NEWARK, N.J. » In news reports, Maria Fernandes was the hardworking New Jersey woman who died in her car when she pulled over for a nap between shifts, likely overwhelmed by fumes. But family and friends who laid her to rest Friday recalled the 32-year-old Fernandes as so much more.
Fernandes earned a living working minimum wage jobs at three different Dunkin’ Donuts stores. When she died last month in the parking lot of a convenience store in Elizabeth, she had just completed an overnight shift at a shop in nearby Linden.
"I want you to know the real Maria," longtime friend Dar’Shay White told about 50 mourners who filled folding chairs at the Evans-Gordon Funeral Home in Newark. "There was nothing poor about her. Maria was rich — in love, in care."
But White and others barely mentioned Fernandes’ work life.
Instead they eulogized a woman who insisted on spending her money on others, who relished having a good time, and whose passion for all things Michael Jackson bound her to a tightknit group of friends.
Friends and family, as well as people whose only knowledge of Fernandes was reading reports of her death, returned her generosity by raising about $6,000 online in the last few days to pay for her service. They took turns speaking of her Friday as the music of Jackson played in the background. But despite mourners’ insistence that the day be a celebration of Fernandes’ life, her death prompted weeping and despair over the open casket and, later, at graveside.
"My dear friends, sometimes the mysteries bring us to our knees," the Rev. Augustine Adjei-Boachie told the mourners.
Police says Fernandes died after pulling into the parking lot on her way home to Newark at about 6:30 a.m. Aug. 25 to take a nap. She fell asleep and was found dead hours later. While toxicology reports have not yet been completed, investigators believe she died after inhaling fumes, noting that a gas can had tipped over in the car’s trunk. The car was turned off when police arrived.
Her death generated attention both in the U.S. and overseas, with some people seeing Fernandes as a symbol of the struggles of modern working life. Fernandes was born in Massachusetts, and moved to Portugal with her parents before returning to the U.S. at 18 or 19, a path that drew attention to her death in Europe, as well. The outpouring of interest, though, points not just to how she died, but to who she was, friends said.
"Maria did not die in vain!" friend Rochelle Sylvestre said. "She is a driving force of nature that has brought people together and is continuing to do just that even in death."