When artist Alison Byrnes opened a package she had mailed to herself two years earlier, she was expecting to find a sealed box of her prints - but that's not what was inside.
The United States Postal Service had made a rather serious mistake. Instead of artist prints, USPS delivered a little blue urn — containing the ashes of a total stranger.
Attempts at finding the family of the deceased failed, and the cremated remains of Jennings L. Heffelfinger sat abandoned and forgotten, year after year.
That is, until 2019, when intrepid reporter Sophie Bearman took over the case. Determined to solve the mystery, Bearman embarks on a personal and professional journey to get the urn back where it belongs. But how much help is too much? Amid a pandemic that forces us to ponder mortality incessantly, Episode 7 offers a refreshing and unexpected take on life and loss.
Special thanks to Tessa Kramer, Jennie Tracy, Elaine Pepe, Michelle Burnett, Anna Benjamin, Chris Petrone, Alison Rivett and The Women’s Studio Workshop.
To learn more about Sophie Bearman’s multimedia work, check out sophiebearman.com
This content was originally created for audio. The transcript has been edited from our original script for clarity. Heads up that some elements (i.e. music, sound effects, tone) are harder to translate to text.
Nora Saks: Everyone I know has a story about an item getting lost in the mail, a birthday present from a loved one. A postcard they're expecting from Alaska. An Amazon order. Hey, Sophie, has that ever happened to you?
Sophie Bearman: It definitely has, but I feel like recently I'm in a state where I get really upset about something not seeming like it's going to arrive. And then eventually it does.
Nora: I’m talking to multimedia journalist Sophie Bearman.
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Nora: How many pieces of mail do you think the Postal Service handles each day?
Sophie: Oh my gosh. I mean, it's got to be millions. I don't know.
Nora: Yeah, I looked it up because I was really curious. And it turns out the Postal Service handles over 170 million pieces of mail each day. So, you know, that's a lot. And most of the time when something gets lost in the mail, it either shows up late or you never see it.
Nora: But Sophie is preoccupied with one particular - and significant - postal service blunder.
Sophie: Yes, and this is a story about that. It's about some artwork that was destined for Michigan that never arrived and the very unexpected item that was delivered instead.
Nora: Welcome to Last Seen - a show about people, places and things that have gone missing, and whether or not they can, or even should, be found. From WBUR - Boston’s NPR station. I’m Nora Saks.
Today, Sophie Bearman tries to help a family recover a parcel that’s extremely dear to them. But how much help is too much?
This is EPISODE 7 - A most unusual houseguest.
Sophie: This story starts in 2013. That’s when printmaker and artist Alison Byrnes — now Alison Rivett — was accepted to a 10-week bookmaking fellowship. Alison is American but lived in India at the time, and the workshop was in upstate New York at a place called the Women’s Studio Workshop.
Alison Rivett: I worked worked worked worked and finished this book, which is called scientific theories once widely believed since proven wrong. It is a screen-printed book with between nine and 15 color screenprints. It has a silk cover that I brought from India and I finished, I think, at around 1:00 in the morning, the night before my flight. But I did finish.
Sophia: In a rush to return to her life and job in India, and also limited by suitcase space, Alison left behind most of her prints at the women’s studio workshop. She asked one of the interns there to box them up and ship them to her friend's house in Michigan for safekeeping. So the box went there. And Alison went back to India.
Alison: And then I didn't happen to come back again until 2015.
Sophie: Two years later! That’s when she finally returned to the U.S. for a visit. She stayed with that friend and was excited to see her artwork again.
Alison: I thought, okay, I need to get some prints out. I'm going to take them back to India, give them as gifts to people. They are really nice prints. I can't wait to have a few and maybe put some — be able to frame some and put them in shows by themselves.
Sophie: So Alison located the box, which had been sitting, undisturbed, in her friend's basement. She opened it.
Alison: and I start to see a container inside and I thought. Oh, there's — this is the wrong content. They've switched it and this is like a light fixture of some sort. They must have just switched the address labels and they're shipping my prints to some other artist because it's like a metal container. And then when I saw the label on it and it kind of put two and two together after maybe a minute, I realized it was a cremains package.
