Story by Wendy A. Hoke
Photos by William Rieter
Members of St. Ignatius High School’s Joseph of Arimathea Society earlier this fall carry the casket of Stanley Bem to his final resting place at Holy Cross Cemetery.
The sun is shining brightly on this Feast of All Saints. The air is crisp as the golden maple leaves cast a warm glow across the gently rolling field.
St. Ignatius High School students and teachers are gathered in the center near a grove of trees for a solemn service that on this day will honor those whom they have carried to their final resting place.
Driving down Green Road just north of Harvard, this spot could easily be missed. It’s sandwiched between a golf course and a recycling center. A battered wooden fence and narrow asphalt drive appear to lead nowhere.
But this is holy ground.
Cleveland’s Potter’s Field, where tens of thousands of Jane and John Does are buried with little more than a small wooden stake, if anything, as a marker of their life on this earth.
The leaders of the school’s Joseph of Arimathea Society—pallbearers for those who have no family or friends to perform the service—have chosen this place annually to remember those whom society has forgotten and to honor those whom they have served throughout the year.
Aside from a large stone that serves as a communal marker, there’s little known about the inhabitants of Potter’s Field and little evidence of this even being a cemetery save a torn plastic flag, a crude cross made of two twigs lashed together, a statue of St. Francis and some plastic flowers.
Leaders of the Joseph of Arimathea Society honor the place by reading the names of the people whose caskets they have carried. For every 20 names a single bell tolls.
Grant them eternal rest, O Lord, and may perpetual light shine on them forever, for you are rich in mercy.
Named for the man who requested Jesus’ body from Pontius Pilate for a proper burial, the Joseph of Arimathea Society grew out of the work of the Christian Action Team, the umbrella organization for service activities at St. Ignatius High School. “We wanted to have service in place that accomplishes all the corporal works of mercy,” explains Ed DeVenney, campus minister.
Various programs feed and clothe the poor, tend to the sick and visit the lonely, but team leaders wanted to do more.
In 2003, St. Ignatius was the first high school in the country to provide the pallbearer service. It has necessarily grown to become the largest extracurricular activity at the Near West Side school. “It’s even bigger than football,” DeVenney says.
Open only to juniors and seniors, students are restricted to serving one funeral per semester to limit time out of the classroom. The society averages about two funerals per week and has upwards of 300 members.
In service to God
Five of student pallbearers gather in the office of campus ministry for last-minute instructions. It is their first time as pallbearers and they are quiet.
“I want you to pray and remind yourselves what it is you’re doing today,” DeVenney says. “You’re in service to God and to Mrs. (Marian) Lombardo. She has no one left in her life and there will probably be very few people at the church.
“Be prayerful, participate in the Mass and remember that sometimes your voices are the only voices in the congregation,” he says.
As the navy blue St. Ignatius High School van pulls up in front of St. Stephen Parish on West 54th Street, the boys face the reality of their advisor’s words. With the exception of a Greek Orthodox bishop, they are the only ones in attendance at this funeral.
Inside the vestibule, funeral director Jim Craciun gives them instructions as they rest a hand on the casket and move slowly up the aisle.
“Out of all the funerals I’ve gone to, the church has always been filled … The experience for me was very moving, and I was glad that I could help celebrate the life of this woman and carry her to her final resting place,” wrote senior Alex Robertson later on the group’s blog for reflection.
A smile and a ‘thank you’
At St. Bridget Parish, Parma, other boys are serving as pallbearers for a man who had a wife and friends, but no one able to handle the casket.
At the sign of peace, they go to the widow and one by one offer a promise of prayers and a compassionate hand showing maturity beyond their years.
The response from people is sometimes surprising to them, as senior Tommy Edgehouse wrote on the blog: “As we walked into the funeral home, I saw something I didn’t expect to see. A smile on someone’s face. The daughter of the late Mrs. Kanik greeted us with open arms and a most gracious ‘thank you.’”
“We’re just regular kids doing the simple service of carrying a casket, but it becomes so much more than that,” explains senior leader Louie Delgadillo. “They are not going to be forgotten because we are there to remember.”
It’s the little moments that tend to stick with the students.
“This summer we did a funeral for a homeless person whose body had been in the morgue for more than a month,” says senior leader Jon Hatgas.
They were expecting no one to come, but through their work with Labre Ministry in ser
ving homeless people on the streets of Cleveland they were able to bring more people.
“We had about 10 cars in the procession and on the way to the cemetery people were talking about Shawn and their connection to him,” Hatgas says.
“I know that we are never alone in faith,” wrote Jon’s twin brother Jeff Hatgas on the blog.
Jim Skerl, who founded the ministry as part of his work with Christian Action Team says it’s a good way to involve students in the service of their faith.
“It’s interesting to see where God has led this ministry,” Skerl says, adding that it provides a chance for students to find their own goodness.
“We may not know their life story when we come to their funeral,” says senior leader Cameron Marcus, “but they are men and women of Christ and we share that in common.”
Hoke is a freelance writer.