During the COVID-19 pandemic, when safety restrictions kept them from serving the living, St. Francis of Assisi eighth-graders served the dead instead.
Since June, groups of students have been cleaning overgrown graves in Eastern Cemetery, 641 Baxter Avenue. St. Francis of Assisi middle schoolers usually spend the summer serving immigrants, refugees and homeless individuals, said teacher Fred Whittaker.
“The summer service project is especially tuned to allow kids to uplift, proclaim and dignify the lives of people they meet,” said Whittaker during a recent interview. “We search out the marginalized and those who’ve been pushed out of the heart and caring of those in society.”
But with the shutdown caused by the pandemic, the students weren’t able to do that this year.
“We refused to give up,” he said, noting they soon found an opportunity to clean the cemetery.
“It’s our Catholic calling to protect and dignify life, though it’s ironic we found a way to do that in a cemetery,” said Whittaker.
As the students worked to pull weeds and grass from headstones, they discovered 24 graves in which children were buried.
The cemetery dates to the early 1800’s and was one of the first in the area to integrate, said Whittaker.
According to the Kentucky Historical Society, the 30-acre cemetery was abandoned in 1989 after it was discovered that graves were being re-sold and re-used, resulting in about 100,000 people being buried in 30,000 graves. After that, the cemetery fell into disrepair.
Though the cemetery work wasn’t their typical summer service project, St. Francis students said they still learned about the dignity of life.
Sarah Jenkins said she was digging for a weed when she discovered the first grave in what appears to be a children’s section, she said.
“It was nice and inspiring that I could find something that was lost. We can now uncover them and pray for them. They just aren’t forgotten graves,” said Sarah.
Emerson Wyatt said, “It’s more than an overgrown patch. It’s children and maybe even brothers and sisters. Now people can come and remember them. It’s amazing we get to restore the dignity of this spot.”
Max Longmeyer said he thought the service project was “odd” at first.
“Once I came here It was really beautiful. It’s like people (buried there) are still opening their lives and allowing us to step out of our comfort zone and into their lives,” he said.
Jason Millard said cleaning the graves is a way of celebrating the lives of those buried there.
“It feels good to be doing this for someone even if they’re no longer around. When you find a grave it’s a really good feeling, because you’re able to pray for someone,” Jason said.
The students have prayed for the individuals buried at Eastern Cemetery and they’ve had opportunities to discuss them as well, said Whittaker.
The group is exploring a project that aims to find the relatives of children buried in Eastern Cemetery and reunite them with the newly uncovered graves, he said.
A group of individuals in the city have created a non-profit called Friends of Eastern Cemetery to restore and maintain the cemetery. The group says the cemetery is open 24-hours a day, but they recommend a “dusk to dawn” visiting schedule.
Individuals wishing to volunteer to help keep the cemetery clean may contact the group by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org or via their Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/Friendsofeasterncemetery/.
To learn more about the cemetery, visit https://friendsofeasterncemetery.com/.