County coro­ner lays ‘for­got­ten’ souls to rest

The Phoenix - - LOCAL NEWS - By Michael P. Rel­la­han mrel­la­[email protected]­tu­ry­

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.

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