By 9 a.m. Saturday, the chairs inside the chapel at Mount Calvary Mausoleum were nearly full as Bishop Peter Libasci of Manchester opened the morning’s mass.
Just a few feet away from where Libasci spoke, on a table draped in a bright purple cloth, sat rows upon rows of boxes — some cardboard, some only a few inches wide —and several urns.
“Brothers and sisters, we gather today for a most solemn, most thoughtful and precious moment,” Libasci began. “Those who have been perhaps forgotten, those who have no place to rest, are being brought here now, their earthly remains, to be entombed, as was Jesus — who had no place to rest, but by the goodness of Joseph of Arimathea, who is still proclaimed in the scripture for all these generations, for his kindness.”
The list of those remains, which was read aloud as part of the service, was long — some 62 names in all. (An initial list of individuals newly resting at Mount Calvary can be found here, though some were added later.)
While a few birthdates are unknown, some were as old as 94, 95 and 98. Four of the remains belonged to infants who were not even a day old.
But all of their remains were, until now, sitting unclaimed at funeral homes around Manchester. They belonged to people as nearby as Hooksett and Concord, as far away as Franklin, Rochester and Lebanon.
And, according to those in the funeral industry, there could be a lot reasons why they were never claimed.
“We do have homeless people, so there was no next-of-kin. Inmates, from prison. Families didn’t want to get involved,” explained Roger Gosselin, a licensed funeral director from Phaneuf Funeral Homes and Crematorium. “And then we honor our service for families that want cremation, and then they never seem to call us back to pick up their loved ones. There’s some cremains here since 1978.”
Under New Hampshire law, funeral homes must hold onto cremated remains for 60 days. After that they can dispose of them if they’ve made a “reasonable attempt” to get in touch with the person responsible for the remains — but the law’s ambiguous on what that means.
Often, though, funeral officials will still keep the remains, for years or sometimes decades after someone’s death.
That was the case with all of the remains included in Saturday’s service. Now, they’ll have a final resting place inside the mausoleum at Mount Calvary Cemetery in Manchester, inside a crypt named for Joseph of Arimathea.
“We’ve been thinking of the last couple of years of this,” says Kevin Cody, the superintendent at Mount Calvary and Holy Cross Cemetery in Londonderry.
“Other dioceses in the United States have done this, where they’ve opened up the crypts to people that might not have the funds to inter their loved ones. We in the last six months have really looked at this and said this is something we wanted to do, and we were very inspired by the pope’s message of mercy through the year of mercy.”
Saturday morning’s service coincided with a regular monthly mausoleum mass. So some who attended were there for loved ones who recently died.
Irene Bergeron, from Hooksett, saw a notice about the special ceremony for the unclaimed remains in the obituary section of the Union Leader. She moved by the idea of honoring strangers whose remains had otherwise been abandoned.
“When I saw the babies that were left unclaimed, having had that happen to me when I was very young — the loss of a child — I can’t imagine,” she said Saturday morning. “You know I’m not judging or anything, but I can’t imagine how, the places people have to be in to not claim their child.”
“My child is buried here at the Mount Calvary cemetery,” Bergeron added. “So I kind of, it hits a nerve, you know.”
Saturday was the first time Bishop Peter Libasci had presided over this kind of service, but he hopes it’s not the last.
“I would hope that others would follow the lead if they haven’t,” Libasci says. “Maybe it has been done in many places, but certainly this is the first time here. I would like it to be the first of others, so that no one is ever forgotten.”
And the hope is that some of the remains might still one day be claimed. Cody, the cemetery superintendent, says they’ll all be carefully arranged in case of a potential reunion.
“We have to make sure we know where everyone is in that crypt, just in case somebody would come back and say that, you know, those are my loved ones, we’d like to retrieve them,” Cody says.