Sweet Dreams Little Ones: Walter Martens & Sons Funeral Home lay to rest unclaimed infant remains

by Victoria Shea

(Plain Press, June 2018)    Under an overcast sky, the staff of Walter Martens & Sons Funeral Home, located on Denison Avenue, laid to rest the cremated remains of six infants whose services the firm had handled but whose remains were never claimed.

The stories behind what happened in regards to why these remains were never claimed, for some, will remain a mystery. One mother, who did step forward, told Walter Martens, Jr., a licensed funeral director at the firm, that she was never aware that her son was never picked up. The mother, who had since remarried, said that when her son, now known as Daniel Raymond, passed away, she was sick in the hospital. Daniel’s twin was fighting for her life for almost six weeks. She said that family members, mainly her mother, had handled the services for her son and told her that “everything had been taken care of.” The mother said she realized it hadn’t been taken care of when she read online the death notice which listed her son’s last name and year of birth.

Martens said that when she called the funeral home, all the information she was providing was matching what the funeral home had on record. “She knew the date of birth, that he was a twin, she knew where the birth had taken place,” Martens said. “She was confident this was her child.”

Staff at the funeral home helped with the preparation of the burial as well. A grave was purchased at Riverside Cemetery on Pearl Road in “Babyland.” A personalized casket was provided. Office staff worked together to design a headstone to be placed on the grave in mid-summer. Martens said that the outpouring of support from his staff was touching and an excellent way to celebrate the life of these infants.

“All of the infants that come through here have a family who loves them,” Martens said, “and are there when the final disposition takes place. For these little ones, the funeral home staff was the only ‘family’ they had left.”

However, that never stopped the funeral home staff from attempting to locate the families of the infants. Letters were often sent to addresses left on files. Phone calls were made. But to no avail. “The last attempt,” Martens said, “was to run the death notice in the newspaper and hope someone saw it.”

An attorney for the funeral home, Donald Ferfolia, also a licensed funeral director himself agreed when the funeral home contacted him about running a notice. Ferfolia said that in a court of law if someone were to take the funeral home to court over the burial that the notice could be used because it was in a mass publication and therefore the funeral home had attempted to locate families.

At a small funeral home service held on Friday night and held mainly for the staff as a way to gain some closure, the mother who came forward told funeral home staff how grateful she was that the death notice had run. She said that she was able to hold him “for the first time” and give him a name, as she never knew it was a son. His sister, an engineer, agreed that it was nice to meet the “brother I always felt I had finally.” Both agreed it was nice to have a sense of closure, especially since they would know where he would be.

At the graveside service on Saturday, Pastor James Beight, the former pastor of Madison Avenue Baptist Church on Madison Avenue and West 95th Street, spoke of how “heaven is for the little children” and shared with those in attendance the story of King David. “Before the child died, David was inconsolable, refusing to eat and drink,” Beight said. “But after the child died, David washed and dressed, ate and worshiped, shocking the servants. When asked about his behavior, he said ‘I shall go to him, but he will not return to me.’ ”

One mother in attendance thanked the funeral home for holding the service, explaining that she was in attendance because she too had lost an infant many years ago and was unable to attend the services of her child. She said that something kept telling her to attend the service to find some comfort and closure for her loss. Another woman in attendance said she came because she “didn’t want them to be buried alone without anyone there who cared.” A gentleman from hospice came as well and shared a story about how a patient of his who was near death was seeing her infant daughter who had passed away years before her mother. He explained, that while he didn’t understand how or why, it offered hope that these infants would still be with their loved ones.

Martens says that he hopes this will encourage others who may have family members remains at his funeral home to come forward and claim them. “Regardless of whether or not the funeral home is owed money, we are required by law to release the remains to a family. We hope that other families will be able to find closure like Daniel’s family did.”

The funeral home’s office staff agrees and are currently working on complying a detailed list of the adult remains that have been left at the funeral home. Martens says that with the adults, burying the remains becomes more difficult.

“The law states that for anyone over the age of 18, we have to contact the National Cemetery Administration to see if any of them qualify for burial at a national military cemetery,” Martens said. “If they do, then they will be buried at the national cemetery, and those who qualify for military honors will receive them. If they do not qualify for burial, then the search for their loved ones will continue.”

When asked what the funeral home’s plans will be regarding the burial of those remains, Martens said that the funeral home had been generously willed a grave for the burial of remains when the person who owns the grave passes away. That grave will also be at Riverside Cemetery.

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