Sophie: A cremains package. And yes, for the uninitiated, cremains are a mashup of exactly what they sound like, cremated remains. Ashes that look like light grey sand. Instead of her prints, Alison received an iridescent, dark blue and purple urn, with a wider top and narrow base, inscribed with a name, death date and location of cremation: Jennings L. Heffelfinger, Nov. 10, 2013, Krematorium Berlin.
Alison: I had read about different artists taking unclaimed remains and making beautiful vessels for them as a way to honor people who had been unclaimed. I thought these must have been collected by an artist and were somewhere around the studio for a project like that, and somehow again, the labels got switched.
Sophie: Theory in hand, Alison reached out to the Women’s Studio Workshop. She wanted to let them know they'd sent her the wrong box.
Alison: “Dear Chris, hope you're having a nice break and I miss you all. very sorry to bother you” — because it’s the holidays — “but i just opened the box from WSW sent two years ago. I got a larger metal item, dark purple/blue, which comes apart and has another metal thing inside it. it seems to be crematorium related and says Heffelfinger, Jennings 3-18-1944 plus 18-11-2013 and crematorium Berlin standard reublin on it. Yup, I'm pretty sure there's a dead body sitting on my bed right now.
Sophie: She went on to explain that her prints were missing, and tested her theory: might there be an artist working with cremains — whose work was accidentally shipped to her friend’s house two years ago? And if that’s the case, might Chris — the studio manager at the women’s studio workshop — know where her art ended up? Chris was on vacation at her mom’s house when she got the email.
Chris Petrone: I'm pretty sure I just went up to my mom and I was like, I just got the weirdest email and my response was holy shit, I mean, happy holidays. I have no clue.
Sophie: And Alison's theory about the urn as an art project...that didn’t hold up.
Alison: A lot of the conclusion is we have no idea, like there's no project. I think I also talked to her on the phone at the time and was asking about my theory that there was a ceramics project involving unclaimed remains. and she said no. And that part continues to remain a mystery. If you know anything, I've always wondered how this occurred!
Sophie: How does an urn, originating in Berlin, end up alone — separated from its death certificate, paperwork, original packaging, anything at all crematorium-related except the literal urn itself — and wind up in a box that was originally packaged with a bunch of prints? Literally, the box sent by the Women’s Studio Workshop, with Alison’s friend’s address in Michigan handwritten on it. And how does an urn sit — unmissed — for two whole years? These questions don’t get answered. Not before Alison has to leave Michigan and go back to India. So Chris, the art director at the Women’s Studio Workshop in New York, took over the investigation.
Chris googled “Krematorium Berlin,” which was engraved on the purple urn, and found a generic email address to reach out to.
Chris: I'm like, I don't know how I would email someone about this without it being sounding totally looney tunes, but I wrote, “Hi, I'm not sure who to be in touch with and where to begin.”
Sophie: Chris explained the story to whoever was on the other end of her email-- that they’d found an urn belonging to a Mr. Jennings L. Heffelfinger, that may have been missing for two years since it was cremated back in 2013 — and did the crematorium know if anyone’s looking for it? And, the crematorium wrote back.
Chris: “We are so glad that you've found the package, could you please send it back to our crematorium so we can make sure to hand it over to the right person”. And then she gave me the address.
Sophie: Chris forwarded the good-news email to Alison. And Alison, who was back in India by now, let her friends know there was an address to send the urn to. But it was in Berlin, Germany! She felt bad putting all this work on them when it wasn’t exactly their issue to solve.
Alison: I didn't really pressure them to go through all this trouble to do this international shipment. And I was just like, I'll deal with it when I'm back again. So that ended up delaying it again, which in hindsight, I feel really bad. like I should have pressured them maybe to send it because his people were probably wondering, you know, anyone who was wondering where this urn was.
Sophie: And meanwhile, Chris assumed the urn was returned.
Chris: And I thought he was mailed back because I didn't hear from the crematorium. I didn’t hear from Alison. No one got in touch.
Sophie: Let's just pause here and say — handling something like this, when you’re living abroad in India, or managing a really busy art studio, or generally just doing life and tasks and things that keep one busy — is hard. And so somehow — as time can do — winter of 2015 became summer of 2017 before Alison was back in the States and reunited with the urn.
