Mass burial honors those who gave bodies to science, or who went unclaimed

Mother of one man interred mourns years after learning son died; homeless man who burned to death also destined for burial

  • Springfield Hospital in Sykesville hosts a yearly service for people who donated their bodies to science and those who die and go unclaimed by family members.
Springfield Hospital in Sykesville hosts a yearly service… (Gene Sweeney Jr., Baltimore…)
June 19, 2011|By Jessica Anderson and Andrea F. Siegel, The Baltimore Sun

Singe marks still scar the wall of the Canton grocery store where Stanislaw Ptak spent his final night outside. The homeless man died six months ago after he accidentally set himself on fire while lighting a cigarette.

The rowhouse on Pitcher Street where Matthew Jon Ward was found dead of hypothermia is still vacant and boarded. He died eight years ago after a long, tortuous struggle to overcome an addiction to drugs.

Ptak and Ward are like hundreds of people who every year — whether by design or circumstance — had their bodies turned over or given to the state anatomy board for science. They will share a final resting place, cremated and placed under a single grave marker in a field at the Springfield Hospital Center in Sykesville.

Monday, mourners will gather as 600 more boxes of ashes are buried, joining 20,000 others, in a mass burial held every year in June. "The state has a duty to provide a dignified disposition of a body, with humanity," said Ronald S. Wade, director of the state anatomy board. "I'm a big believer that at some point, rest in peace."

With her husband and sister, Ward's mother plans to attend the service, her first visit to her son's grave after having spent years trying to locate him. She found her son in February, on a missing persons website, and learned he had been interred in Sykesville in 2006, his name unknown.

Ptak's ashes will be buried next year. Though a sister came forward shortly after the death, she left her 69-year-old brother's remains with the state, and the remains can't be buried until 2012, in case another relative comes forward.

Many of the people buried in Sykesville, like Ptak and Ward, died quietly and alone — their family histories, and sometimes even their families, lost. They all have stories, and though most will be buried with them, perhaps forever, survivors say they are grateful for the respectful end.

At least now, Rosemary Ward Mack knows that somebody cared after her son had died at the age of 32. "Knowing how well Maryland has treated him has been a comfort to me," she said. "I am really glad to know that he was treated with respect."

'It's him'

Ward's mother described a tumultuous life, with him growing up mostly in Eugene, Ore., but dropping out of school and leaving home at the age of 16. He hung out with older kids at the University of Oregon, where his mother suspects he was first introduced to narcotics.

From there began a series of moves — to California, where he obtained his high school equivalency, to Florida, where he worked at a used book shop, to New Jersey, where with his girlfriend he saw the smoke from the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. He lived in South Baltimore and New York. He kept making efforts to get clean.

In 2002, he settled in with his mother at her new home in Owings Mills. He left in January the following year, turning up on Maryland's Eastern Shore — troubled but hoping for a fresh start in a rural setting where drugs are harder to come by.

On Feb. 21, 2003, the day he turned 32, Ward took a bus from Queen Anne's County to Baltimore to spend time with his mother. "We went to 7-Eleven, we got Sprite and Little Debbies and ate, and we watched television," she recalled. Ward was on the bus back to the Eastern Shore the next day. He called her the following day and told her he could get into a program, and asked for $100, and for her to come get him. Mack told him no, she had to work. Deep down, she wasn't sure.

She never saw nor heard from him again.

Mack tried unsuccessfully to file a missing-person report. She contacted the people with whom her son had most recently lived, but they said they'd put him on a bus to Baltimore.

In all the years, the mother said, "whatever was going on in his life, no matter where he was, he had never ever missed a Mother's Day. We either saw each other or he called me."

Mother's Day passed without a call. Mack knew something was horribly wrong.

It was.

On Feb. 26, 2003, five days after Mack had last seen her son, a Baltimore officer answering an anonymous call found his body, though no one knew it was him at the time. It was an unidentified male, fully clothed, lying face up on the second floor of an abandoned rowhouse at 612 Pitcher St., just off Pennsylvania Avenue.

Police said they found a hypodermic needle in the left breast pocket of his shirt. There were no signs of trauma. At the morgue, he was No. 03051. The medical examiner ruled the cause of death hypothermia, and noted drug use.

They had nothing to identify him. His finger prints didn't match anything in the system.

Ward's body was sent to the anatomy board, and used for science, possibly by medical students during the course of their studies. The body was cremated on Jan. 9, 2004, and was interred in Sykesville in June 2006.

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