With prayers, music and thanks, Maryland remembers body donors

Every so often, a tear dripping off Sharmalita Christians' face splashed onto the photo she was clutching of a man with an inviting grin.

He was her brother, a 44-year-old man who was in a car accident and then died of an aneurysm on Dec. 31. For nearly six months, she has missed Charles Christians terribly, and until Monday, she also missed having a funeral service for him.

But Monday afternoon, in the dappled shade of towering trees, she was among 150 people who attended a memorial service on the grounds of Springfield Hospital Center for an annual service for people who — by choice or circumstance — donated their remains for medical study.

The ashes of more than 600 people were interred Monday on the grounds in Sykesville, in a communal grave.

"Before the actual service and he was donated, I was upset. I understand his reason," Christians said. He had told her that he had no wife and no children and wanted to leave something of himself to help others.

"This made it better. Knowing I can come here every year is a big help," she said. "It helps to see where he is at, where he is rested."

Not long after he died, she and her mother decided to donate their bodies to medical study. About 70,000 others have signed on.

Fewer among the newly interred ashes were donors by circumstance. They included people whose bodies went unclaimed, were given up by their families or were unidentified. Some families took care of ailing relatives for years, and then unable to afford a funeral, donated the bodies.

Speakers during the 35-minute service thanked the selflessness of the donors' gift, saying they are remembered not only by family and friends in life, but by strangers whom they influenced in death.

Donors, "though in the winter of life, knew they can contribute to an eternal spring," said the Rev. Edward Richardson, the hospital chaplain.

The service, which has taken place for 36 of the past 37 years, featured the mournful bleats of a bagpipe, offering musical interludes between words by clergymen, medical professionals and officials. And although it poured earlier in the day, Ronald S. Wade, director of the State Anatomy Board, said that once again, it has yet to rain on the service.

The service is part of a little-known statewide program.

"There is no other program that I know that has it from accepting the bodies to the burial," Wade said.

Donated bodies — used or not, as some are not suitable for study — go to the anatomy board. Wade gives them for medical study to schools within the state, including the military's Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences in Bethesda. The schools return them. Some families want the bodies. The others are cremated, each one's ashes placed in a separate plastic box.

And each June, the boxes are placed in cartons for communal interment, followed by a memorial service.

Rosemary Ward Mack wept sporadically during the service, saying that she was moved by the dignity with which the state treated her late son when his body was unidentified. This was her first visit to his resting place.

She had been searching for Matthew Jon Ward since 2003, and this February, she identified him on a missing persons web site. Back in 2003, his body had been found in a vacant Baltimore rowhouse, a needle in his shirt pocket, but no one knew who he was. He was buried on the hospital grounds in 2006.

But Mack hadn't given up hope of finding him.

"For as many people as there are, there are as many different stories," she said after the service. None of those interred this year were unidentified, as her son was when his ashes were interred in 2006.

"Somewhere in here," Mack said, "it's emotional coming here. It's beautiful here, too."

Andrea.siegel@baltsun.com

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