Meaning that Jennings L. Heffelfinger — at this point — had spent three and a half years in her friend’s basement. Three and a half years collecting dust in Michigan, before Alison returned to the US once again. And this time she decided to visit the Women’s Studio Workshop. So,
Alison: So I brought the box with me, I drove the 10 hours from Ann Arbor to Rosendale, and I brought my supplies and my week's worth of clothes and this box.
Chris: and I see her handing Erin my new boss this box and I'm like, great, Erin has no clue what this is about, and I just knew right away I was like, oh my god, she drove across country with Jennings in the trunk of the car.
Sophie: That's Chris again. And Chris was mortified to discover the urn was not, in fact, back in the hands of the crematorium or the family it belonged to. She thought the urn had been taken care of, returned, but instead, here it was. Back in her life.
So Chris took it upon herself to make sure Jennings L. Heffelfinger got where he needed to go safely — starting with mailing him back to Germany. She dug up the address in Berlin — from the old email she’d gotten — and headed to the local post office. Only to learn that in order to mail cremains overseas, you need a death certificate. And Chris didn’t have one.
Chris: The manager was like, “wait a minute, wait a minute, wait a minute,” you know? And I'm like, no, no, no, this is for real.
Sophie: The post office suggested Chris visit a local funeral home for help. The director there couldn’t.
Chris: He was like, I would take it from you, but I can't legally do anything without any paperwork.
Sophie: Next she contacted the German consulate with the U.N. They told her to contact the crematorium in Berlin for new copies of the paperwork. And remember, this is where Chris started. So Chris, for the second time, now years later, emailed the crematorium in Berlin.
Chris: “This past month, Jennings has come into our possession again. I cannot mail them to you legally, and the funeral home can not mail them to you without his death certificate, passport, and a certificate of cremation with payment.”
Sophie: That was on August 17th, 2017. Three and a half years after Jennings L. Heffelfinger died, was cremated, got mailed to the U.S., was found by Alison, forgotten, rediscovered, and finally driven to the Women’s Studio Workshop in the trunk of Alison's car. But this time, the crematorium didn’t respond. Chris wrote again after about a week. No one replied.
Chris: And I, um, I don't know where it went from there. The effort just kind of subsided on it.
Sophie: Chris had hit a dead end. She couldn’t mail the cremains to Berlin without a death certificate, and she couldn’t get a death certificate without help from the folks in Berlin — who weren’t responding. So Jennings Heffelfinger’s remains got stored in the studio attic. He ended up sitting there, for three more years. And then, in 2019, I heard the story from my friend Anna. She was also a fellow at the residency program. She heard about the story on Halloween...
Anna Benjamin: We were sitting down to lunch and people were suggesting that somebody tell ghost stories and they said, let's, you know, let's tell the story about the cremains in women’s studio workshop.
Sophie: She told me the whole tale — how it arrived in Michigan and made its way to upstate New York — how no one knows who Jennings L. Heffelfinger is or where he belongs and my immediate reaction is: this is a crazy good story — and I want dibs on it. Like — badly.
Let’s talk about me for a second. In 2019, when Anna told me this story, I desperately wanted to prove myself as a creative journalist. I was producing quick-hit videos for a 9-5 business news website. I needed to not think about personal finance, Elon Musk, bitcoin, or really anything biz news related. This was my big creative break! So I inserted myself into the situation, trusting that I could be the one to figure it all out.
When I connected with Chris from the Women’s Studio Workshop, and told her I wanted to get Jennings back to where he belonged, she welcomed the help.
Chris: Yeah, this has been weighing on me. Yeah, it's just it should be back where it should be. you know, he should be wherever he was meant to be shipped to.
Sophie: So with permission, I set about trying to solve the first big question: who is Jennings L. Heffelfinger and who does he belong to? Where are his relatives?
And by the way, that’s not actually that easy to figure out. There are way more Heffelfingers out there than you might imagine, including a Thomas Heffelfinger, former U.S. attorney for Minnesota, a Totton Heffelfinger, a golf player, and so on. But by and by, through various records, I find Jennings L. Heffelfinger — our Heffelfinger.
He was born in San Bernardino, California in 1944. He enlisted in the military and fought in Vietnam. He married at 21, divorced at 24, and maybe married again later. And that’s about all I can find. And I'm puzzled because his remains came from…Berlin.
