County coroner lays ‘forgotten’ souls to rest
And in the end, they were not forsaken.
On Nov. 8, under a shining sun and a blue sky, on a day cooled by an autumn wind whipping across a green field, the remains of 52 people who had largely been abandoned in death were finally laid to rest.
The unique memorial event was organized by the Chester County Coroner’s Office, which had kept watch over the cremated remains of those “forgotten souls,” as they had been known in the past, after no family, loved ones, or friends could be found to claim them for burial.
Coroner Dr. Christina VandePol, speaking at the event held outside the mausoleum of the Philadelphia Memorial Park in East Whiteland, said she determined to do something to honor the men and woman who had been under her office’s care since their death. She told the assembled gathering of about two dozen people that the idea came to her after speaking with the parents of a young man who died of an accidental overdose.
“So that’s it, then?” she recalled the father saying. “He’s just another statistic.” Her mission was to insure that the remains of the unclaimed were not just numbers in a ledger.
“We are here to make sure these souls are not forgotten, and give them some sort of dignity and respect in death,” VandePol said.
The Rev. Robert P. Garrett of Downingtown led the group in prayer, quoting from Psalms that spoke of how David felt abandoned but came to realize that the Lord abandons none. “God is a father to the fatherless, and the protector of widows,” Garett said. “He said I will never leave you, nor forsake you. The Lord is our helper.”
There were flowers an inspirational music — provided by West Chester University music professor Mark Rimpel and a bluegrass combo, Carter, Hill & Hobson. There was quiet reflection and prayers, and the singing of “Amazing Grace.”
The service was attended by several county elected officials, including commissioners Vice Chairwoman Kathi Cozzone, Prothonotary Matt Holliday, Controller Margaret Reif and Clerk of Courts Yolanda Van de Krol
Although VandePol said much of the history of the vast majority of the people whose remains came into her office’s custody was unknown, she tried to put some context to the names of three of the departed — two whose names she changed to hide their identities and one who was a longtime county employee.
“Louise” was a woman who grew up surrounded by family, but who sank into estrangement as her mental illness grew over the years, VandePol said. When her parents died she lost touch with siblings over the years, and eventually died in a rented trailer home outside Coatesville. “She left no note. She called no one. She took her own life,” VandePol said.
“Frank” was a janitor who, too, lost touch with family over the years, including a daughter and a brother. Though he worked and kept house, he also drank to the point of causing liver damage that proved fatal.
Their stories, VandePol, were similar to many of the county’s residents, even though they live in the healthiest and wealthiest county in the state. “We have tried to do the best for them,” she said. “I hope this service inspires all of us to do the best for all of those who have less.”
VandePol, however, pointed happily to the colleagues of the of the interred, Tom Clay, who died at age 86 in a senior living facility in Uwchlan in 2015. For more than a dozen years, he worked as an aide at the Henrietta Hankin Library in West Vincent. His co-workers had held a memorial service for him after his death, but no one was able to claim the body. When they heard of VandePol’s intention to have the service, they made it a point to attend and tell his story.
“I am so glad for this,” said one of his colleagues, who praised Cole’s wit and work ethic. “I did not want him to be just stuffed in a drawer somewhere.”
The names of the 52 deceased were read in turn by VandePol, Coroner’s Office employees Patty Emmons and Maryann Higbee, and Phoenixville Mayor Peter J. Urscheler.
The assembled group sang three verses of “Amazing Grace,” the hymn that tells of being once lost but now found.
“Yea, when this flesh and heart shall fail, and mortal life shall cease,” those sitting in honor of the dead sang. “I shall possess within the veil a life of joy and peace.”
The remains of 52 people who had largely been abandoned in death were finally laid to rest in West Chester.