The men who solemnly stood around Mary Sparrows’ coffin — a plain wooden box sitting on a metal table in Meadow View Cemetery — never knew her when she was alive.
But on a hot August morning, in the absence of any of her family members, they stood together and prayed that her soul would rest in peace.
Services for Sparrows were held Aug. 26 through the Louisville Indigent Burial program now being administered by Catholic Charities of Louisville. The program had been operated by local government since the late 1980s, most recently by the Jefferson County Coroner’s Office.
Matthew Whisman serves as Indigent Burial Program coordinator at Catholic Charities. He told those gathered that nothing was known of her except the name of her deceased mother. They also knew that Sparrows died about two weeks ago.
“You’re acting as her family,” said Whisman to the group — including a funeral director and several members of the Flaget Alumni Association — before the brief prayer service began. “We appreciate that.”
The Indigent Burial Program provides services for individuals who are homeless or needy, he said. Catholic Charities took over the program just this summer, though the wheels were set in motion about a year ago, said Whisman, who is a member of Our Lady of Lourdes Church.
The city still provides funding for the program, but Catholic Charities is now in charge of the burials which are done with the help of volunteers such as members of the Flaget Alumni Association and students from Catholic high schools.
The students have been leading the prayer and graveside services since 2006 through the St. Joseph of Arimathea Society. Flaget members have been volunteering for about five years.
At Meadow View Cemetery, the services are done under a pavilion where the coffin, a small pall on top, is placed on a metal table. The volunteers then gather and pray before the burial.
Whisman said there can be a “negative connotation” that someone will be buried in a county cemetery. But he noted that Meadow View is as “nice as some private cemeteries.”
The goal of the burial program is to make the services as close to a traditional funeral service as possible, with small details such as burial palls made by parishioners of Our Lady of Lourdes.
Whisman said as Catholics we are called to bury the dead, and he noted that the Louisville Indigent Burial program provides an opportunity for the people of the Archdiocese of Louisville to fulfill that Corporal Work of Mercy.
He also said his office is developing an “Adopt a Grave” program. The office will reach out to the 110 parishes in the archdiocese asking for a small financial contribution to help with the cost of headstones and the upkeep of the pavilion — things the city doesn’t budget for, he added.
Parishioners can also contribute by sewing small burial palls and interment gowns for infants.
The burial program fits well with the Catholic Charities’ mission to serve people in need, said Whisman.
“This is the most vulnerable you’ll see a family with a loved one. It’s probably the biggest need in an individual’s life,” he said during an interview following Sparrows’ prayer service. “It’s important to our ministry but it reflects on the city” as well.
Whisman, who joined Catholic Charities in July, said Metro Louisville is ahead of many other communities when it comes to burying the dead. Some are still burying homeless and indigent individuals in mass graves, he noted.
“You can tell a lot by a city by how they treat their most vulnerable population,” said Whisman. “Our city is behind the idea that everyone deserves a respectful end-of-life service.”
Though the city has been burying homeless and indigent individuals since the 1980s, the prayer services didn’t begin until 2006 under former deputy sheriff Buddy Dumeyer.
“It was such a gift when the Catholic students got involved,” said Dumeyer. Though he retired from the coroner’s office in 2016, Dumeyer came on board to help train Whisman and help the burial program make a transition from the coroner’s office to Catholic Charities.
Dumeyer, a member of Our Lady of Lourdes Church for more than 30 years, said after he left the coroner’s office there wasn’t one designated person to carry on the burial program. The coroner’s office, he said, thought Catholic Charities was “in a good position” to take it over.
“They (Catholic Charities) were all in,” he said. “They wanted to take on the responsibility and continue the program … From the cradle to the grave you have the Catholic community walking the walk and taking care of the destitute.”
“Let’s hope and pray other Catholic communities adopt a similar mission.”