The 14 seemingly forgotten people whose bodies lie unclaimed at the regional morgue in Woodbury died months ago of natural causes.
They died in their homes or in medical facilities, and they died as they had been living — alone.
Police, social workers, and others have tried to locate surviving relatives, talking to neighbors and looking for return addresses on pieces of personal mail.
No one, or at least no one able or willing to bear the burden of taking possession and arranging for the disposition of their kin’s remains, has come forward.
But soon, even if no one steps in to claim them, the 12 men and two women will be given a proper burial.
James Crockett. Jimmy Rooper. William H. Kyle III. Roy S. Vassuer Jr. Shawn Edmonds. Jack Portela. Alma Bruck. Charles Jess. William Fazio. George Meyer. Elija Richardson. Jayne Eadie. John Stewart. William Burke.
“Someone loved them,” said Linda Lee Lacy, president of the Eglington Cemetery Co. in Gloucester County. “They deserve to be buried with the utmost respect.”
The company provides burial sites for the morgue’s unclaimed bodies at Eglington Cemetery in Clarksboro and at Woodbury Memorial Park in West Deptford at no charge to the Gloucester-Camden-Salem Medical Examiner’s Office.
The sending county pays to have the grave opened and covers other costs associated with the burials. Camden County also works with funeral directors and clergy, and inters unclaimed remains in a sprawling, centuries-old cemetery at the Lakeland complex in Blackwood. Gloucester is reimbursed for those it buries from Salem.
“It’s been very smooth,” said Lacy. “We’ll get a phone call telling us ‘There will be two people coming,’ and they say what funeral directors will be handling the service.”
On Feb. 7, the regional medical examiner’s office published a legal notice listing the names of the people whose bodies have remained unclaimed since their deaths in the second half of last year. The notification generally is issued twice a year as part of a process to regularly free up space and clear the morgue of bodies.
Eleven members of the current unclaimed group are from Camden County and the others are under the jurisdiction of Gloucester County. Those wishing to claim a body should call Medical Examiner Gerard Feigin, MD, at 856-218-4190.
If family members or others do not come forward by March 9, the bodies will be buried immediately. The family of Karin Sandor, the 15th on the list, recently contacted the Medical Examiner’s Office, officials said.
“Just because these people were not claimed doesn’t mean their lives were not important,” said Gloucester County Freeholder Jim Jefferson. “It is our responsibility to make sure that they … receive a respectful burial.”
It’s gratifying to know that in a time when society seems ever less civil, certain conventions are still honored.
But the sad implications of a body lying unclaimed in a morgue for months are difficult to contemplate. And there is scant information about the lives these people led.
Bruck, the oldest among the 14, was 100 when she died in a Cherry Hill nursing home on Nov. 25 last year.
Edmonds, 49, of Camden, succumbed to complications from diabetes on Sept. 24 and likely was the youngest of the group.
Crockett was homeless and had been staying in the Mayfair Motel in Turnersville when he died on July 28 at Jefferson Washington Township Hospital.
Kyle, 76, had a job and was found dead at his home on Nov. 13 after his employer contacted Washington Township police.
“There aren’t a lot of stories to tell. That’s the sad part,” said Debra Sellitto, the Gloucester County spokeswoman.
Said the Rev. Vincent McDonald, who has officiated at some of the funerals. “I believe God cares about every one of these individuals, even though life may have taken them on a rugged path.
“I don’t know how their lives got disconnected from everybody else, but they are somebody’s son, somebody’s daughter,” added McDonald, the pastor of Immanuel Baptist Church in Maple Shade.
The Rev. Floyd L. White III, director of Camden County Office of Veterans Affairs, also has officiated at these services.
“We thank God for the life of the deceased and we pray for them,” White said. “Sometimes we’ll sing a verse of `Amazing Grace,’ and then we’ll have the committal.”
Offering a tour of Eglington’s 60 rolling acres in the charming heart of Clarksboro, Lacy provided tidbits about some of the more elaborate tombs.
She also regaled a couple of visitors with tales of the luminaries cremated (Zero Mostel, Eugene Ormandy) or buried (Thorofare’s tragic auto racing star Jackie McLaughlin, ’50s pop singer Joanie Weber) there.
In the early 2000s, she said, a cigar-smoking Ben Affleck and his co-star Jennifer Lopez shot a scene for the film Jersey Girl in the cemetery.
It’s apparent that the dozen or so unclaimed bodies already buried on the gentle slope in Eglington’s Section 29 also are special to Lacy.
“I like to think they were all wonderful people,” she said.
While their graves at Eglington and Woodbury have no visible markers, the names of the deceased and the location of each grave are recorded and available to visitors — as unlikely as that prospect may seem.
However, McDonald said he got a phone call several years ago from the sister of a woman whose body lay unclaimed and at whose funeral he had officiated.
The sister had read an online story about the service, said she had lost track of her sister, and thanked him for providing her some closure.
“Someday, someone will come to visit these people,” Lacy said. “I like to think that way.”