On a Monday morning, Phil Walter, cemetery caretaker at St. John the Baptist Church in Alden, was reviewing his tasks for the day with Pastoral Administrator Deborah Brown. Phil casually mentioned to Brown. "You know, there's a body in the toolshed."
"My pulse quickened, and I looked at Phil, trying to maintain my composure. I think I just said, 'Oh? Tell me more,'" said Brown.
Phil became very serious as he told her about helping to clean out an acquaintance's trailer over the weekend, when he found a box labeled "Cremains: Walter J. Ostrowski." His friend, who had recently bought the trailer, said they were left by the previous owner. "Just get rid of them," his friend said.
Phil, who has worked at St. John's Cemetery for over 40 years, was not about to simply dispose of the ashes in a convenient trash can. "It just isn't right," he said, shaking his head. "I used to dig graves by hand. I've been involved in many, many funerals, and I know how these remains should be handled." He knew that the ashes he held in his hands had once been a person and therefore deserved to be treated with reverence and respect; as a Catholic he was taught that "to bury the dead" is one of the Seven Corporal Works of Mercy.
Phil brought the cremains to St. John's and carefully locked them away in the toolshed until he could speak to Brown. During their conversation, Phil suggested that they inter the ashes in the potter's field within St. John's Cemetery. As they investigated further, Brown and the caretaker found that although the area is marked on the cemetery map, there are no records of who is buried in St. John's potter's field. "Interring a body there would likely disturb the remains of those previously buried, so we thought we should look for another solution," Brown said.
Confident that Phil could find another place in the cemetery, Brown tackled the next obstacle. She wanted to make sure the interment could be done legally. She called the Charles Meyer Funeral Home. Charles Meyer, himself, answered, and explained that the place to start was with the identification coin that is tied to all cremains. The coin contains an ID number and is placed with cremains by the crematorium. If Meyer could look at Mr. Ostrowski's number, he could verify identity, look up an obituary, and try to contact next of kin. Brown brought the cremains to the funeral home, and Meyer began searching for relatives, but found no one in his search.
Everyone who decides that they are to be cremated also decides what they want done with their ashes when they die, in a document called a "Designation of Intentions." The document is signed twice, once with the crematorium and once with the funeral home. There is a clause in the document that says if the cremains are not claimed within 120 days from the date of cremation, the funeral home may dispose of the cremains. Since Charles could not find next of kin, and since the 120-day limit was long past, he was able to release Mr. Ostrowski's cremains to St. John's for burial.
Meyer discussed this with Tracey Golding, a licensed funeral director and owner of Charles Meyer Funeral Home. She asked, "Could we make this a group event?"
The Charles Meyer Funeral Home has 16 other boxes of unclaimed cremains which they have been storing. "We've tried to find family members, but no one has come forward," said Golding. "Death dates on the cremains we have range from December 1943 to September 2014. So I asked St. John's, 'Do you think you could bury them all?'"
"I feel sad whenever I pass the shelves on which we keep these cremains," Tracey commented. "Most of the people were very old; some were residents of the Erie County Home. They may have been the last one of their family, so no one is able to be there for them. They really have no one. Some people we were able to contact were far removed in relationship to these people; they didn't feel a personal connection that would compel them to take charge of the task.
"But these cremains were all people. I don't like just leaving these people on a shelf. We have asked cemeteries to bury them, but we were always given sizeable costs to bury 16 people and it was not something we could afford." So the cremains have stayed with the funeral home. Golding is glad that they will now be laid to rest and is grateful that St. John's Church was willing to perform what she considers a deeply spiritual act of kindness.
There was still the matter of where in the cemetery to bury the cremains. Phil Walter's act of compassion has led to a decision to reserve a small section of St. John's Cemetery, to be named "St. Mary of Sorrows Memorial Garden." A pretty little patch of ground near the back of the current cemetery will be fenced and prepared to receive the cremains. The 17 boxes of cremains will be buried together in a plastic watertight container, which will make it easy to disinter and identify the individuals, should anyone ever come forward to claim them. Plans are underway for a plaque to be made, to identify those buried there. No longer will they be unknown and forgotten.
On Nov. 2, the cremains arrived at St. John's Cemetery, brought by a hearse from the Charles Meyer Funeral Home. They were buried with a brief graveside prayer service conducted by Father James Walter, a priest who serves as a sacramental minister at St. John's. "Nov. 2 is All Souls' Day, which in many Christian traditions is a day to remember the dead. It's the perfect day for the service. Students from the eighth grade at St. John's School will have an active role in it, so they can live out what they are learning in their religion classes." They, like Phil once did, are learning the Corporal Works of Mercy.
"As we lay these people to rest, as a sign of our hope in the resurrection and our belief that the body is a temple of the Holy Spirit, we have a unique opportunity to gather and reflect." said Brown.