Dignity in Death: Catholic High Schoolers Bury the Dead
St. Joseph of Arimathea Societies focus on a forgotten work of mercy.
Many Catholics are familiar with the corporal works of mercy; a plethora of ministries serve the basic needs of our fellow men and women, especially clothing the naked and feeding the hungry. But one way of meeting the material needs of the less fortunate tends to be forgotten in our time: burying the dead.
In 2003, one theology teacher at St. Ignatius Catholic High School in Cleveland decided to change that. “He just took the corporal works of mercy very, very seriously,” said Joe Mulholland, also a theology teacher at St. Ignatius, of Jim Skerl, the founder of the school’s St. Joseph of Arimathea Pallbearer Ministry. “He viewed them as a checklist: Are we actually doing these seven things?”
Skerl, who also founded the school’s St. Benedict Joseph Labre Ministry to the Homeless, passed away in 2014, but his legacy lives on: The pallbearer ministry at St. Ignatius serves at about 250 funerals per year, totaling more than 1,600 to date. What is more, the ministry has spread to more than 10 high schools in the area and further into the Midwest, offering pallbearer services, prayer and companionship to the indigent and lonely who pass away.
What Pallbearer Ministries Do
Usually dubbed “St. Joseph of Arimathea Societies” in honor of the saint who donated his burial ground for Jesus’ Body, pallbearer ministries like the one at St. Ignatius have gained momentum since 2003, especially at boys’ high schools in the Midwest and South. Ben Kresse, a theology teacher at St. Xavier High School in Louisville, Kentucky, and a leader of the campus- ministry team, shared with the Register that he was inspired to start the ministry at St. Xavier after hearing a NPR story about St. Ignatius’ ministry.
But the seed had been sown even earlier in his career: When Kresse was serving as a youth minister, he attended church with the Bluegrass State’s Jefferson County coroner, who shared with him the process for “indigent burials,” burials for those without family or the means to cover funeral expenses.
“He said, ‘We really don’t have any service for them; we might pray the Our Father, then we bury them,’” said Kresse. “And he said something that struck me: ‘Everybody comes into the world being held, and they should leave being held, and nobody holds these people.’”
Now, they do. The St. Joseph of Arimathea Society at St. Xavier High School has participated in more than 2,000 burial services. While some St. Joseph of Arimathea Societies simply serve as pallbearers when families do not have anyone young or healthy enough to carry a casket, St. Xavier’s society goes the extra mile, offering a prayer service that they composed for these ceremonies. The prayer service incorporates Gospel and other Scripture readings and invites faculty, student and family participation.
Frequently, however, those served by these funerals have no family present. Matthew Whisman, the indigent burial coordinator with Catholic Charities for Jefferson County, Kentucky, explained that the deceased who fall under his care are from two categories: those who have experienced homelessness or pass away in homeless shelters and those who are abandoned or whose families cannot afford to bury them.
“I had an individual who was 105 who passed away, and all his family had passed away before him,” Whisman shared with the Register. “I get individuals who have family but want nothing to do with them, so that’s what we would call abandonment. I’ve had some who have five or six kids who say, ‘We don’t want anything to do with it.’”
Similar programs exist at 10 to 15 Catholic high schools from Kentucky to New York. Frequently, these schools are Jesuit boys’ high schools, like University of Detroit Jesuit in Detroit and McQuaid Jesuit in Rochester, New York. This is not universally true, however: The phenomenon has spread to non-Jesuit, coeducational or girls’ Catholic schools like Hayden Catholic in Topeka, Kansas; Quincy Notre Dame in Quincy, Illinois; and Sacred Heart Academy in Louisville.
Those involved in the ministry were vocal about what a meaningful experience burying the dead can be. Andrew Kramer, a rising senior at St. Xavier, has been going to burials since his freshman year. “Before that, I had done absolutely no service, basically. It wasn’t something that I was driven to do.”
Kramer began attending to complete his high-school service requirement over the summer, but kept going even after his service requirement had long been completed. “I just kept going back because something kept calling me back to it.”
Now, Kramer is the president of the St. Joseph of Arimathea Society, tasked with helping motivate fellow students to participate in the ministry. “You just tell them how good it is; and it’s surprisingly good, and it’s worth putting that jacket on in the morning before you go out.”
About 75 to 90 young men from St. Xavier are on the email list, and two or three attend each funeral. St. Xavier plays a major role in the rotating schedule that Catholic Charities coordinates among area high schools to ensure student presence at the funerals, which can be as frequent as three times weekly.
Usually, the funeral coordination happens a couple of days in advance, so that students can coordinate their teams (often student-led) and organize rides and permission slips. Students at both St. Xavier and St. Ignatius, for instance, can be excused from class to attend funerals.
Jefferson County’s Whisman first encountered the ministry as a high-school student at St. Xavier. Now, he administrates the program under the auspices of Catholic Charities, notifying each school two to three days in advance of a funeral so that the school can make arrangements.
Whisman’s work is far-reaching, working with hospitals, nursing homes, coroner’s offices and even out-of-state residents who happen to die in Jefferson County. The ministry offers both cremations and traditional burials and has a program for raising money for headstones. Last year alone, Whisman dealt with more than 230 cases of indigent burials.
Respecting Human Dignity
“Our big thing is dignity in death,” said Whisman. “Especially from a Catholic perspective, pro-life is womb to tomb.”
Many of the administrators involved are theology teachers, who see their work in the classroom as linked to their work with St. Joseph of Arimathea Societies. Mulholland, the theology teacher at St. Ignatius, emphasized the connection between the Church’s teachings on the dignity of human life that he presents in his classroom and participation in this ministry. “It’s just a powerful reminder to myself that these people who may seem forgotten or ignored, that their lives are sacred and that by virtue of that dignity, they’re our brothers and sisters.”
Though of course the presence of St. Joseph of Arimathea Societies at burials is a gesture of respect for the deceased and for the family, participation in the ministry also builds strong bonds with other members of the community. Retired alumni of Flaget High School, a Louisville Catholic high school that closed in 1974, are heavily involved with the ministry and attend every funeral of the St. Joseph of Arimathea Society. Kramer, the rising senior at St. Xavier, told the Register that their presence was a strong draw to the younger people.
“They’re the friendliest people in the world; they’ll tell you stories about anything that happened to them in their life — it’s like this strange double learning experience. You just learn so much about yourself and the people around you.”
Fitzwilliam Lokiec, a student leader of the St. Joseph of Arimathea Society at St. Ignatius, echoed the community-building element of the ministry. “In the van [on the way to funerals], it’s not always stern — sometimes we’re joking around or laughing on the way there. Those moments, I really value them.”
The Jesuit motto of St. Ignatius is “Men for Others,” which is clearly lived out through this ministry. But Lokiec emphasized that “men for others” also implies “men with others.”
“When we’re doing this for the least of humanity, we’re doing it for Jesus, and nowhere is that more apparent than as pallbearers.”
Lokiec meditated upon how attendance at these funerals helps shift the focus away from achievement and toward presence.
“You don’t even have to do anything in particular; you just have to be there and pray with them, and that can completely change their outlook — it can make them feel so much better,” he shared with the Register.
“Situations like that, you can never say the perfect thing, but when you’re there, your presence is enough, and your faith radiates a certain energy that can help make people feel better and feel more at peace because they can see God there in you.”