Remembering The Unsung Funeral Heroes Of September 11th


September 11th, 2001 will forever be a day that’s ingrained in the minds of Americans. Personally, I remember exactly where I was when I heard the news of the attack on the World Trade Center in New York City, and exactly how I felt when I watched the grand towers collapse to the ground on the television in front of me.

As a nation, we wept for the fallen and joined together in our need for answers about this senseless act of terror.

As funeral professionals, our hearts immediately went out to our thousands of colleagues who would be stepping up to assist the millions of grieving families all over the world who were looking to them for guidance.

There were many heroes that rose out of the tragedy of September 11th ﹘ the firefighters, police, military and service members who fought on behalf of an entire country, the brave men and women who perished both during the attacks and in the aftermath, and an unsung number of funeral professionals who rose to help make sense of a tragic situation that was far outside their job description. Today, on the 14th anniversary of September 11th, we honor and raise our glass to this last particular group of heroes.

Disaster Mortuary Operational Response Team

The Disaster Mortuary Operational Response Team (DMORT) is a federally funded team of forensic and mortuary experts that have experience in disaster victim identification, search and recovery. Originally conceived by the National Funeral Directors Association in the early 1980s, DMORT has grown to include 10 different DMORT units, comprised of funeral directors, medical examiners, coroners, forensic pathologists, forensic anthropologists, and more.

While each DMORT unit typically covers disaster incidents that reside in their own region, on the morning of September 11th, 2001, all 10 DMORT units were activated in the aftermath of the Twin Tower attacks.

In the days, weeks and months following September 11th, the DMORT units in New York were responsible for victim identification, forensic dental pathology, the processing, preparation and disposition of remains, providing family support, and much more. Once the remains of the fallen had passed through all of the forensic and identification stations, they were moved to refrigerated trucks to await formal identification, at which time the body would be embalmed by DMORT funeral professionals or local morticians, and then released for final disposition to a funeral home that would be hosting the service.

James Ouellette, director of Ouellette-Thibault Funeral Home and Stimson-Ouellette Funeral Home, was one of the first to come to New York when the National Funeral Directors Association made a call for volunteers shortly after the destruction of the Twin Towers.

“It was mind-boggling what was going on, because there has never been anything like this before,” he recalled. “Workers sifted through the rubble from the 16-acre site at ground zero inch by inch.”

Ouellette worked with two other funeral directors on the ground in New York to help identify remains and gather necessary paperwork for funeral homes that would be receiving them. In the two weeks he was there, 30 to 40 individuals who perished in the disaster were identified.

“The ceremony when a body is found is very moving,” Ouellette remembered. “Anyone not moved by this would have to be dead themselves.” The ceremony he spoke of included everyone coming to attention when a body was recovered, followed by the body being placed in an individual body bag where it was wrapped in an American flag. A hearse bearing the body then would lead a procession from the scene of the World Trade Center to the medical examiner’s office. “They are all heroes,” Ouellette said.

On September 11th, 2001, Senior Chaplain Rev. Rob Dewey was deployed with several funeral professionals working in the DMORT unit in New York City. He said of his experience, “I was honored to serve beside these men and women who dropped everything in their personal lives and responded to President Bush’s call-up.  No matter what one’s faith background, all want the bodies – or the remains – returned to show proper respect.  Thanks to the DMORT personnel, many families were able to have some resolution when their loved ones were returned. Though I will never understand the evil of  ‘man’, I do understand the goodness of the people who are members of DMORT.  Thank God for them. I pray we never have to be deployed again.”

Local Funeral Homes

While New York was hit right in the heart during the 9/11 attacks, the reverberations were felt by those all over the country – especially those of us in the funeral profession.

Wallace Miller, a funeral director and coroner in Somerset, Pennsylvania, was in his family’s funeral home speaking with his father when the first plane hit the World Trade Center. It was shortly after when he received a call alerting him to the plane crash that had just occurred in northern Somerset County. He was among the first to arrive to the scene around 10:06am on September 11th. Once he had looked over the scene, Miller recalled, “I stopped being a coroner after about 20 minutes, because there were no bodies there. It became like a giant funeral service.”

He spent the following days and months supporting his rural county of 80,000, and doing what he could to help out in the aftermath of the crash.

“I felt that I had the capacity to manage it, and so far, I have,” he said. “My entire career has been devoted to deceased people and grieving families.”

However, it wasn’t just those funeral professionals who were at the scene that were affected by September 11th. The profession as a whole stepped up to support their colleagues and their country during this stressful time.

On September 22nd, 2001, Newsweek ran a story that spoke about the “onslaught” that the funeral industry was preparing for as America began paying their final respects. In it, the reader learned of, “companies shifting casket inventories closer to New York City, state agencies surveying open cemetery space in surrounding areas, and medical authorities proving sobering details about the small number of bodies recovered and the disturbingly large number of unidentifiable body parts.”

New York funeral homes especially were beginning to feel the grief of an entire nation, including the well-known Manhattan funeral home, Frank E. Campbell, which continued it’s well-known policy of giving free funerals to public servants killed in the line of duty in the aftermath of the World Trade Center attacks. Other funeral homes throughout the state were called upon by city officials to help speak to grieving relatives and find out information they could pass along to the City Medical Examiner’s Office.

Tom Kearns, the director of Richmond Hill and Rego Park Funeral Homes, spent the Sunday after the attack volunteering his time calling the families of American Airlines Flight 11 – the first of the two planes to crash into World Trade Center. “The people who make these calls need to have a compassionate way about them,” Kearns said. “And, we’re accustomed to that.” Kearns’ Funeral Home was also one of the first in Queens to bury World Trade Center victims with the memorial service for a Maspeth firefighter, Michael Weinberg, who was killed while seeking cover under a truck when the towers collapsed.

America’s Funeral Professionals

Through these stories, and the many, many untold ones that remain, it’s easy to see why September 11th, 2001 was an important day for funeral professionals – and not just those affected directly by the attacks. For the rest of the funeral professionals across the country, our role was as important as ever.

Newsweek wrote, “even though bodies were missing, Americans who lost close relatives were turning to America’s death specialists to assist in planning the appropriate ceremonies.”

In honor of today’s anniversary of these ruthless attacks, we raise our glasses to the thousands of men and women in our profession that stepped up (more than ever) to do what they do best – help a grieving country find peace, solace and comfort in a time of need. Thank you for all that you do.

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