When Laura Helfner had her grandfather's ashes and urn mailed from Nebraska, she couldn't have imagined what turned up on her Dix Hills doorstep Thursday: a busted-up, ripped-open cardboard box that was empty. 

Plastered to the box was a note from the postmaster expressing regret for the damaged package and apologizing for any "inconvenience," she said.

Angry and distraught over the loss of her beloved grandfather's remains, Helfner said she called the post office looking for answers. When she got through to someone, she said she was told to file a claim.

"This is not a pair of shoes lost by Amazon — it's my grandfather," said Helfner on Saturday, her voice rising in outrage, over the terrible loss as well as the lack of empathy she felt from the post office. "Total lack of empathy. Total carelessness. Utter thoughtlessness."

A spokesman for the U.S. Postal Service said the agency is looking into the loss.

Helfner, 37, said her grandfather died in July at age 88 from complications of dementia while in assisted living in Nebraska City. She was following his wishes to be laid to rest beside his wife when Helfner had the funeral director mail her his remains, she said.

She said she was relieved when she first spotted the box outside her front door — "I thought he was here" — only to look closer and discover her hopes had been dashed. Her grandfather had been a father figure to her, she said.

Laura Helfner with her grandfather Donald Pickering, who passed away in...

Laura Helfner with her grandfather Donald Pickering, who passed away in July at 88. Credit: Courtsey Laura Helfner

Helfner's grandfather, Donald Pickering, was born and raised in Nebraska and went on to receive two master's degrees in education. He served as an airman 1st class and saw action during the Korean War. He came home and helped form the Nebraska State School for the Blind and Handicapped, and he dedicated 38 years of service to blind and disabled children in Nebraska and Kansas, his granddaughter said. Pickering's wife, Marcia, died in 1997.

"Who would think that the most precious, priceless thing would be delivered to my doorstep in this condition?" she said. The experience, she said, "was worse than finding out he had passed away."

Helfer said she checked the tracking of the package online and saw that the urn and ashes departed Nebraska City on Aug. 19 and were processed through Des Moines, Iowa, before arriving in Jersey City on Aug. 24. It was there for two days before heading to her home, she said.

She found no mention of damage to the package or which post office might have handled it on Long Island, she said.

"Where is the accountability?" she said. "They lost a human being in the mail."

In a way, Helfer said she feels she has failed in her duty to her grandfather. She had planned to return to Nebraska in the spring, when the coronavirus had hopefully abated, to bury her grandfather's remains beside his wife.

"It feels like a nightmare that's not ending," she said. "All I want is someone showing up to my doorstep with the urn and ashes."

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