Nevertheless I set out to track down his family members. I run a search on ancestry.com and narrow in on one very important clue: Jenning’s mother’s maiden name was Peterson. Now, this doesn’t sound promising since Peterson is a way more common name than Heffelfinger, but it was still a helpful clue.
Because if Jennings had any siblings, they’d share that mother’s maiden name on their birth records. And that gives me something to go off.
Sophie: And now the question is — does Jennings have any siblings? so let’s do another search...
Sophie: I run another search on ancestry for all Heffelfingers born in California between 1940 and 1950. There are a lot of them. So I just started scanning...page by page...looking for the maiden name “Peterson.”
Sophie: Howard Royal Heffelfinger, Norma Jean Heffelfinger, Gary Franklin Heffelfinger, born in San Francisco. Ooh! Jennie Lee Heffelfinger, mother’s maiden name Peterson.
Sophie: Jennie could be a sister. I did a background search for Jennie Heffelfinger, and find a marriage record to a Roger Tracy. And I find a phone number?
Roger Tracy: Hello?
Sophie: Hi, is this Roger Tracy?
Sophie: Hi, my name is Sophie, I'm trying to reach Jennie Tracy, is that your wife?
Sophie: Ok. So is this kind of a weird story. But I'm actually a reporter, I'm a radio reporter and I'm trying to reach Jennie because is she the sister of Jennings Heffelfinger?
Sophie: Um, okay. So, again, very strange story, but I have a friend, I'm based in New York and I had a friend who told me about an art studio in New York that actually ended up with an urn with Jennings Heffelfinger name on it.
Roger: Oh you did?!
Roger: Oh my god. Really?
Roger: Holy crap. Well, when did you get this? We've been looking for this for years! It's her brothers' ashes.
Sophie: Yeah, they've actually had it since 2013.
Roger: Oh my god, hold on, let me give you to my wife. She's sitting right alongside — oh bless your heart. Oh my god. Here, let me see. let me give you to her.
Jennie Tracy: Hello.
Sophie: Hi, Jennie, my name is Sophie. How are you?
Jennie: Well I'm — you found my brother's ashes?
Sophie: I did. Yeah, I know where they are.]
Sophie: It’s — it’s hard to describe how good this moment feels — how emotional it is to hear their reactions to finding their brother and to finally have a chance to get some answers.
One of my burning questions is — why Germany? And Jennie explains that he’d been living there for years — decades — ever since he finished fighting in Vietnam.
And Jennie, of course, has her own burning question. How can they get him back?
Jennie: Where are you located?
Sophie: I'm in new york. He's been in new york.
Jennie: In new york?! My sister's in maryland. can I give you her — -- okay. Yeah, yeah. send em here!]
Sophie: I’m incredibly moved, on the verge of tears, overwhelmed by their reactions. And yet there’s a tiny part of me who realizes — I don’t want to send him back just yet. Maybe the story-hungry journalist part of me?
Jennie: Okay, I'll give you my address. okay. Hi, my name is Jennie Tracy, my address is…]
Sophie: I keep Jennie on the phone longer than she’d probably like, prying out details about who Jennings was. Finally, she tells me she needs to go call her sisters to share the news, and we say goodbye. And what do I do? I call my friend and rant about how I could have stayed on the line with her sisters.
Sophie: I could have, like, dialed in her sisters. but then what if they didn't answer because they didn't recognize our name? My number? Yeah.
Sophie: Jennings’ family just wants him back. But that tiny part of me still wants a story. So I craft a pitch — a pitch that could mean I’d get to keep Jennings just a little bit longer.
More on how that went…after the break.
Sophie: The day after I reached Jennie on the phone, I connected with her sister in Maryland, Elaine.
Sophie: What did you think when you got a call from your sister yesterday? Like, what did she say to you?
Elaine: She says, are you sitting down? she says someone called regarding Jan's ashes and they think they found him. I said, oh, you got to be kidding.]
Sophie: We chit chat a little, and then I make my pitch.
Sophie: Would you mind sharing your address with me because I want to figure out how far I am from you because I had the idea that I could maybe bring you, You know, the urn, but it logistically could be a challenge if it's too far. but if you give me your address, I can google map it. Hello. Hello. Hello. Hello?]
