Inside the room that houses the unclaimed dead at the Chester County coroner’s office | Maria Panaritis
When you die in Pennsylvania's most affluent county and no one claims your body, years you were cremated and stuffed in boxes into a room of a suburban office building — for years. That is now changing in Chester County.
Christina VandePol was startled when she first walked into a locked room inside the Chester County Coroner's Office. Small black boxes were stacked against a white cinder-block wall. Each had a label with a person's name. The containers were four inches high in the evidence room. VandePol, a physician, had just become the first elected female coroner here, and was baffled.
"What is this?" she asked Patty Emmons, the office's longtime right-hand woman. Emmons had done everything, from answering phones to investigating deaths to serving for a time as deputy coroner, over her eight years there.
"Cremains," Emmons replied, "of people who remain unclaimed."
The coroner was staring at the ashes of people who had died and for whom there was no one who cared enough, or who had enough money, to claim them afterward.
Emmons had tried for years to match those forgotten souls with a final resting place. But there was no longer a pauper's cemetery in Pennsylvania's most affluent county. No coroner made it a priority to find cemetery space. So the dead had gone into plastic boxes and then into a closet at the end of a long, white hallway in the basement of the West Chester-area county administration building.
One of the 52 dead people? His ashes had languished in storage for eight years.
"It's just not right," VandePol said, in words that seem so obvious that it's hard to imagine any of her male predecessors thought otherwise.
VandePol has spent part of her first year in office making this right, though the law requires none of her efforts. On Thursday, after the new coroner had secured donated space at Philadelphia Memorial Park in Frazer, the ashes of 52 people in that evidence room were placed into the crypt of a mausoleum there.
"I really took it on as a mission, along with Patty, to say, 'We've got to do something,'" VandePol told me.
"I've been pushing and pushing and pushing," Emmons added, "but she's the first one to follow through."
Some of the people in that room died from suicide. Others from accidental or natural causes. They were young and old, men and women: 68-year-old James Lloyd of Kennett Square, dead in July 2011; James Sturges, a 58-year-old Phoenixville man, dead as of July 2017.
I called to inquire about these people after seeing a news release a few weeks ago seeking next of kin for the county's unclaimed dead. Where were the remains, I wanted to know.
In a closet.
I was even more shocked to learn that under Pennsylvania law, a coroner is required only to seek out next of kin and take possession of unclaimed bodies. If no one comes calling, there is zero mandate to do much more.
Emmons had tried for years to change that. Her thinking: What if someone in her own family ended up in the hands of bureaucrats? Wouldn't she want them to handle those remains with diligence and care?
In the summer of 2017, she tasked an intern with identifying who was inside seven of the boxes. Together they discovered that the group had been military veterans. Emmons had them interred with full honors at Washington Crossing National Cemetery in Bucks County.
The only other group Emmons had helped inter was a group laid to rest in 2012. Afterward, a man called her about one of the dead: Where is my father? I never got to pay my last respects.
The caller had been in prison when his dad died. All he knew was that his brother had refused to take possession of their father's body. Emmons still remembers that call.
I asked both women why this was important to them. VandePol, 70, a physician and mother, said family was a big part of her upbringing. Her parents were Nazi resisters in Europe before immigrating to the United States. The family kept close ties to those back home even after building new lives in America.
Emmons, 67, has three boys, one of whom is a Marine. She used to make the kids send Christmas cards every year to her father, even though, starting in 1984, she and he were estranged. The boys had never met their grandpa in Minnesota.
She found out only two months ago that her father, Martin, had died, some time ago, somewhere in Minnesota. She is still hunting down a death certificate. Then she can figure out who took possession of his body. Maybe, she says, it's in a box in a coroner's office.
"Oh, my God," I exclaimed when she told me this.
"Yeah," she said. "It's a little creepy."
With any luck, she, too, will be led to people who are more than mere bureaucrats but, rather, are people with humanity.