9/11 Aftermath: The Funeral Directing response

Doing Things Right

By Jo Pettit, Executive Director, NSFDA

On September 11, 2001, a great atrocity threw our nation into a war we hoped would never come. Funeral directors, who must face reality daily, were on the front lines immediately.

Members of our local region of DMORT (Disaster Mortuary Operational Response Team – a trained federal team of responders to mass fatalities) were on the scene at once (and the team remained on active deployment for several months). Most of the area’s funeral directors, however, shared the national yearning to “do something, anything, to help.” Hundreds of funeral directors signed volunteer lists and began waiting to be mustered into action. Despite a willingness to leave homes and paychecks, few were called to respond.

Finally, a memorial project involving funeral directors was planned by the New York City’s Mayor’s office to distribute urns to families who wanted a tangible memento of their slain loved one. It was decided that each urn was to be filled with sifted soil from “Ground Zero.” Funeral directors were asked to volunteer to assist firefighters and police in preparing the urns at two locations: One Police Plaza in Manhattan and Fort Totten on Long Island in Queens County. Through a joint effort among the New York State Funeral Directors Association (NYSFDA), Metropolitan Funeral Directors Association (MFDA ) and Nassau-Suffolk Funeral Directors Association (NSFDA), over seventy funeral directors signed up to work shifts of many-hours in various time slots over a seven-day period. Many were called.

Another setback

As alarms went out about further terrorist acts, particularly bioterrorism, security tightened in and around the city. Funeral directors sat and waited … again. Civilian presence at One Police Plaza was labeled a security risk and the police decided to prepare half the urns there without funeral directing help. Firefighters, on the other hand, welcomed funeral directors at Fort Totten.

From Friday, October 19th through Friday, the 26th, about fifty-five funeral directors from MFDA and NSFDA, dressed appropriately in dark colors, aided honor guards of white-gloved firefighters (many who had been at Ground Zero during the actual disaster) in a quiet and dignified “assembly line” in the Fort’s chapel overlooking the Throgs Neck Bridge and New York City.

Toward the rear of the chapel, funeral directors opened and prepared the urns for filling. Once ready, the urns were carried forward by uniformed firefighters to the altar where the honor guard placed approximately one half cup of soil in each urn. The urns were taken back to the funeral directors who sealed them. They then placed the urns in velvet bags (red for firefighters and blue for others) and finally, into a black presentation box containing an adhesive-backed brass plaque for engraving and a card printed with the seal of the City of New York and the date.

More Changes in Plans

Meanwhile, plans were being made to transport the urns from Police Plaza and Fort Totten to the Family Assistance Center at Pier 94 in Manhattan. Seventeen firms, members of  MFDA and NSFDA, arranged to send hearses and drivers at no charge. After all the arrangements were completed, it was announced, again, that the plan was a “security risk.” The FDNY would be allowed to use only two hearses and two fire vehicles while the NYPD would transport their 3000 urns in panel trucks with no hearse accompaniment.

On Saturday morning, October 27th, all the urns at Fort Totten were placed in four vehicles. Two large wooden boxes (on which the FDNY emblem was engraved) containing urns representing the 343 firefighters killed at the World Trade Center, were placed atop a hydraulic lift on the rear of a large fire truck that had been converted into a caisson. Lacking an escort, a firefighter in a FDNY SUV with lights and sirens led the caisson with two hearses and another fire vehicle containing the balance of the urns. Regional Governor Doug Brueggemann, representing NYSFDA, drove one of two hearses and I had the honor of riding in the second hearse to represent NSFDA.

We left Fort Totten at about 7 AM. To our dismay, particularly since on several occasions we had been deemed a security risk, the NYPD sent us word that they were having a busy Saturday morning and were unable to provide us with an escort. We drove in extremely heavy traffic and several inattentive motorists cut in and out of the procession, one causing a fender bender with the end truck. We arrived at Pier 94 long after the NYPD’s panel trucks dropped off their urns. However, on the way into Manhattan, as we rode over the Throgs Neck Bridge and across the Bronx, down through Harlem and along Westside Highway, I noticed people deferentially waving American flags at us or making prayerful gestures such as the sign of the cross. I felt very blessed to have been given a chance to “do something” and very humbled by the opportunity to show respect to the many fallen.

A Fitting Tribute

When we arrived at the Pier, “our” urns, packed in large boxes, were unloaded two boxes at a time onto church trucks and each batch was covered by a large American flag. In turn, each of the church trucks was slowly wheeled by a quartet of uniformed personnel or family assistance workers down a very long aisle, lined on each side by FDNY, EMS, Port Authority, State Troopers, Military, and other uniformed persons. The aisle led to a secured area at the back of the immense building; the length of the aisle allowed every worker and volunteer quiet reflection and an opportunity to pay respect. Many were crying, all were wordless and solemn. In the hushed building, pipe and drum, bagpipers or a solitary trumpet played the urns down the aisle. I cried as unobtrusively as possible while standing and watching all this from my viewpoint near the hearse, at times accompanied by various officials,  the FDNY coordinator and the department’s photographer.

When the FDNY urns were inside the building, two New Jersey fire trucks and several New Jersey State Police cars replaced our vehicles in front of the Pier. Their uniformed personnel solemnly walked to the secure area and retrieved the urns representing New Jersey residents lost on September 11th. They, too, processed in and out. As they put the urns on their trucks, two funeral directors, including Doug, held the American flag drapery high above the boxes; then they folded it and presented it to the officers in charge.

The Right Way

THAT’s how you treat human remains – or their symbols – with honor and dignity. THAT’s how you show their families that you care and respect them. Those urns represented each of the victims of the September 11th catastrophe and funeral directors knew how to handle them best.

I wish that all people who ever mocked funerals or made light of the need for ritual and memorialization of our deceased would reconsider their attitude. They should watch the faces of
the involved – those who have lost someone dear or those who care for the ones left behind. They should see who truly withstands the death of a loved one: those who apathetically dispense of human remains and go on their way, or those who take time for ceremony and tradition (whatever they want that to be).

Do we face death or do we run from its reality? I think that those who run, run forever and those who face it find some kind of peace. I believe that those who treat their dead with dignity and respect give each of us hope that when our turn comes, our memory will be treated the same.