9/11 inspires woman to become funeral director

Arlene Miller at the Miller Funeral Home and Crematory in Somerset, Pa.
Arlene Miller at the Miller Funeral Home and Crematory in Somerset, Pa.

PITTSBURGH — It's not uncommon to hear people say they were "changed forever" by 9/11. But when Arlene Miller says it, she means for the better.

Ms. Miller, a native of West Mifflin, is married to Somerset County Coroner Wally Miller. She was a chemist with PPG Industries when Flight 93 went down near Shanksville, Pa., but when she saw how swamped her husband was, she took a leave of absence to help find, identify, and catalogue the remains of the 40 victims on board and stay in touch with their families.

Ms. Miller, then 36, found the work so important and the experience so profound, she quit her job and went back to school to become a funeral director. Ten years after the crash, she and her husband are partners in Miller Funeral Home and Crematory, founded by Mr. Miller's father. She's the supervisor at their Rockland location, while her husband runs the Somerset operation. Both of them are still in touch with families of those who died on Flight 93.

"I was called to this job," Ms. Miller said, eschewing the office sofa to sit cross-legged on the floor. "I knew I had something to give that I didn't know before 9/11."

During her month's leave of absence from PPG, she helped her husband set up the temporary morgue in the local armory where all the local, state, and federal agencies worked side by side identifying the remains. Ms. Miller pitched in wherever she could be useful, from taking photos and organizing search parties to comb the woods on their hands and knees to buying up every baggie in town to hold the human remains. All her time was donated.

"Whatever was needed, I learned how to do," she said.

The outside agencies eventually left and the morgue operations moved to Somerset Hospital. Every so often, the FBI and the DNA teams would return, and Ms. Miller would host them while her husband stayed at the site. When identifications came back to the coroner's office in the courthouse basement, she'd add them to the files and help with notifications.

"As the year went on I got closer to the families, until they saw Wally and me as interchangeable."

Ms. Miller returned to work at PPG but still spent every free moment helping her husband with 9/11-related tasks. They lived in one room in the Somerset funeral home, with a microwave and coffee maker. Then his father grew ill, leaving Wally Miller on his own to handle the coroner's job and two funeral homes.

That's when it hit her: "After being that close and watching Wally's demeanor, reassuring everyone and helping them through the most difficult time, I saw the value in that work, how much it meant to have someone trusted in that job.

"I thought, who would care more and do a better job than I would? Wally said he'd thought about it so many times but never dared to ask me. We both knew it would be just the right thing."

Ten months after the crash, she left her job and enrolled in the Pittsburgh School of Mortuary Science.

"Of the 75 people in the class, 40 graduated," Ms. Miller said. "I could see why. It's not for everyone. I think people get the wrong idea from watching TV crime shows."

The year-long program covered science, law, and dealing with families in the midst of tragedy, as well as embalming.

"I realized what an honor it was to be trusted to do the right things when nobody's looking and nobody knows. I felt like a sponge. I wanted to bring everything I could back with me.

"As school progressed we got into restorative art, how to make people viewable. I realized that if you really work at it, you can rebuild a face. I saw how much it means to families to view a person one more time, and I took it to heart."

Right before graduation, her husband asked if she could help with a woman who'd died after brain surgery. The family didn't want a wig; could she do a hair replacement?

"I worked all day and all night, until she looked exactly right. The family was so grateful."

Ms. Miller was valedictorian of her class, graduating with straight A's and most of the awards, including one for dedication. Her husband, who had earned widespread praise for his handling of Flight 93, was the speaker.

A decade after 9/11, the Millers live in a renovated apartment above the funeral home. Ms. Miller said she wouldn't want to be anywhere else.

"Everybody is somebody's favorite person," she said. "It's sad to lose a loved one, but when a child has died in a car wreck and isn't viewable, and you've stayed up all night to make sure they are, there's a grace and a joy in that."

Block News Alliance consists of The Blade and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Sally Kalson is a staff writer for the Post-Gazette; contact her at: skalson@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1610.