Share the Journey —
Burial program is rich in compassion

Matthew Whisman

You would think that directing metro Louisville’s program to provide burial for a person in need would be a depressing occupation. And to be sure, there are days when the tragedy and sadness of these individuals’ stories take their toll. But it may shock you to hear that mine is a surprisingly encouraging position. Let me show you why.

Through its Indigent Burial Program, Catholic Charities provides funeral and cremation services to people without the resources to do so. Often family cannot be found or are living paycheck to paycheck. The opioid crisis, the pandemic and the increase in violence have only added to the program’s numbers. While many people think most of our clients come from the homeless community, many are actually among the working poor.

You’re probably thinking, so far, Matt, this does not sound very encouraging. But it is, and here is why.

First of all, this program speaks to the compassion of our community. Louisville Metro Government actually funds the indigent burial program and is one of only three counties in Kentucky to do so. Our leaders go above and beyond what they have to do, and that encourages me.

Second, students from nearly every Catholic high school regularly attend the services, where they act as pallbearers, serve as readers, and, sometimes, add music to the ceremony. Picture a group of young people, dressed up, respectfully carrying the casket from a hearse to the ceremony site, surrounding it as they lead the ceremony’s readings, and encircling it in prayer. I witness this more than once each week, and that encourages me.

Third, volunteers from all walks of life care enough to attend services and provide in death the dignity and friendship our clients may not have known in life. The alumni group from the former Flaget High School is hands-on and ever-present. In many ways, they have kept this program going. The alumni group from St. Xavier High School also contributes consistently.

A neighbor who lives near the burial site — Meadow View Cemetery in Valley Station — has attended more than 1,100 burials because “it just seems like the respectful thing to do.” In fact, he never misses.

A mom and two daughters often sing at the services. A local group sews beautiful burial cloths to cover the plain casket. These people give of themselves every week, and that encourages me.

Finally, the team at the Jefferson County Coroner’s office who help us identify individuals and locate family to provide closure, along with the men with Metro Parks who prepare the site and complete the burial, do so with such respect and commitment that their work is like an act of worship. Being the people who literally lay a body in its final resting place can be difficult and these people do that with a great deal of grace, and that encourages me.

While every story is different, the final pages are the same. A man this week was buried without family but was surrounded by friends from his church. One man had only his caregiver present, but oh, how she loved him. A veteran was buried by his coworkers and military members.

Most individuals are buried with no next-of-kin present but surrounded by our students and volunteers. Not one of them has had their last moments on this earth alone.
The Indigent Burial Program, which Catholic Charities became responsible for last July, is one place in metro Louisville where you see people transcending any differences and coming together to provide compassion and care, and that encourages me.

Matthew Whisman directs the Indigent Burial Program for Catholic Charities of Louisville.

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