After Dan Honan finally finished the unspeakable task of laying to rest 11 first-graders in five days, he sat and tried to put it in perspective at the same hardwood table where those children's families had made plans no one should ever make.
But the unassuming Honan, whose son is in school to become the fourth generation at Honan Funeral Home, doesn't lean toward sweeping statements about history. Anyway, such events just don't befall small New England towns with small-town funeral homes of the sort founded 109 years ago by his grandfather, William Honan Sr.
Honan, who didn't take a dime in the toughest week of his professional life, is more comfortable talking about rock-solid service to the community, a remarkably cooperative spirit among funeral directors and, mostly, the families that called him last weekend, in shock.
"You're here to serve them," Honan said. "What I've had to go through is nothing compared with what the families have had to go through."
No, it wasn't the ultimate loss but it was a wrenching test for a handful of professions: clergy, florists, police, firefighters and the funeral homes, especially Honan, the only one in Newtown.
Honan and other licensed funeral directors from around the state — an astounding 160 of them, all working as volunteers — relearned what they already knew: that each service, each wake, each burial is sacred on its own; that there's no way to keep your emotions totally in check and no need to try after 20 children perish with no goodbyes from their parents; and that members of the Connecticut Funeral Directors Association are more of a brotherhood and sisterhood than a group of competitors.
"We did each funeral on a one-by-one basis and when you do that, you can keep your wits about you," Honan said at sunset on Friday, the darkest day of the year, right after the last of the burials in his charge, all small children from the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre. "If I was a basket case on every funeral I arranged, I wouldn't be able to do this work."
So you put up a wall, or as some call it, a curtain. "Which is not to say that you can't have a cry with the family," Honan added.
There is a time for unflinching decorum and a time for tears, and every funeral director says the same thing using different words: You go home and let out the emotions that you've bottled up on the job. Honan watched a couple of Christmas movies during a week of little sleep.
"Nobody gets used to a child in a casket," said Shauna Molloy, a co-owner of Molloy Funeral Home in West Hartford. "The hardest part of our job is always children's funerals and this has been child after child."
Honan's first inkling of a crisis came on the morning of Dec. 14, when a hospice nurse on the way to declare someone deceased at an assisted living facility called and said she'd be late — there was a chaotic scene in town. He turned on the TV. His wife, Colleen, called and said there were 27 people dead.
Almost right away, calls came in from colleagues around the state, some of whom Honan had just seen at the association's annual conference on Dec. 6 in Cromwell. "I was crying my eyes out, saying 'call me, call me,' " one funeral director later said of his call to Dan Honan.
"I knew there was nothing we could do right away. The parents weren't even told yet," Honan said.
The first call from a family came at 7 a.m. on Dec. 15. Around that same time, the association called, offering not just manpower but a whole plan of action that was set in motion that day. Honan had no way of knowing how many families would call.
By Sunday, the puzzle was coming together and Honan and leaders of the association organized the volunteers into teams. One thing was clear: This was not commerce. No money changed hands, no family paid anything. Casket companies donated caskets, vault companies donated vaults, cemeteries donated plots and the homes sent volunteers, every one of them a state-licensed director.
Working directly with most families were Honan; Mark Frederick, the other director at Honan; and John Zaleski of the Wakelee Memorial Funeral Home in Ansonia, Honan's close friend. Molloy took charge of scheduling the volunteers — some worked all week, some for one day — and of the grim task of preparing the bodies.
The association's president, Pasquale Folino, vice president of Thomas L. Neilan & Sons Funeral Homes in New London and Niantic, was there much of the week as well. He talked about the moral support the directors gave each other, which was clear as the last of them tended to final details in Honan's casket room before heading home late Friday.
"We're not robots, we're humans and our emotions come though," Folino said, especially at the first viewing and at the grave site.
And the number of details is astounding, all of them, seemingly, critical. As one funeral begins, 11 directors are on hand, most of them in the parking lot behind the Honan home. As the family arrives in two limousines and a few separate cars, directors jump into place as if they had been a team for years.
The director who called Honan in tears on that first day holds the back door for family members to enter, a phalanx of others around him. During the long wait, another director brings a picture of the child out to deliver to the church. Directors return from another funeral, including one who held up a program showing a joyous little girl.
"That's how you want to remember your children," the director said.
Directors talk with each other and with police escorts about every detail. One remarks to a cop that in this procession, every driver is a licensed director. The start of each procession is solemn, as if fully rehearsed, though each one is different, the directors all say.
A director holds a car door for a grieving mother and offers one last word of comfort, with a hand on her shoulder. There is no sound as pallbearers carry a small casket into an opened hearse.
Two or three directors will remain behind to carry flowers to the grave site, where they will join with cemetery staff and make sure everything is ready. Once the graveside service is done, they will stand as motionless sentries until family and friends have left.
Other than Honan and a couple of organizers who agreed to talk on the record about their roles this past week, directors did not want to be identified because, they say, the attention shouldn't be on them. One worked on his birthday, which he had originally arranged to take as a day off.
"I got into this business because of my faith," another one said. "I needed to be here." His most difficult funeral was for a child who shared his first name, not this past week.
"The state of Connecticut can be proud of the funeral directors they have," Honan said.
Don't call them undertakers, don't call them morticians and don't take them for granted. It's not likely any single funeral home ever had to bury or cremate 11 classmates at once and we all pray it won't be necessary again.
In the end, everything went as well as the funeral directors could have hoped. Honan talked about giving families the time they needed, which wasn't easy with one funeral after another, especially if a family needed to reschedule events. Once, a wake went so long over the scheduled time that the volunteer director had to whisk the family away for a private funeral service. Mourners paid their respects at the coffin, no family present.
"Some of these parents that are younger people, they've never had to deal with death in any way," said Honan, who was elected in 2011 to the town's 12-person legislative council.
Colleen Honan, who doesn't normally work in the business, was going through boxes of letters, including one from North Carolina addressed simply, "Funeral Home, Newtown, Conn."
She tells her husband of 29 years that her sister and two nephews have arrived to decorate the Christmas tree. He knows better than most of us that while his life will return to normal, the ones whose pain he may have eased just a little bit will never fully recover.
He will clean up the back room, then walk across the parking lot to the adjacent house where lives, to be with his family. "I'm going to give them a big hug."Copyright © 2015, CT Now