By Niraj Warikoo, July 10, 2014
Clutching hands under a tent, a crowd of mourners Wednesday afternoon at a Catholic cemetery in Brownstown Township sang together: “It is good when we sit together as brothers and sisters.

The memorial service at Our Lady of Hope Cemetery — and the first of many burials — was for about 170 unclaimed bodies that have been at the Wayne County morgue. In some cases, family members were unable or unwilling to pay for their burials.

But thanks to the generosity of local Jewish and Catholic groups in metro Detroit, they will get full burial services. The Jewish Fund in Bloomfield Hills launched an effort to help the unclaimed bodies after seeing a story by Kevin Dietz, a reporter with Channel 4 in Detroit.

On Wednesday, hundreds gathered for an interfaith ceremony to remember the unclaimed people and to bury one of them, Richard Clement, who died at age 68 in 2011. His body has been unclaimed for almost three years.

As bagpipes played and some wiped away tears, a crane lowered a copper casket into the ground containing Clement’s body. The others will be buried over the next few weeks.

“The ceremony was beautiful,” said Kathy Gomoll, of Canton. “It provided a lot of closure.”

Gomoll was there with her fellow employees at a Kroger grocery store in Canton to remember Matt Morris, who died last year at 36 of an overdose, his body discovered in a Westland marsh. Family members never claimed his body from the county morgue. Friends such as Gomoll tried to get his body to give him a burial, but were unable because of legal restrictions requiring a family member to get the body.

At the service, Gomoll held up a framed portrait of Morris dressed in an medieval outfit at a Renaissance festival in Michigan he loved attending. It had logos of the New York Yankees, his favorite baseball team.

“You will live on in the memories and hearts of your Kroger family,” the portrait said. “He’ll now have a dignified burial, not in a pine box stacked four high,” said Laura

Bleecker, another friend.

They and others were saddened to hear that Morris and the bodies of others remained in the morgue.

“When you think of their bodies just lying there, and there’s nothing you can do,” it hurts, said Gomoll.

It “literally broke me heart” to see the unclaimed bodies in the morque, Dietz said during the ceremony.

The board of the Jewish Fund came up with the idea to help with burying the unclaimed bodies, approving a grant of $60,000 in May to buy the caskets. Then, the Catholic Archdiocese of Detroit and other Catholic groups donated burial sites and labor costs that are worth about $400,000, said archdiocesan officials.

“Every person has a sacred dignity,” said the Rev. Jeffrey Day, ecumenical and interfaith officer to Catholic Archbishop of Detroit Allen Vigneron. “Every person deserves to be remembered. Every person deserves a decent burial.”

Ira Kaufman Chapel, a Jewish funeral home in Southfield, will handle records for the deceased, and the Michigan Funeral Directors Associationalso helped out. Additional groups and companies contributed materials.

Pat Lynch, of Lynch and Sons Funeral Directors and a past president of the National

Funeral Directors Association, said to the crowd at the cemetery:

“We live in a wonderful community, where we stand up for those who can’t stand up for themselves.”

Jewish, Catholic groups pay to bury unclaimed bodies at Wayne County morgue