The instructions went like this: “Mr. J.M. (May 20, 1929 – August 6, 2015) will be interred at 9:00 a.m. on Thursday, October 8, 2015 in Grave #14, Row #1, in the Pauper’s Grave Section Annex. You should go in the entrance on the far east end of the cemetery… This entrance is across the road from the Patterson Field Baseball Stadium and it has a Hank Williams’s sign. You will need to go up to the top of the hill and take a right, then go half way around the circle and take a right. (You will have passed the British and French soldiers’ graves and Hank Williams’ grave.) You will take your first right after you pass Hank Williams’ grave and the new pauper section will be on your left”.
One of the most characteristic behaviors of humankind is our determination to bury our dead, to mark the passage of one of our own. What happens if you are poor and your family can’t afford a burial? What happens if you are poor, you die alone and no one claims your body? In Montgomery, we use Dickensian language to recognize what it means to have nothing and nobody so there’s a section in the old local cemetery called the Pauper’s Annex. Actually, this is a second annex. I learned yesterday that there are still a few spaces left in the first one, though only for the small bodies of children.
For years, Ascension has taken responsibility for holding a simple graveside service each time a person is buried in these circumstances. There’s a guild–a group of members of the parish–who join the priest for the service. People from a couple of other parishes have joined as well. Sometimes, someone is able to bring flowers. While the graves I saw did not have markers on them, I suspect there are pretty meticulous records with the cemetery sexton.
The casket Mr. M was in was simple. The grave even simpler–just a hole several feet deep in the red clay of Alabama. The hearse drove right up to it and the casket went right into the ground–no astroturf to conceal the ground, no tent to shade from the hot morning sun, no fancy machine to relieve us of the effort to lower the casket into the ground. Just an old hearse, some men who did the job quickly, though with effort, and a handful of us standing by, bearing witness.
As I stood next to the grave, I had the sense that the ground wasn’t real firm beneath my feet and that I should probably be careful or the ground might give out under me. Yet when I was saying,
In sure and certain hope of the resurrection to eternal life
through our Lord Jesus Christ, we commend to Almighty
God our brother and we commit his body to the ground;
earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust
and it was time to cast earth on the coffin as the rubrics instruct in the Book of Common Prayer, I had to dig hard to get a handful of dirt.
Ever since living in Memphis and learning about the Sanitation Worker’s Strike of 1968, I am haunted by the pictures of people carrying simple signs, simply written, with the words, “I am a man”. We were burying a man, a person though we knew nothing about him except his dates of birth and death and his name. Perhaps in some small way, the people who gathered to give Mr. M. this most basic form of burial were there because we all know that we are always called to acknowledge the humanity of even the most forgotten amongst us. I also want to believe that this act that doesn’t amount to a mound of dirt in the large scheme of things, also returns our humanity to us who participate–we all get so busy. We all become so numbed to everything but what is immediately in front of us.
A body lay unclaimed for 8 weeks; to quote the Dixie Chicks, this was “a missing person who no one missed at all”. Standing at his graveside, the gathering of men and women who were there with me knit him back into the human family as someone who now had been found.
The parish guild that has taken responsibility for this ministry is having a sign made for the new annex, like they did for the old one. A beloved matriarch of Ascension, who died earlier this year, and everyone called Dodgie, had been a very important part of this ministry and she had seen to the first sign which is in the older section. The sign says “Children of God Cemetery” and the new one will be the same except it will say “Children of God Cemetery Il”. The guild is also called “The Children of God Cemetery Guild”. Small gestures, for sure. They don’t let any of us off the hook for the hope that God always harbors, that there will be neither poverty nor loneliness unto death. They are also defining gestures that shape the character of a community.