Still desperately searching for missing loved ones, the last person families wanted to speak to last week was a funeral director.
The men and women whose job it is to bury the dead recently took on a daunting task—calling the grieving relatives of the World Trade Center disaster and asking them to painstakingly describe their missing kin so that they could be identified by the City Medical Examiner’s Office.
Anthony Martino, director of the Hess-Miller Funeral Home in Middle Village, was among 40 city funeral directors to take on a job nobody wanted.
He was asked to take part in the identification effort by the New York State Funeral Directors Association, who are working with American and United Airlines to help recover the bodies of those killed when their planes struck the Twin Towers on September 11th.
Each victim and their immediate family is assigned an airline representative, who explained to the family that a funeral director would be contacting them to ask some personal questions about their spouses, children or siblings.
Martino called three families; two living in Germany and another from Switzerland.
He said amazingly, they were all forthcoming and very cooperative.
“It was tough for them, but they were not overemotional,” Martino said. “For many of the families, their tears had all but all dried up.”
The funeral director tried to begin the conversations, which lasted over an hour each, with simple questions such as birthdays and hair color. Later, he would ease into more probing questions such as “did he have any notable markings such as a scar or tattoo” or “had she ever broken any bones before.”
“We told them that at any point, if they wanted to stop, we would,” Martino said.
None of the families he spoke to took him up on the offer.
The heart-wrenching ordeal took its toll on Martino.
“Just because we are funeral directors doesn’t mean we have ice water running through our veins,” he said. “At the end of the day all you can do is go home and hug your families.”
Tom Kearns, who runs funeral homes in Richmond Hill and Rego Park, spent a recent Sunday afternoon volunteering his time calling the families of American Airlines Flight 11. The Los Angeles-bound Boeing 767 was the first of 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.”
Although dealing with tragedy and grief are part of Kearns’ daily life, he found this most recent experience especially difficult.
“It was very draining,” he said. “You don’t want to pry and you just wish you were doing something else.”
Kearns, who spent 45 minutes with each call, said the families he spoke showed a rare kind of bravery.
“They were so composed,” he said. “They were even grateful for my call. It made me feel so insignificant.”
Kearns Funeral Home was one of the first in Queens to bury World Trade Center victims. Last Monday, they prepared the memorial service for Maspeth firefighter Michael Weinberg, who was killed while seeking cover under a truck when the towers collapsed.
Hess-Miller Funeral Home also recently buried a victim of the World Trade Center disaster, a clerk for the New York State Civilian Review Board. However, Martino would rather remember a memorial service the funeral home held a day later.
The service attracted nearly 500 local residents, including the wife of the victim they had just buried.
Martino alerted the crowd of the woman’s presence and suddenly, without notice, a line formed around the grieving widow. Each neighborhood resident waited patiently for his or her turn to give the woman an embrace and a kiss on the cheek.
“To see that was remarkable,” Martino said. “It brings a tear to your eye.”