In his 26 years as a funeral director, Pasquale Folino has unfortunately become accustomed to the death of children. But the three whose bodies he prepared for burial over the weekend were unlike ever before.
"This truly shakes your foundation to the core," said Folino, who runs the Neilan Funeral Home in New London, Conn. and, as the president of the Connecticut's funeral director's organization, has been coordinating a statewide effort to assist resource-strapped funeral homes in the Newtown, Conn. area.
"Yes, I'm a mortician. But we're human beings. When you see a child from a mass shooting, it really hits home," he said.
In the three days since the deadly violence in Newtown and at Sandy Hook Elementary School that took the lives of 28 people, the small town has experienced everything from initial shock and confusion to candlelight memorials, interfaith prayer, calls for political change on gun laws and emotional, Biblically-laced words of consolation from the president.
Now has come the time to bury the dead.
The first two Newtown funerals took place on Monday afternoon for six-year-olds Noah Pozner and Jack Pinto, at B’nai Israel Cemetery in Monroe, Conn. for Noah and, for Jack, at Newtown Village Cemetery. At least 10 more are scheduled through next week, with additional funerals announced by the day. Many are public and open to local and visiting mourners. A few are private.
As one of a core group of people behind many of the funerals, Folino has pulled together a list of 100 funeral home workers offering to volunteer to donate supplies in Newtown, where the overloaded main mortuary, Honan Funeral Home, is handling at least 11 funerals in the coming days.
"In a small town like Newtown, they need a lot of help this week, with everything from counseling families to procuring caskets and hearses and making arrangements for burial," Folino said. From the time spent masking bullet holes and dressing young boys and girls in their favorite clothing to locating burial plots and tiny caskets, it's not an easy task, he said.
The remains must be transported to the funeral home, where he counsels families on what kind of funeral they want -- burials are the most popular, after them are cremations. There's washing. Disinfecting. If it's an open-casket viewing, there's the embalming. The process can take anywhere from two to five days, he said.
In some cases, donors have come forward. For Sandy Hook victims, most burial plots have been donated, Folino said, as have some caskets. But his hardest and most important role of comforting parents who thought they would pass long before their own children is often is the most draining, he said.
"It's very challenging," said Folino, 46, who plans to work overnight in Newtown on Tuesday. "But you have to talk to people as individuals. You need to be with them every step of the way, from the moment they walk into the funeral home to the moment the casket is placed and the dirt is shoveled over the grave."
The job can take an emotional toll, he admits. And as a father of three daughters it can be even harder. "You turn to your faith, your family, you hug your kids a little tighter," said Folino, a Catholic who goes to church weekly at St. Joseph's in New London. "You pray for strength for the families, for what they are going through."
"We do what we can do to take care of the families. We'll deal with our own emotional needs later," Folino said. In times like these, he thinks of his father, who died from a heart attack at age 56 when Folino was 11. The mortician who took care of the funeral also became a mentor and parental figure to a fatherless son.
"The funeral director befriended me, and helped me deal with the pain. I took a job there shortly after, doing maintenance work, mowing lawns, shoveling snow. I could see from a distance that they were helping people, just like they helped me," he said.
He knew then that he wanted to be a funeral director.
Folino said, "I thought -- I still think -- it's a good way to help people out."