by Victoria Shea
(Plain Press, December 2017) The sight of a fully decorated Christmas tree is something that many do not expect to see in their local funeral homes. But those in the Lorain-Denison neighborhood would be surprised to not see it, as it has become a symbol of hope during what many describe as the most difficult part of the year.
At Walter Martens & Sons Funeral Home, 9811 Denison Avenue, the annual Tree of Remembrance has remained a comforting sight since 1990 when the late Bernadine Martens, the wife of funeral director Walter Martens, Jr created what has become a holiday tradition.
“Bernadine got the idea after she read an article in a trade journal,” Martens said, as he reflected on his wife’s program. “A funeral home in Arizona was doing something very similar to what we continue to do now.”
The driving force behind the Tree of Remembrance came in 1989 when Walter’s father, Walter Martens Sr., died and Walter Jr. and Bernadine found themselves with several small children left grieving the loss of their grandfather.
“Our oldest at the time was 14 and our youngest was five.” Martens said. “After my father’s passing, Bernadine knew it was the right time to do it.”
The Tree of Remembrance program consists of two parts: the first is the decorating of the ornaments, and the second, is the actual ceremony.
Families come to the funeral home starting on the Friday after Thanksgiving until the second Friday of December to decorate an ornament in honor of their loved ones. Then, those ornaments are placed on a live tree until the dedication of the tree, normally the second or third Saturday of December.
“While decorating the ornaments for their loved ones have special meaning for those grieving, it is the actual ceremony that I feel, continues to help the families.” Martens said. “Anybody can decorate an ornament, but when you are sitting in a room with upwards of a hundred, other people who are experiencing similar emotions and feelings as you are, it reminds you that you aren’t alone on this journey.”
The dedication and ceremony lasts just over an hour, and consists of the formal dedication of the tree and all the ornaments on it. Following the ceremony, there is a reading of those the Martens family served over the last twelve months and an opportunity for others present to remember loved ones from past years or those served by a different funeral home.
“The reading of the necrology has to be the hardest part of the ceremony.” Martens said. “Other than the voice of those reading the names, a hush comes over the room and those present as they reflect and remember.”
The last part of the service is a candlelight ceremony, led by various staff members. As candles in a wreath are lit, those present are given a final chance to reflect, remember and celebrate their loved ones.
The Tree of Remembrance is already under way this year, as Martens and his staff have already started to see families come in and decorate their ornaments in anticipation of the holiday season. Many who come, Martens says, will be repeats who have embraced the Tree of Remembrance and have made it part of their annual holiday tradition.
“When Bernadine started this in 1990, she always hoped that it would give grieving people a chance to remember that the holidays didn’t have to be as dark and depressing as people think it has to be. Her hope was that this would become a tradition of hope, which it has.”
When asked if there are any plans for discontinuing the program, Martens has stated that for long as people show interest in it, his family will continue it, not just as a tribute to their own family members who have passed, but to all those who need a little hope during the holiday season.
“This is what Bernadine had in mind when she created this program, that it would become something to help others, which is what she was always good at. And after twenty-seven years, I know she would be pleased to know that it continues to work for the community.”
This year’s ceremony will hold even more emotions and memories for the Martens family, as it would have been the 101st birthday of Walter’s mother Pauline who passed earlier this year.
“Mom always enjoyed attending the ceremony,” Martens said. “She always felt that it was the nicest thing that we were able to do for our families during the holidays.”
This year’s Tree of Remembrance ceremony will be held on Saturday, December 16th at 5PM at Walter Martens Funeral Home, 9811 Denison Avenue. Those wishing to decorate ornaments for their loved ones are welcomed seven days a week from now until Friday, December 15th from 10AM to 8 PM.