Right Rev. Gabriel Ghanoum, director of pastoral care at JFK Medical Center in Atlantis, sprinkles holy water on unclaimed remains of nearly 60 people during a committal service at Our Lady Queen of Peace Cemetery March 13.

Faithful celebrate life on burial day of strangers

ROYAL PALM BEACH  |  Names of deceased souls filled the second page of the cemetery committal service program, a total of 57 men and women altogether, mostly strangers to the people praying for them and celebrating their life on their burial day.

“Ursula Jontza might be the mother of Norbert Jontza,” said Stephanie Link-Quijada, a coordinator at Our Lady Queen of Peace Cemetery in Royal Palm Beach, as she looked down the list of names. “We can’t confirm it. We think that two other people are a married couple. There are a lot of different stories.”

The lives of these men and women were celebrated and their remains were blessed and laid to rest March 13 at the diocese’s Catholic cemetery. The ceremony and burial were part of the “No One Buried Alone” initiative in conjunction with the cemetery’s “St. Joseph of Arimathea Compassion Crypt” charity.

The service was held at the cemetery’s outside chapel and a small group of faithful attended, showing respect for life and for the dead. Right Rev. Gabriel Ghanoum, founder of No One Buried Alone, presided.

“We are here today to pray for people we know and for people we don’t know,” said Right Rev. Ghanoum as he began the service. “No one here came to the world alone. Pray that we find their loved ones to let them know that they had a proper service. Pray for God to receive them.”

Link-Quijada helped coordinate the service. She explained that most of the people died alone and had no loved one come forward to claim their body. Other remains were dropped off at the cemetery by acquaintances or family members who do not have the financial means to give their deceased a proper burial.

Right Rev. Ghanoum is director of spiritual care at JFK Medical Center in Atlantis since 2010 and pastor of St. Nicholas Melkite Catholic Mission in Delray Beach. He began the No One Buried Alone ministry in 2011, working with Thomas Jordan, administrator of Our Lady Queen of Peace Cemetery, and Adriana Gorrondona of the Palm Beach County Department of Human Services.

The first compassion service took place at the cemetery July 27, 2011, to pay respect to Victoria Scalia, 100, and Barbara Kenzik, 71. The two women died alone, and nobody came forth to claim their bodies. Right Rev. Ghanoum felt called to do something. The women were laid to rest peacefully in the cemetery as part of his outreach and in the cemetery’s first charitable crypt. The lives of the women were also celebrated.

Today, as part of the initiative and the cemetery’s charitable program, there are five crypts. “We are nearing 700 inurnments since the inception of the St. Joseph of Arimathea Compassion Crypt program in conjunction with the No One Buried Alone ministry,” Jordan said.

As part of standard procedures in Palm Beach County, the bodies of the deceased are brought to funeral homes when family members cannot be found. The bodies are cremated and the remains are stored away. After a period of time, they are done away with in a legal way — typically, the remains are buried or scattered without any type of service or ceremony.

“We are reaching out to the funeral homes and hospitals, Catholic and non-Catholic,” Jordan told the Florida Catholic as the program launched. “A lot of funeral homes have unclaimed remains, and what we are going to do, because it is Christian and Catholic, is emphasize a respectful retirement of these remains.”

Jordan said that No One Buried Alone, along with the cemetery’s program, represents “what we are called to do as Christians. That is, to provide a dignified burial to all of the faithful.

“In earlier times, the local community would come together to provide all of the necessary services for ministering to the deceased and their family,” he said. “Most often, the burial would take place on church grounds. In modern society, these practices have changed due to specialization of professions, local regulations, insurance concerns and other factors.

“These changes have made it necessary for the church to charge money for these services,” he continued. “Still, when we are called, and are able to provide charity, we are reminded of the pure nature of our ministry. It is really all about the dignity of the human person and respect for the body as the temple of the Holy Spirit.”

Catholic Church teachings point out that all dead, no matter what their faith or background, should be treated with reverence and respect. The rite of funerals helps people take leave of a dead relative or friend and celebrates that person’s entry into eternal life.

Nicole Verna, a student at Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton, attended the service. Nicole was adopted when she was an infant. Two years ago, she learned that her birth mother, Shannon Henry, who was not married and without family, had died. Nicole obtained her mother’s cremated remains.

For the past two year, the young woman stored the cremains in the trunk of her car, perhaps not wanting to let her mother go after finding her after nearly 25 years.

The single mom who adopted Nicole, Vera Verna, now 73 and a parishioner of St. Jude in Boca Raton, convinced Nicole that the remains needed to be put in a holy place. Vera said she is retired and cannot afford the cost of a proper service and burial. She reached out to the cemetery for help.

“I never got to meet my mother,” said Nicole. “We know she is in a better place. It is closure for me.”

During the ceremony, Right Rev. Ghanoum blessed the cremains one by one with holy water. “There are stories. The stories are always about the pain,” he said. “Many of them suffered pain” and lacked love in their lives. “Today, we can say, ‘You are not in pain anymore.’ Today, I will tell them that I love them.”

Right Rev. Ghanoum held his hand on each container holding the remains, calling out the name of the deceased and saying, “I love you. Today our congregation and Our Lady Queen of Peace say I love you.”

For information about No One Buried Alone, contact Our Lady Queen of Peace Cemetery at 561-793-0711.