By Penny Wiegert
WINNEBAGO, Ill. (CNS) — What began as an idea of some folks at St. Peter Parish in South Beloit, Illinois, resulted in a beautiful corporal work of mercy for 243 people.
The cremated remains of these individuals — unclaimed, unburied and some even unmourned — were finally put to rest with dignity and respect Jan. 24 thanks to the combined efforts of the Winnebago County Coroner’s Office and Calvary Catholic Cemetery in Winnebago, which is in the Rockford Diocese.
After receiving an inquiry from South Beloit parishioners about what could be done to help bury the growing inventory of unclaimed cremated remains stored for years in boxes and bags, the Winnebago County coroner and the cemetery worked together to provide a proper resting place.
“We have worked consistently for I would say at least six months to work on the details, paperwork and logistics of transferring the remains of these folks to Calvary,” said Ken Giambalvo, diocesan director of the Catholic cemeteries office.
Some of the remains had been stored by the coroner’s office for as long as 20 years, according to coroner spokesperson Mark Karner.
Over the past six months, finding a place of respect and dignity became the pet project of Rob Baumgartner, an investigator in the coroner’s office.
Baumgartner said Winnebago County has looked at multiple ways to inter the remains, but each time obstacles got in the way.
One of the biggest obstacles, he said, was finding a place where the remains could be interred and uninterred if someone should come forward to claim their loved ones.
“There have been many ideas presented over the years of where to put these folks. But it all comes back to being able to present the remains to family when requested. The county cemetery has no mausoleum. That’s why working with Calvary has been an awesome solution,” Baumgartner told The Observer, newspaper of the Rockford Diocese.
Having a mausoleum and columbarium, Calvary Cemetery is equipped to receive, bury and inter cremated remains. For years, as part of its Catholic ministry, it has assisted with the burial of fetal remains and helped those who are financially destitute.
Calvary Cemetery offered to donate a crypt in which to inter all of the cremated remains stored by Winnebago County.
New containers were ordered for each individual’s remains. They were documented in county and cemetery databases — a crucial step should a family member come forward to claim an individual’s cremated remains. Each container was then labeled and tagged.
Baumgartner said there are many factors as to why a person’s remains would be unclaimed, including the deceased being alone or indigent; lack of family resources; failure to locate next of kin; or the deceased was unidentified.
In some instances, the cremated remains were abandoned in storage units and even a bus stop locker, and the coroner’s office took possession of them until next of kin could be located.
But the most prevalent reason, and a growing one, for the dead to go unclaimed, Baumgartner explained, is because families have been estranged or are so disenfranchised they are not interested in, or capable of, taking responsibility for making funeral arrangements.
“That’s why we are so grateful to give these folks some dignity and respect at Calvary,” Baumgartner said.
-And that’s exactly what the 20 or so officials and mourners from Winnebago County’s Sheriff’s office and its Coroner’s Office including Sheriff Gary Caruana, Chief Deputy Rick Ciganek and Winnebago County Board Chairman Joseph Chiarelli, provided on a cold snowy Monday morning.
Rockford Bishop David J. Malloy and Sherman Nichols, who is Winnebago County chaplain and pastor of Rockford’s Central Christian Church, presided over a prayer and committal service for the cremated remains.
Using a combination of prayers and a sermon from Nichols and the Catholic prayers for the dead and committal, Bishop Malloy began with thanks for all those who came to witness and mourn along with the two clergymen.
“I’m very grateful and proud of the efforts and generosity that have been undertaken to make this possible, for these, our brothers and sisters who have walked before us, to be appropriately recorded and put to rest,” Bishop Malloy said.
Nichols said normally at funeral services he would speak about the person after collecting testimonies from friends and loved ones of the deceased’s contributions, family connections and their faith. It is a conversation of memories that he said “helps us in our grief, to have hope. Those are the kinds of things we look at to try to ascribe value to a person.”
“So what can we say about 243 people — to speak about their value as human beings? Some of them died many years ago. We are here in an effort to acknowledge something. I think that something is that their lives mattered,” he said.
When God created all humans in his image, “God said that every person’s life is significant,” Nichols said. “He didn’t say that one life was more valuable than another. God did establish all human life when he sent Jesus to redeem every human who would accept him. In that, he established the value of all people.”
“There needs to be a good reason to value the lives of all people of all ages, of all backgrounds, of all abilities, of all cultures and of all times. That’s it,” he continued. “God created all peoples in his image. He gave his son for the salvation of every person who would accept it.
“When he did that, he pronounced our value. Every person. So that’s a good reason for us to gather to do this. In fact, it’s the best reason.”
Nichols concluded with a prayer to honor God for giving every human great value.
Bishop Malloy then said the prayers of committal and blessed the cremated remains and the crypt where they will rest.
Mourners took some time after the brief ceremony to read the labels on each person’s container.
Marcy Giambalvo, who helped document and prepare the cremated remains, explained that the whole process for her “was very emotional” especially, she said, when she was processing and documenting the unclaimed infants’ remains.
Wiegert is editor of The Observer, newspaper of the Diocese of Rockford.