The names of 84 people rang across Millersville Mennonite Cemetery last week, their cremated remains in boxes wrapped in a red velvet bag and gently placed into two large vaults sitting underneath a tent.
Some of the cremains had been in the care of the coroner’s office for more than a decade, locked away in a closet at the Lancaster County Forensic Center in East Hempfield Township. The other cremains were confiscated in the debacle of the Andrew T. Scheid Funeral Homes after the business was shut down in 2020 for violations related to the mishandling of human remains.
All of them found a final resting place in a grave at the Millersville cemetery as the vaults were placed on top of each other in a single grave.
About two-dozen people turned out for the 12-minute ceremony, including members of the community, coroner’s office employees and Lancaster County Commissioners Ray D’Agostino and Josh Parsons.
James McElheny, a police chaplain with the International Conference of Police Chaplains association and a retired East Lampeter Township police sergeant, read out each of the 84 cremains to be interred as a carnation was placed for each name in front of the vaults.
McElheny spoke about the recent death and elaborate funeral services for Queen Elizabeth II that brought out visiting dignitaries from around the world and estranged family members who gathered to celebrate her life.
McElheny said the funeral ceremony in Millersville stands in stark contrast to Queen Elizabeth’s celebration, but the sentiment of remembering them remains the same. He also said it was “absolutely an honor” to read the names of the deceased and to “say goodbye to these loved ones here who have no one to say goodbye for them.”
“As I was reading the names out loud, for everybody to hear, I was just thinking that these are the last time these names are going to be read out loud or maybe the last time anybody’s ever going to think of these names unless they come to visit,” McElheny said. “That’s why we do it publicly.”
The Lancaster County Coroner’s office had 141 remains stored in small black boxes in a closet at its offices before last week’s ceremony, maintaining custody of the more recent deaths in case relatives come forward to claim them.
The last mass interment by the coroner’s office took place in 2017 when the cremated remains of 46 people were buried at Mellinger Mennonite Cemetery in East Lampeter Township.
Lancaster County Chief Deputy Coroner Eric Bieber said more than 100 people were originally listed for interment last week, with age ranges from 31 to 93 at the time of their death. But Bieber said since a list of the names was posted on social media in late September, a total of 20 remains were claimed by relatives, including 14 of the original 42 Scheid remains confiscated from the Millersville funeral home.
Bieber said it’s “certainly a privilege” to be able to provide a final resting place and a memorial for the cremains and that it’s a “daily responsibility” keeping the remains secure at the coroner’s office.
“It’s something that we look forward to doing and to providing for them and for the community to remember them,” Bieber said. “We’re giving them a permanent resting place here rather than being held at the coroner’s office. This is a permanent resting place where people can visit them and remember them.”
Bieber said there are various reasons for the remains to be held at the coroner’s office for so long, including cases where family members are estranged or have lost touch with their loved ones or are the last member in their family.
The coroner’s office is still working on the language that will be chiseled into the headstone marking the grave, Bieber said, but there are too many names to include on the memorial. Bieber said the office is debating adding a QR code to the headstone so an individual is able to scan the code and pull up a list of the interred names on their phone.
Lancaster County Coroner Dr. Stephen Diamantoni said it’s a “sad commentary” thinking some of the names of the individuals may never be uttered again, but he said the funeral ceremony allows for at least one more remembrance.
“We’re happy that we can provide a service that provides the dignity and respect that they deserve,” Diamantoni said. “They’ve lived lives of this Earth and have impacted many people. We want to be able to recognize them individually and provide them prayers and a service to recognize their lives.”