Garden of Angels

Gary Gotlin is a special man, with a unique calling...

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Angels on Earth editor-in-chief Colleen Hughes

Guideposts roving editor Kitty Slattery sent me a New York Times piece from a recent Sunday because she knows I take the weekends off from reading the newspaper.

“A very special man,” she said in the email over the link. A special man, with a unique calling.

Gary Gotlin is the public administrator for the borough of Staten Island, New York. In that capacity, he is responsible for sorting out the estates of residents who die intestate or without next of kin. Most heartbreaking to me, this often means unknown and abandoned newborns. Staten Island has a potter’s field for unclaimed bodies, a mass grave where inmates bury the dead. But Gotlin has a policy: “Everyone deserves the dignity of a proper burial,” he told the Times, “so I won’t let anyone go to potter’s field.” In 15 years on the job, no Staten Islander under his jurisdiction has.

Through local hospitals and nursing homes and the city-run morgue, Gotlin finds candidates for public burial. He enlists the help of cemetery board members, funeral directors, religious leaders, florists, woodworkers, anyone who will donate their time, talents and services. He keeps meticulous records of where the individual graves are located, in which cemetery, just in case by some long shot a relative shows up at some point wanting to know.

“The most important thing to me is that they’re buried with dignity,” Gotlin reiterated to the Times that day, as he bowed his head over 10 white coffins in the Garden of Angels, the children’s section of the cemetery. I think there will be a very special place for him in heaven one day.

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