urn of his favorite NHL team, the Boston Bruins.
Those remains would reside in her bedroom so she can talk to him at night, Rabbi Jerry Cutler of Creative Arts Temple in the Westwood, who has known the publicist for more than 40 years and has been in contact with Promicell, told TheWrap.
The aunt refused to comment beyond this terse statement: “He was a nice guy who would do anything for you,” she said. “I miss him.”
Nick, a Beverly Hills High School junior, is just as adamant about the fate of his father. "My dad was against cremation," he said "He will be buried in Los Angeles!"
Michael Sands had another sibling, Stephen Shapiro, but he has not yet materialized.
Nick Sands told TheWrap he has engaged the services of attorney Mark Freeman to block his aunt's wishes. The son and his aunt have had a strained relationship, said Rabbi Cutler, whose temple has included actors like Lee J. Cobb, Milton Berle and Elizabeth Taylor.
Cutler said Sands’ son has Jewish tradition on his side: “Cremation is against Jewish law. You bury; you do not cremate. You leave the body intact. The Bible says from dust thou art and to dust you shall return.”
Jewish law, he said, also prohibits autopsies, and it is still not yet known if an autopsy has been performed on Sands, whose body is still awaiting disposition.
“Your body is supposed to buried by the next day,” Cutler said.
But while she may not have Jewish law on her side, California law gives Promicell the right to make decisions about the fate of her brother’s remains.
“The sister is the next of kin,” one expert told TheWrap. “Everybody’s hands are bound, if no one has power of attorney or there is no will mentioning burial plans. The power goes to the next of blood who can do whatever he or she wants — like sending his ashes to the moon. No one else can interfere.”
Since his father’s death, Nick has been in the custody of his mother, Miriam, who has been living in Atlanta, Ga. Mother and son have had an off-and-on relationship recently, with Sands basically taking on the role of single parent.
“There was no doubt that Sands was an active and devoted single parent," said Cutler, who performed Nick's bar mitzvah. "Everything he did was very much about Nick. He was like a clucking hen."
The two were inseparable with the father always present at his son’s football, track and wrestling matches, Cutler said. The elder Sands would often take his son to U.S. military bases in California and had Nick taking flying lessons in his early teens.
It is not known if anyone will pursue any legal claims against Gelson’s, the Westfield shopping center or the food purveyor who gave the dead man the slice of meat that may have been crucial to his collapse and subsequent death. It is known, however, that Sands had narrow airways due to Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease.
One thing that's for sure: Promicell may have a difficult time finding a Boston Bruin burial urn or, for that matter, any official NHL funeral urns. A survey of NHL memorabilia websites finds there are no such items available.
And while Cutler said he finds Promicell's plan to put her brother’s ashes into a professional hockey team urn quite unusual, he did add that Bostonians are "avid fans of their athletic teams, the Celtics, the Bruins, the Red Sox. They are, in this case, die-hards.”