This morning several of us from MVCH and our comrades went to St. Joseph’s cemetery to attend the burial service for 17 indigent people whose bodies were never claimed by family or loved ones. It was humble and simple, but it felt peaceful and good to be part of the small group of compassionate citizens sending off those being laid to rest in the spirit of community, being embraced even in passing. I am truly glad Las Cruces has such devoted people helping to make sure that this service happens for all of those who seem to die alone. And we that work with the homeless find this effort deeply important and thank all that are involved in organizing these burials.
Jess C. Williams
June 4, 2013
St. Joseph’s Cemetery
Las Cruces, New Mexico
Good morning –
Humans naturally struggle with the concept of Forever. Our struggle has nothing to do with the definition of the word, but with the juxtaposition of our own mortality alongside the concept that the sun rose and set every day before we were born, and it will rise and set every day after we die.
Those of us here this morning have seen varying numbers of sunrises, and we have a finite number of sunsets yet to experience. The 17 people we are here to honor saw their share of sunrises and sunsets, ranging from 50 to 82 years.
David A. Bullock was 50
Jamie Gorman was 51
James Zukowaski was 54
Louis J. Safko, Jr. was 56
Danny Garret was 57
Ronald Thompson was 59
Lloyd Keenom, Jr. was 62
Stephen Butts was 68
Marilyn Moll was 68
Dolores Stromberg was 69
Arthur H. Speaker was 70
Vera Juanita Benn was 70
Bobby Terrell was 71
Edward Romero was 77
Dorothy Coleman was 82
We do not have dates of birth for Robert L. Taylor, Jr., or Lucille Avers, but they died the same day: April 9, 2011
For 15 of these souls, we know only their ages. For two, we know only that they lived and died. We also know that no one came to claim their bodies. But is that really all we know?
There may be some here who did, in fact, know one or more of these souls. Maybe you shared stories and broke bread. Maybe your heart breaks at the loss. For the rest of us, how can we be sure that we never ran into one of them at the corner store, but just didn’t know at the time that we would be privileged to tell them goodbye, as well.
Regardless, there ARE things we know about everyone who has come here today to be laid to rest. We know they were loved by a mother the day they were born. We know they had ancestors, some of whom were famous and some of whom were not. Maybe we were cousins? Maybe you were cousins. It’s hard saying, not knowing, but the truth is we’re all linked by our humanity and our many earthly similarities.
We all were born. We all had childhoods that molded us into the adults we became. We all have forged friendships and we all navigated relationships. We all have known joy, and we all have known heartache. We all have overcome some obstacles and we all have failed to overcome others. And someday, whatever the circumstances, we each have a death to navigate.
Into the earth today we commit remains and belongings of 17 individuals, and into the universe we send a message that although no one came to claim these bodies, WE came to say goodbye and to wish each of them safe passage into whatever comes next.
We must be reminded to be grateful for all the good things in our own lives – the multitude of blessings that have been bestowed upon us. Regardless of circumstance or stature in life, all souls are equal at the moment we cross the line from living to dead. We carry nothing physical forward: No money, no titles, no expectations, no assets. We simply depart, and in that moment we become instantly and forever equal to all who came before us and all who come after. In each individual death, our collective mortality is realized.
In its own way, it’s beautiful.
Sir Rabindranath Tragore said, “Death is not extinguishing the light. It is putting out the lamp, because the dawn has come.”
The dawn has come. And is there nothing more beautiful than a sunrise and all the hope it symbolizes? A blank slate of opportunity to seize the new day. For these 17, the new day stretches out into eternity. We left behind await that dawn and all the promise that it holds.
For these souls, there is no more pain. No more anxiety. No more uncertainty. They now inhabit the realm we all will someday experience. Some faiths claim there is a heaven with streets paved in gold. Other belief systems believe that we disappear into the dust and become another small chapter in the planet’s progression. My niece firmly believes that every star in the night sky represents a soul waving down to us all, reminding us that Forever reaches infinitely out into the inkiness of the universe’s mysteries.
It’s likely some of the 17 here were people of faith, but it’s entirely possible that one or more of them believed only in what they could see, hear, smell, touch or taste. Regardless of what they believed – or what we believe – the mystery remains, and the finality of human death speaks to us on this sacred acreage, where crosses and stones and flowers bear silent, ongoing witness to the fact that death comes, and people mourn, and memories drip into the ground in the form of tears. But ultimately, time is unyielding.
Seventeen roads led to this destination. Along each road were landmarks and pot holes, soaring vistas and dense fog, traveling companions and the solitary hum of tires against asphalt. There was music and laughter. There were conversations and reflection. There were moments of wonder and reminders of hard reality. Some had maps to follow, and others went where the breeze blew them. But they all got here. And we came to show one another that we believe in the sanctity of the final goodbye, the importance of the last ritual and the reverence of the ground where so much is physically and emotionally interred.
We are reminded today of 17 reasons to live a full and meaningful life that resonates and makes a mark on the world. We have 17 coaches telling us that we don’t need to know their stories to honor their humanity. We each have 17 newly restored reasons to cherish every sunrise and drink in every sunset, because our individual forevers will come to an end, and the real Forever will march resolutely onward without asking our opinion.
One of the enduring human dreams is the ability to fly. In death, perhaps we are given the wings we longed for during the time we were anchored by gravity to the earth. I ask now that you join me in a protracted moment of silence, a moment long enough to give each of these 17 souls a parting thought or a glimpse into your heart and our connected humanity. Wish them strong wings, and steady flight, and a peaceful journey.
We’ve come to the end of the ceremony, but not to the end of its significance. Etch this day and these souls into your memory, for you were the ones who came to tell them goodbye, and that small kindness will – I believe – be enough to light 17 new stars in the sky. Stars we can wish on. Stars we can dream by. Stars with names.
David A. Bullock
Louis J. Safko, Jr.
Lloyd Keenom, Jr.
Arthur H. Speaker
Vera Juanita Benn
Robert L. Taylor, Jr.,
May each of you rest in Peace.