Between Amens —
Burying the indigent dead

Dr. Karen Shadle

On a drizzly October morning, I drove to Meadow View Cemetery in the southwest corner of Louisville to attend Pamela’s funeral.

A group of about 20, which included several volunteer burial coordinators and some students and faculty from Assumption High School, gathered under a small pavilion. We watched as the hearse approached. One of the volunteers quickly arranged a team of pallbearers to lift the plain wooden casket and place it on a stone platform.

The simple liturgy and interment that followed were the work of the Indigent Burial ministry, a coordinated effort between Catholic Charities of Louisville and local government to provide funeral and burial services for those who lack financial means.

Some of Pamela’s family were in attendance. A sibling shared that Pamela was the second-oldest of eight children. They were close in age and fought often but also shared many good memories. Pamela had a great laugh. I was grateful for even this cursory sketch of the woman I had never met, who we returned to God that day.

Later, one of the workers explained to me that the presence of family at these burials is rare. Often the volunteers are the sole witnesses to these final rites. Sometimes they do not even know the name of the person who has died because authorities cannot identify a next-of-kin nor any estate. I toured a section of anonymous graves at Meadow View; many of them were infants who were abandoned at the time of death.

My experience at Meadow View was one of both heartbreak and hope. On one hand, it is a powerful lament for human suffering – for the scourge of poverty and for the loneliness written on a John Doe’s grave marker. On the other hand, the beautiful rites I witnessed reminded me that we are all equal in dignity. God cares for each of his children and in death invites us all to eternal life.

Near the end of Pamela’s service, our small group was invited to approach and place a hand on the casket as we recited the Lord’s Prayer. I have been to many, many funerals, but this was a uniquely intimate moment. At that time, I felt united in grace with this woman I had never known, whose picture and obituary never appeared in the local paper.

I recently wrote in The Record’s special “Memento Mori” feature about funerals as a public witness to our Catholic faith. Though our connection to the deceased is often personal, the funeral rites which anchor us in the promise of eternal life are communal. They are for all of us. I think it’s a good practice to occasionally attend the funeral of someone you don’t know as an act of compassion and hope. In this month of November, when we, as a Church, remember our beloved dead, may we be united in our dignity as children of God and in our common pilgrimage toward heaven.

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