Helen Williams, left, comforted Sheila Milon as she saw daughter Tina’s body for the first time Friday at St. Olaf Lutheran Church in Minneapolis. Williams helped the Milon family with arrangements.

Glen Stubbe, Star Tribune

Tina Milon

Feed Loader, Star Tribune

GLEN STUBBE • The Rev. Dale Hulme of St. Olaf Lutheran Church said a brief prayer as Tina Milon’s loved ones gathered for her burial Friday in Oak Hill Cemetery in Minneapolis. The burial plot was donated by Harriett Ellison, a former Minnesotan who lives in Culpeper, Va.

Glen Stubbe, Star Tribune

A final rest for daughter, with thanks to strangers

  • Article by: ABBY SIMONS
  • Star Tribune
  • January 7, 2011 - 10:15 PM

Stray snowflakes swirled Friday as Tina Milon's silver casket sat ready to be lowered into the frozen ground. A half-dozen family members huddled near the grave. Her teenage daughter let out an anguished sob.

The scene did not seem a miracle, but for Tina's family it was. Thanks to the kindness of strangers, the 31-year-old mother of two was finally laid to rest.

Milon died Dec. 6 from complications of a 2005 stroke. Her mother, Sheila Milon, couldn't afford to bury her.

Sheila, 46, a Walgreens clerk, felt overwhelmed as she applied for $2,100 from Hennepin County, to put toward a funeral. It wouldn't be nearly enough; a basic funeral and burial costs $8,000 to $10,000. But she was determined to bury Tina.

"I was ready to stand on Broadway with a poster board or get on a news broadcast," she said. "My daughter was gonna lay down."

But how?

Enter Helen Williams. The north Minneapolis business owner estimates that in five years she's helped 1,000 poor families bury loved ones. For no pay, she helps to secure public funds and solicits donated funeral services, burial plots, caskets and other necessities.

Williams found out about Sheila's predicament and gave her a call. Sheila wanted to bury her daughter at Oak Hill Cemetery in south Minneapolis, near Tina's brother, Tommie Milon, who was gunned down in 2001 at age 18. Williams said it would cost about $1,400 for a plot there.

She knew it would be a challenge to secure one, but she was determined to do it.

"Imagine what it's like to not bury your child, to just sit there not having any money," she said. "You know how that must feel?"

Williams called Twin Cities shelters and churches -- no luck. Then she scoured the Internet and stumbled upon a site with an old ad. She picked up the phone.

'It was a miracle'

About 10 years ago, Harriett Ellison of Culpeper, Va., decided to try and sell the plots her mother bought from Oak Hill 70 years ago, when her husband died. Ellison moved from Minnesota long ago; she had no interest in being buried here.

She said the plots were worth about $1,200 each, but she advertised them for $800 apiece. She got no takers.

Last Monday, her phone rang. It was Helen Williams, inquiring whether she'd be willing to donate one of the plots to a family in need.

Almost without hesitation, Ellison, 80, decided to donate both plots. She reasoned that someday, someone would in need could use the second one too.

"It wasn't a hard decision," she said. "It's something that could help somebody else, and I just can't imagine how hard it could be for that family."

"Chills went through my body," Williams said. "It was a miracle." She told Sheila Milon, who couldn't contain her gratitude.

"I got on my knees," Sheila said. "I just prayed and prayed. It's been a really painful loss, and to know somebody's here with you, that loves you, that is a stranger ..."

Finally, a funeral

Williams got a casket at cost from Oyate Tawicohan (The Way of the People) Funeral Services of Minneapolis, which specializes in serving low-income families. Brooks Funeral Home of St. Paul transported the body and prepared it for viewing, all at no charge.

The family chose hymns and printed programs emblazoned with a picture of Tina, smiling. They bought a modest bouquet.

On Friday, about 100 people filed into St. Olaf Lutheran Church in north Minneapolis. They prayed and sang and remembered Tina Milon, a loving mother and devout Christian who, they said, never let her weak body bring down her strong spirit.

That spirit, they said, was finally free. They pledged to let God into their hearts so that they might one day see her again.

A few hours later, a minivan pulled up to a freshly dug grave at Oak Hill Cemetery.

A half-dozen of Tina's loved ones carried her casket and laid it upon a rack above her final resting place.

The Rev. Dale Hulme said a brief prayer, and Tina's loved ones took turns laying yellow roses upon the casket. They hugged and cried.

And, finally, they said goodbye.

Abby Simons • 612-673-4921

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