Sophie: The line drops at that exact moment, leaving me in suspense. But when I reconnect, I'm in luck, Elaine’s on board with me delivering the urn, and we tentatively agree that I'll drive down in the next two weeks or so., she says she’ll text me the details.
To which I reply,
Sophie: But calls are better because like I said, I'm doing a radio story, so that way I can always record, which is just better for me. so just call me, yeah!]
Sophie: Because this is their brother…but it’s my audio story. Over the next few weeks I talk to the family more. I learn Jennings was the middle child, and only boy, of six tight-knit siblings. Also, they never called him Jennings — he was always just Jan.
With a father out of the picture, and a mother who struggled with alcoholism, the six siblings banded together from a young age. Jennie, being the second-oldest at about 17, actually cared for Jan and their sister Eva for a number of years, while Elaine — the eldest — took care of younger sisters Linda and Helen.
So even when Jan wound up in Vietnam and then Germany, the siblings kept in touch.
Other random facts about Jan emerge — that he loved to fish more than anything else, that he also loved a burger and chocolate shake combo — to the detriment of his diabetes — and that he could be stubborn — maybe why he stayed in Germany all those years, his family ponders...
But mostly, that he was loved.
Jennie: Our brother was really special.
Sophie: That's Jennie again.
Jennie: He's one of those people that had a heart bigger than he was, and he'd get the shirt off of his back to anybody.
Sophie: I learn that when Jan passed, his cremains were mailed from the crematorium in Berlin to his sister Elaine in Washington, DC. The package was scanned at the U.S. postal service’s exchange office/air mail import unit at JFK airport on December 16, 2013. That’s when it entered the States. And on that same day — the Women’s Studio Workshop dropped off Alison's prints at the Rosendale, New York local post office — on December 16, 2013.
But Jan’s family didn’t just sit around twiddling their thumbs when his urn failed to arrive in DC. His band of siblings launched a search that would last close to four years.
Jennie: We went to the senators, we went to—my sister worked for the pentagon and she went through all that area. You name it, we did it.
Sophie: The sisters contacted USPS, the German Consulate, the crematorium in Berlin, and even Senator John McCain, who they hoped might help because he, like Jan, was a Vietnam War veteran. And McCain’s staff got back to them. They had details with the last known whereabouts of the package, which is when it had landed at JFK airport. But not its final location.
So after years of searching — the McCain letter refers to it as quote “a long-standing issue” — the siblings finally decide Jan wasn’t coming home.
Jennie: We just finally figured my brother always would get lost going across the street, we figured he got lost after death.
Sophie: They stopped their search and planned a ceremony for their brother at a hotel with a river in Washington State — a setting they thought he would have liked to fish at and near one of the sister’s homes.
Elaine: We just had a little ceremony on our own for my brother and just threw his ashes — burnt wood up to have ashes because we didn’t have anything!
They brought wood, and photos of Jan, which they also burned up into ashes, and scattered what they could of their brother into the river. They found their way to say goodbye.
So as it turns out, I don't get Jan's urn to the family in two weeks time. He ends up sitting in my bedroom closet for more than six months. At first, we’d planned the trip for March 2020, but that got derailed by the pandemic. I could have put Jan in the mail, but I was more invested than ever in seeing the story through. Jan’s family didn’t seem too bothered or in a rush. So, even as the months passed, I kept Jan in my closet...for a short period, I even sublet my apartment but left Jan there...my tenant never knew. Of course, I kept up with the family. And finally, in September, Elaine and I hatched a new plan: we’d meet halfway between our homes — in Harrisburg, PA — and I would hand-deliver deliver the urn. This was what I’d been waiting for!
Sophie: We're about 54 miles away and it'll be Elaine and her husband and their daughter all coming to receive Jennings.
Sophie: As I'm driving south, passing blurred homes, graveyards, trump signs, cattle fields, I'm rehearsing all these big picture questions to ask Jan's family. I want to know whether this experience has changed how they think about loss or time. I want to know what they think now when something goes missing — whether they expect it’ll eventually turn up.
But that doesn’t happen. At a Cafe Fresco in Harrisburg, with loud cars from the nearby highway honking in the background, we talk about Elaine's grandkids, bad traffic, and that time she and her husband got caught in a blackout on a trip to New York City.
Elaine: So we really didn't get to see anything except the people sitting on the sidewalks. and then, there was ice cream.
