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Gone without a trace



Published: Sun, August 11, 2002 @ 12:00 a.m.



By SHERRI L. SHAULIS

VINDICATOR STAFF WRITER

AUSTINTOWN -- Cathy Eliseo finds it hard dealing with the fact that her brother is not there.

After many visits to the grave of the brother she never met, Eliseo was determined to fulfill her mother's final wish to have the remains of infant Michael Martin Merriman, who died after a premature birth in 1957, moved from the children's plot of Calvary Cemetery in Youngstown.

The plan was to relocate the remains to Brunstetter Cemetery in Austintown, in the plot with their mother.

"My mom talked about it for the last five years of her life, having the baby moved to be with her," Eliseo said, sitting at her dining room table.

As she talked, she ran her fingers over the only remnant her mother saved of her first-born child, a tiny hospital bracelet with lettered beads spelling out the name "Merriman," surrounded by blue beads on either side.

Eliseo, who was born a year after her brother's death, remembers visiting the grave of her brother over the years.

Remembering the dead

She recalls how her mother saved her earnings for two years to buy the headstone that bears Michael's name and rests at the cemetery. Holidays, anniversaries, any celebrations among other family members were shared with Michael.

"I remember my mom telling me stories of how she didn't have a car and couldn't afford the bus, so she would walk from the East Side of Youngstown to the cemetery at Christmas to visit him," she said.

On her wedding day, Eliseo and her bridal party stopped at the cemetery to place flowers, similar to the bouquets carried by the bridesmaids, that were made especially for Michael's grave.

It was a hard decision for Eliseo to move her brother, she said.

"I had nightmares starting about two months before the excavation," she said. "I was really worried about what they would find. If they weren't going to find anything, or if there were going to be problems, I told them I wouldn't feel right, and I didn't want them to move him or disturb the site if that would be the case."

When the actual day for the excavation came up last October, Eliseo said she was surprised by what cemetery workers didn't find.

"I took my best friend with me, and we watched as they were digging," Eliseo said. She said after some time, the men digging stopped and began huddling together, whispering.

"Then they came over and said, 'We're so sorry, but there's nothing there.' I went to where they were digging and bent over to look in, and it was like nothing had ever been there."

Type of coffin

Eliseo said she found it hard to believe everything was gone -- she said she was told that everything had disintegrated over the years -- especially since she believes her brother was buried in a steel coffin.

According to records from Calvary Cemetery at that time, Michael was buried in a wooden coffin. Joseph Kun, who supervises area cemeteries for the Diocese of Youngstown, said the records would not indicate a wooden coffin if a steel one was in fact used.

Eliseo said her father, William Merriman, told her Michael's coffin -- which the family no longer has a receipt for -- was steel, lavender, with brass handles and fittings.

He knows that, he said, because in 1957 he was supposed to transport Michael from McSuley Memorial Funeral Home in Youngstown to another funeral home in Altoona, Pa., for burial there.

Eliseo said she wasn't aware of the original plans until she became an adult and her mother told her the story.

She said her mother told her that after getting permission to transfer Michael's body and the coffin to Altoona, her father, who was 18 at the time, started the trip, and was allowed eight hours to complete it.

He never made it, however, as he admits he stopped in Grove City, Pa., got a hotel room and tried to revive his son. Police officers eventually tracked him down, arresting him and taking custody of Michael and the coffin. The remains were brought back and buried in the children's section of Calvary Cemetery.

Eliseo said she was told by supervisors from Calvary that even if Michael was originally laid out in a steel coffin, if the seal was broken, he would have been transferred to a new coffin, most likely a wooden one.

But she said her father told her the coffin was never sealed, because funeral home workers were supposed to do that once he arrived in Altoona.

Kun said that cemetery records show a wooden coffin, and that was what would have been there originally.

"But I have talked to some people in the cemetery business who said they have seen, under the right soil and weather conditions, some steel coffins disintegrate over time, under the right conditions," he said.

Ravages of time

Though he said he understands Eliseo's pain of not finding her brother where she expected him to be, he noted there is not much the cemetery can do.

"We are not responsible for the coffin or the vault," he said. He noted, too, than in 1957, burial practices for infants were much different than they are now.

Often, vaults were not used in infant burials, and no one really considered that infants would be moved to a new burial site decades later, he said.

He added that in cases where wooden coffins were used with no vault, it is not uncommon for very little, if anything, to be found in excavations, especially more than 40 years after the initial burial.

Eliseo says she wants the cemetery to "make things right" and help her find out where her brother is and what happened. She took her complaint to the Ohio Cemetery Dispute Resolution Commission, which heard her case in in June in Columbus.

She came away dissatisfied, though, especially after one of the commission members told her to go back to the gravesite where Michael's headstone still sits today and "pretend like he's still there."

In a letter to Eliseo, Sylvia A. Keberle, administrative assistant for the dispute commission, said that the members "found no violations within the commission's jurisdiction. Accordingly, this complaint is closed with no further action."

Kun, who also serves as chairman for the dispute resolution commission, said that since the commission has no authority to issue demands or ultimatums on cemeteries, and since neither side could come to an agreement, the ruling of the commission is as it should be.

"The commission members said there was no credible evidence that there was anything done wrong," he said.

Eliseo, however, is still searching for options.

"They left his headstone lying out for months, sitting in the middle of two graves," she said, showing pictures she took of the scene at Calvary Cemetery earlier this year.

"They finally put the stone back in the spot where it was, but it just doesn't feel right knowing there's no body there."

slshaulis@vindy.com




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