Editor’s note: This news agency tells the stories of unclaimed deaths and their impact on the community since 2019. At the time of this publication, the cremated remains of at least 79 dead have found final resting places. But hundreds more remain unclaimed in Bucks and Montgomery counties. Our “unclaimed” original stories are accessible on our sites. They include updated names, stories and statuses of the unclaimed dead in Bucks and Montgomery counties.
Rosellen Smith planned to spend eternity with her husband, George, who died nearly a decade ago.
She was granted a final resting place next to her grave in a Roman Catholic cemetery in Bucks County. His name and date of birth were already engraved on the granite tombstone next to his.
But those final arrangements were something Rosellen apparently kept to herself. When she died six months ago, it appeared she would become another unclaimed body left in the custody of the Montgomery County Coroner’s Office.
Smith lived at St. Mary Manor, an assisted living community in Lansdale until his death on May 23. The hospital where she died contacted her next of kin, a cousin, who refused to accept responsibility for her body.
Looking for someone to claim the body of Rosellen Smith
With no one to claim her body, Smith was transferred to the coroner’s office, where Adam Shellenhamer opened an inquest to find another family who might be willing to make final arrangements.
The Montgomery County Deputy Coroner quickly learned the names of Smith’s parents, Ronald and Ruth Carroll. Her mother’s maiden name was Gildea. The 1950 US census revealed that Smith had two sisters.
One of them, Joan Carroll, entered religious life at 18 and served as a teacher and principal primarily in schools in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia.
Rosellen, however, eventually married George E. Smith. They lived in North Wales, in the county of Montgomery, until his death in 2013 at the age of 74. The couple had no children.
The three-sentence online obituary Shellenhamer found for George provided no details other than the name of a Lansdale funeral home. An employee confirmed he was cremated and Rosellen picked up his ashes.
But the funeral home had no record of what Rosellen had done with those ashes.
Shellenhamer did more research online and found the obituary of her sister, Joan, who died in 2018. This provided a small but important detail. Rosellen was listed as the last living sister.
He also found the grave of George E. Smith located at St. John Neumann Cemetery in Chalfont. An employee confirmed that Rosellen Smith had the plot next to her husband. It was good news. Kind of.
“We knew that was where we wanted it to end, but it was a matter of how,” Shellenhamer said.
Call it ‘divine intervention’
He did not know that divine intervention was about to intercede.
A few weeks after Smith’s death, a teacher’s aide at a school in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia called Sister Mary Raphael, the outreach coordinator for Saints Peter and Paul Basilica in Philadelphia.
The woman learned that a friend, who had recently passed away, had given her name as an emergency contact. The hospital contacted her to see if she wanted to take responsibility for her final arrangements. Could Sister Raphaël help?
The request was a first for her, Sister Raphaël said.
In Roman Catholic teachings, respect and reverence for the dead is a core belief for followers. Catholics believe that the soul is immortal and does not depend on the physical body for resurrection and eternal life.
This is why burying the dead in a sacred place is considered the most appropriate way to honor and express faith and hope in the resurrection of the body, according to the Vatican.
Sister Raphael forwarded the woman’s request to the Reverend Gerald Dennis Gill, director of the archdiocesan office for divine worship. The nun knew that he sometimes held burials for unclaimed cremated remains in Philadelphia.
Gill agreed and obtained donated cemetery land for the remains in an archdiocesan cemetery. Raphael contacted the Montgomery County Coroner’s Office, where the man was taken, and he agreed to waive the $700 cremation fee.
Sister Raphael was finalizing these final arrangements for the man in early August, when Shellenhamer approached her with her own request.
Would the Archdiocese of Philadelphia be willing to help another unclaimed person? The deputy coroner explained how Rosellen Smith had a grave, but no one to pay to open it.
Sister Raphael brought Smith’s plight to Gill’s attention. The archdiocese owns St. John Neumann Cemetery, which has agreed to waive the cost of opening the grave. Montgomery County again waived its cremation fee.
Husband and wife reunited after death
Earlier this month, Gill traveled from his downtown church to Norristown to collect the ashes of another unclaimed stranger. He took Rosellen Smith to Chalfont Cemetery where she quietly reunited with her husband.
Gill also said he was surprised to learn that there were more than 100 unclaimed dead in suburban Philadelphia whose final resting place is a storage room in a government building.
“We want to make sure the dead are buried,” Gill said. “Anything we can do to support this and make it happen.”
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