Pepe: That was great. we were running up and down, picking up ice cream and steaks and stuff like that. it was great!
Sophie: Basically...anything and everything except for what I’ve come for.
Still, I dig enough to collect bits and pieces about Jan. Elaine tells me about visiting him in Germany for his birthday — it was a nice trip — and I come to discover that though Jan loved to fish, he wasn’t all that good at it.
Sophie: What did he catch?
Pepe: Well, the main thing, nothing.
Elaine: He didn't catch anything. He just liked to fish.
Sophie: But fundamentally, I'm prying for a reflection and some sort of emotional closure, that isn’t there.
Sophie: so were you guys a really close-knit family like all six of you?
Elaine: Well, they're all different places. Yeah, so really not, probably as we grew up.
Sophie: Towards the end of lunch, I suggest they open the box and look at the urn. Up until now, it’s been sitting unopened on the floor beside our table. It's the color of it — dark blue/purple — that first catches Elaine's eye.
Elaine: hey, it's a pretty color. I’m surprised it’s still all intact.
Sophie: And is the urn what they expected, I ask? Is this what they thought it would look like? Elaine’s husband finds some surprise in the design...
Pepe: I never realized they got him in a container within a container.
Sophie: But Elaine — she’s harder to astonish.
Elaine: Linda’s daughter, she works for a mortuary. And our daughter's got one for her dogs.
Sophie: I'd kept Jan from the family so that I could record this big finale. But there wasn’t one. And frankly, they’d have liked to have had him back sooner...
Elaine: Finally! It was February or January when we started. It's been a long time.
Pepe: I was almost going to wonder whether we're ever going to get together to pick him up.
Sophie: I wanted an audio story. But they just wanted their brother back. I process the handoff with my friend Tessa, who’s been helping me with the story and keeping me company through this whole thing.
Sophie: Uh. Okay! [laughter] I mean ... I think we ... that was not amazing
Tessa: Well! They just didn’t want to be super reflective, which is totally fine. And also like, he died seven years ago! and i think partially they are just like...yeahhh...they’re happy to have him but they’re much more worried about their great grandkids’ remote schooling and you know, just life. It wasn’t like anything, really.
Sophie: Except that, of course, it is. Because they have their Jan back.
A few weeks later, I get a video from Elaine in Maryland. It's close to dusk, and she’s standing on a dock in a lake, next to her daughter.
The setting is...stunning. I don’t fish, but if I did, this would be the place to do it — catch or no catch. The lake is a deep blue color, and big, and surrounded by fall foliage in shades of orange and red.
Elaine and her daughter: Uncle Jan, you took a circuitous route. A long ways away. Seven year trip! But you finally made it. And we are going to dump you where you used to fish per your request. We are going to spread your ashes in the water and we hope they're yours [laughter].
Sophie: I don't know if you caught that, but Elaine says “we hope they’re yours.” Because, let’s face it...After years in Michigan, and then in upstate New York, and then in my apartment in Manhattan — and who am I but a total stranger making an audio story. Who even knows anymore.
Nevertheless — he’s home.
Elaine” There you go! And we hope you enjoy the celebration of life. We’re all going to have your sisters and everyone together to commemorate your life, on the date of your death, seven years ago.
Sophie: And that’s exactly what they do.
Sophie: So, it’s 6:26pm on a Tuesday, October 13th, and I’m about to join a Zoom call with Jennings’ family, so they sent out an invitation. It says, “We think about you always, we talk about you still. You’ve never been forgotten and you never will. We hold you close within our heart and there you will remain, to walk and guide us through our lives, until we meet again.” So he actually passed away today, 7 years ago.
Sophie: The Zoom kicks off in the usual fashion, technological mishaps and cameras pointed at foreheads rather than faces.
[Family voices: Mom’s here! Eva made it — and Eva is now trying to present. I don’t think you meant to do that]
Sophie: Until eventually people settle in, and begin to share memories of Jan, one by one. And I wish I could play those stories for you. But in some twist of fate — I lost the audio of the memorial.
I’ve searched high and low, on hard drives, old computers, in my email, on SD cards that I find floating around my apartment, I simply don’t have it. Which is fine, really. Because at the end of the day, this is their story. Not mine.