Ashley Govberg of Villanova visits the grave of her grandmother, Frances Salinger, following the unveiling of her headstone at Montefiore Cemetery Tuesday, Nov. 27, 2018 in Abington. After Salinger's death in 2015 her remains were unclaimed until Montgomery County Deputy Coroner Alex Balacki tracked Govberg down. She had been estranged from her grandmother following her father's passing. [BILL FRASER / STAFF]

Coroner reunites granddaughter with late grandmother

Frances Salinger died unnoticed, her cremated remains awaiting burial with others whose bodies were donated to science.

Then, a persistent deputy coroner helped reunite a fractured family.

Salinger was 92 when she died in March 2015. The nursing home where she lived was in the process of obtaining guardianship of Salinger, and no next of kin could be found.

The Montgomery County Coroner’s Office, where unclaimed bodies are sent, couldn't find family, either.

Deputy Coroner Alex Balacki submitted what information he had about Salinger to a Minnesota-based group of online amateur detectives and volunteer genealogists who help coroners and medical examiners locate next of kin, hoping to generate leads.

Nine months had passed when Balacki was notified that the group found the name of Salinger’s late husband, who died in 1983. They also had the name of a son, who also had died.

By that time, Salinger’s body had been accepted into the Humanities Gifts Registry and her body donated to a local medical school for teaching purposes.

Balacki started periodically checking the status of Salinger’s remains. After a year, he tracked her down at the Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine, where the body had been cremated in anticipation of burial in a mass grave.

Balacki made an unusual request. He asked for Salinger’s ashes to be returned to him. The medical school agreed.

For a year, Balacki kept the boxed remains in his office as he dug deeper into Salinger’s life.

An online search revealed Salinger's husband might be buried at the Montefiore Cemetery in Abington. The cemetery confirmed it was Salinger's husband. It also had records that Frances Salinger bought a second plot next to her husband and headstone around the time of his death. The cemetery agreed to bury her remains for free.

“I’m glad I took another look,” Balacki said. “I didn’t want her buried in a mass grave.”

 

Stones placed atop the headstone of Frances Salinger by her granddaughter, Ashley Govberg of Villanova, at Montefiore Cemetery Tuesday, Nov. 27, 2018 in Abington. [BILL FRASER / STAFF]

His detective work could have ended at that point. But Balacki turned up another piece of key information.

An obituary for Salinger’s son included the name of a possible granddaughter living in Delaware County.

Ashley Govberg, 43, lost contact with her grandmother after her father died at age 52.

Her mother and grandmother didn’t have a good relationship, she said. After her father died, she gradually lost contact.

Occasionally, she’d ask her mom what happened to her grandmother, but she didn’t know.

Then, on a summer day last year, her phone rang while she was making lunch. It was a number Govberg didn’t recognize.

The caller was a deputy coroner for Montgomery County. The office had the remains of her grandmother, who had died three years earlier.

“I was so stunned. I burst into tears,” Govberg said. “It was such a shock.”

Balacki told Govberg that he would be taking the remains to the cemetery that afternoon.

“I’ll come get her right now,” she replied.

Two weeks later, Govberg placed her grandmother into the plot she bought 35 years ago. It is next to her husband, and across from where her son, Govberg’s father, is buried.

Last November, the name, birth and death dates for Frances Salinger were added to the headstone.

“She should be at peace and she should be at rest,” Govberg said. “All I am thankful for is that she is with her husband. At least they are all together again.”

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