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Slovak church’s work of mercy buries 7 unclaimed remains

Parish will continue to serve local funeral home, nursing facility with burials

Published: September 12, 2019   
Photo courtesy Amy Lisko
Parishioners of Sts. Cyril and Methodius Church in Slovak, friends and local nursing home staff gather following Mass Aug. 22 to bury parishioner Carol Stanton as well as unclaimed cremains of six people from a local nursing home and funeral home. Pastor Father Shaun Wesley said they were following the corporal works of mercy to bury the dead. See page 7.

Carol Stanton’s piercing blue eyes and cheery demeanor warmly greeted fellow residents at Maple Healthcare nursing home in Hazen. Perfectly comfortable in sweatpants with her long black hair pulled back, she enjoyed her role as resident council president, everything from helping newcomers feel at home to sitting between those who struggled to find the right numbers on their bingo cards to assist them.

“She was a very smart lady. She loved to do crossword puzzles. I could print out 30 puzzles for that woman and she’d have them done in a week,” said Maple Healthcare social director Janet Bridges.

The 67-year-old was a voracious reader, a former world traveler growing up as a military brat,  but above all, she was a woman devoted to her Catholic faith.

“Let me tell you, she always talked about prayer, the power of prayer. She really believed in her faith … There was one thing she’d always say, “Well, the best thing for us to do is pray about,” said Virginia Lisko, who brought her Communion for the 12 years she lived in the nursing home.

Stanton died Aug. 1 from various health complications. Her life, like so many others with no family, could have easily been forgotten.

But thanks to her parish family at Sts. Cyril and Methodius Church in Slovak, her cremation was paid, a funeral Mass held and she received a proper burial at the parish’s cemetery.

She was not alone — the church, upon learning that the nursing home and the local funeral home had six unclaimed cremains, gave each a proper burial at the Slovak Catholic Cemetery. 

“We felt a strong need when someone dies they should be buried. Even though we believe their soul is gone, as Catholics, we still honor their body and physical remains. (Instead of having the cremains) hanging around a closet or under a desk, we knew we could do something better for them,” said pastor Father Shaun Wesley.

Barbara Kemmis, executive director for Cremation Association of North America, said it’s estimated that there are millions of unclaimed cremains throughout North America, which can mean they are kept at a funeral home or in person’s possession, neither scattered nor buried. Kemmis explained in an email that just because ashes are unclaimed, does not always mean “abandoned as there are various reasons cremated remains stay at the funeral home or in a person’s possession.”

“I think the Catholic Church through its cemeteries has modeled the memorialization ideal of placing cremated remains to rest in peace,” she said. “This placement does not preclude families from retrieving those remains and moving them in the future, but ensures a dignified resting place.”

Kemmis, who has spoken at the Catholic Cemeteries Conference, said other Catholic churches in the country have offered burial for unclaimed remains. 

“It’s a beautiful thing and it makes us all feel good to know these people deserve to rest in peace,” she told Arkansas Catholic.

Byrum Kelly, owner and director of Westbrook Funeral Home in Hazen, said it’s bothered him to have unclaimed cremains. Though cremation does require family approval or a court order — a niece was located for Stanton who approved her cremation — no one is obligated to claim their relative.

“We just keep them in a closet. I’ve had really some 10 years, 12 years. It’s sad,” he said, adding it can stem from financial issues or no close relatives. “Some of them have family that just never picked them up.”

Father Wesley and Lisko, parish secretary and friend of Stanton’s, visited with both Bridges and Kelly to go forward with giving Stanton a proper burial.

“We were her family,” Lisko said, adding she and parishioners Kerry Longnecker and Susan Lisko brought Stanton Communion and visited her in the hospital when her health issues became serious before her death.

“I’m going to cry,” Bridges said, struggling to explain her friendship with Stanton. Whenever either was struggling in life, “We’d cry, we’d pray. We’d cry and we’d pray. She was my friend too. I’m sorry,” she said, trying to hold back tears.

If the parish hadn’t stepped in to assist with Stanton’s cremation and burial, Maple Healthcare had planned to keep her ashes, like Bridges had done for the past four and half years with former residents Delbert Moore and Eddie Galbreath. She had found both sets of ashes — Delbert in a box with information on it and Eddie in a bag, with only a numbered tag — in the corner of a closet at the nursing home.

“It broke my heart to think their family, if they had any family, didn’t want them. And they weren’t being remembered. They were forgotten … I’ve changed offices at least four times and Delbert and Eddie go with me,” Bridges said.

Though others had offered to take them in the past, she kept them under her desk.

“I was just never comfortable. God never gave me peace,” until speaking with Father Wesley and Lisko. “Not only did God send me two angels, they sent me a whole church full.”

The proposal, to bury all six cremains including four unclaimed at the funeral home, in addition to Stanton, was approved quickly by the parish council.

“One of our Corporal Works of Mercy is to bury the dead, and we have these people floating around at the nursing home and funeral home. We should offer them a place to be buried in our cemetery,” Father Wesley said.

On Aug. 22, during the 6 p.m. Thursday Mass, a wreath with seven white roses, made by a parishioner, rested along with seven urns at the altar. About 24 people, including parishioners and nursing home employees, paid their respects to Stanton and the six others.

The faithful processed to the cemetery where each was buried after the Mass, their names, birth and death dates read aloud with each burial.

“It makes me feel good as a pastor that we all saw that need together,” Father Wesley said of his parishioners. 

The church will purchase a monument and individual name plaques.

Kelly said, “Whether they were Catholic or not, they were at least having a proper ceremony and are buried.” 

Father Wesley said in the future, they plan to assist the local nursing home and funeral home with other unclaimed cremains.

“Our cemetery has more space than we’ll need in the next 50 years,” he said. “… By us doing this, we’d really like to encourage other Catholic churches, especially ones that have their own cemeteries, to do the same thing.”

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