The images are indelible.
Houses of worship crowded with attendees. A young girl whose father was killed in the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001 clutching Rosary beads. Silence, save the clergy delivering what words they could in a moment no one could imagine.
But those in services around New Jersey and the tri-state area–children, spouses, parents, friends and neighbors–were in many cases mourning without a body, a unique set of circumstances that taxed the resources and skills of funeral directors who tapped into their ingenuity and compassion to fulfill their mission. And, in doing so, suppressed their own shock and grief at what had happened in the United States.
When the terrorist attacks occurred, funeral directors braced themselves for what they thought would be an inundation of bodies from the World Trade Center. The attacks occurred on a Tuesday morning, and the New Jersey State Funeral Directors Association swung into action, working on disaster plans, said George R. Kelder Jr., CFSP, executive director and CEO of the NJSFDA.
“By Thursday it would be determined that our presence was not necessary–there simply were no remains to be processed,” Kelder wrote in his September column. “In a profound and shocking revelation, thousands were being reported missing, yet funeral directors were not required at that time to handle the dead.”
What they did need to do, however, was work with the living.
Kelder said that funeral directors went above and beyond to plan “meaningful events to assist families in receiving the community support that was so important to their grieving process–events that were often under tents and in public spaces.”
Holding those events without any physical remains became common, he said.
“In many instances final disposition of identified remains occurred months following the services,” Kelder said.
Funeral directors often had to wait on families as they came to grips with their loss. Belief that a family member could have been simply missing was prevalent in the immediate aftermath of the attacks. That gave way to a hope that remains could be found. In many cases, only partial remains could be returned to the family. In other cases, no remains were discovered.
“Families’ delays in planning memorial events ultimately came down to difficult decisions of acknowledging death and memorializing the dead absent remains, separating and delaying disposition, if at all, into the future,” Kelder said.
When it came to cases where no remains could be found, funeral directors took the lead in helping families receive some tangible evidence of the person who died. The New York City Mayor’s Office worked with directors to create a memorial urn project in which soil found at Ground Zero was placed in urns and delivered to families. Included in that effort were members of the Metropolitan Funeral Directors Association, which at the time was managed by the NJSFDA.
“Those urns represented each of the victims of the September 11th catastrophe and funeral directors knew how to handle them best,” wrote Jo Pettit, the former executive director of the Nassau-Suffolk Funeral Directors Association in New York.
Overall, Kelder said, the New York City Medical Examiner’s Office “did an excellent job in sympathetically meeting with and educating families on what they should and should not expect, making funeral director conversations with the next of kin more palatable.”
But even 20 years later there are those who never were able to have a final disposition for their family member.
“To this day, there is still a vault of unidentified remains within the 9/11 Memorial accessible only to family members who were never afforded the opportunity to have their family members’ remains returned to them,” Kelder said.