FITCHBURG — Jose Oliver shuffled slowly toward the casket, his gaze fixed downward. As he drew near the small white coffin that held his 4-year-old son’s remains, he extended a trembling palm, raised his head, and sobbed loudly.
“I’m so sorry, I’m so sorry,” he repeated, wailing in anguish as family members rushed to comfort him. “Lord, forgive me, I’m sorry.”
Oliver was not alone in his grief Saturday. Nearly 300 people filled Rollstone Congregational Church in Fitchburg for the funeral of Jeremiah Oliver, whose disappearance and death prompted an outpouring of public support for his family and widespread anger at the state agency charged with monitoring the boy’s well-being.
“I wish that this was a celebration of the return of Jeremiah and not the death of Jeremiah,” a tearful Oliver said. “A lot of people have told me that, now that we’ve found him, I would have peace and closure. Well, that’s not true.”
Oliver had held out hope that his son, whom he had not seen in for two years, would be found alive after authorities learned in December that Jeremiah had been missing for months. The boy’s remains were found in April, in what officials described as either a suitcase or duffel bag along Interstate 190 in Sterling.
Jeremiah’s mother, 28-year-old Elsa Oliver, and her boyfriend, Alberto Sierra Jr., 23, have been charged with assault and child endangerment in Jeremiah’s disappearance last fall. Neither has been charged with the boy’s death. Investigators have not determined how Jeremiah died.
Disclosure that the state Department of Children and Families failed to complete mandated checks on Jeremiah, along with the recent deaths of two other children under the agency’s supervision, led to the resignation last week of Commissioner Olga Roche.
In his eulogy, the Rev. Thomas Hughes remembered Jeremiah as a happy, smiling boy who loved to play in the dirt and collect bugs at a nearby park.
He also lauded the Fitchburg community for coming together to search and pray for Jeremiah.
“We may never know the exact reason or full circumstances of what happened,” Hughes said. “But what I do know is, this city . . . has rallied together the last few months in support of this family and in support of Jeremiah.”
Jose Oliver and his family enthusiastically applauded when Hughes recognized the law enforcement officials working on Jeremiah’s case and again when the minister thanked those who donated money to pay for Jeremiah’s funeral and burial and when he called for everyone in attendance to be more vigilant in watching after vulnerable children.
But Jose Oliver did not appear as enthusiastic when Hughes made a pointed plea for forgiveness.
“Unforgiveness will eat you from the inside out, and it will destroy your very being,” Hughes said, turning to the family. “Let’s not let anger and bitterness dictate our future. . . . We have to progress.”
Jose Oliver has publicly criticized Jeremiah’s mother and her boyfriend for refusing to disclose the boy’s fate or his whereabouts to police.
In January, Oliver vowed to fight for custody of his other two young children, who had also been in the care of Elsa Oliver, insisting in an interview with the Globe: “Don’t judge me on my past. . . . I know I can be a father to my kids and take care of them.” Days later, he was arrested in New Britain, Conn., on charges of selling heroin.
The two children are now in foster care.
Oliver’s 7-year-old daughter told staff at her school in December that she had not seen Jeremiah in some time, a disclosure that quickly led to the discovery that Jeremiah was missing.
At the funeral Saturday, Jose Oliver called her “Fitchburg’s hero.”
But his most heartfelt message was for his youngest son, whose body was in the casket.
“I am sorry, as a father and as a man, that I could not have been there to protect you,” he said, crying. “I just ask you to forgive me, even if it’s not my fault. I love you, son.”