‘You Cannot Bury Yourself’

Every year, seniors at The Roxbury Latin School volunteer to serve as pallbearers for those who have died alone. Here is an essay from Mike Pojman, Assistant Headmaster at Roxbury Latin, which appeared in the school’s recent newsletter and is entitled “You Cannot Bury Yourself.” It makes me feel so privileged to serve as a Trustee of the school.

We buried Mr. Rivera-Reyes last week, a homeless man who has found dead on the streets in late August. The six boys who served as pallbearers were stunned to learn that he was just 23 years-old, only six years older than they are–his life over and theirs just beginning.

Disturbing, too, was seeing his name, Freddie, printed with a magic marker on his pressboard casket. His body had been held in the medical examiner’s office through early December, while state officials conducted a protracted search for relatives. They found none.

This is the third year of our Ave Atque Vale service initiative, wherein boys in the senior class–in fact for the last two years, every boy in the senior class–volunteer to serve as pallbearers at simple graveside services for the indigent, often homeless men and women who die with no relatives (or in the some cases no willing relatives) to attend their funerals.

Their stories are heartbreaking: one woman, a ward of the state, lived out the last ten years of her live in a nursing home–without a single visitor; another was known to have had ten children, but none came forward to claim her body, nor did any attend her funeral. One man, unable to be identified, was found dead in Boston, having lived in a makeshift shelter in an abandoned city lot; another who died penniless was an army veteran of three wars: World II, Korea, and Vietnam. Still another, we learned later, was once a prominent research scientist with Natick Army Labs; he was found dead in his apartment for nearly a month before anyone found him.

Our boys are talented and ambitious and accomplished, and they get praise and recognition–and regular thanks–for the many wonderful things they do, both great and small. I think it is good, therefore, that they do something for which there is no thanks, for which there can be no thanks, because there is no one to give thanks.

As [the owner of a local funeral home], who for the past 30 years has made it his mission to conduct these funerals, put it: “We give these men and women a dignified burial because it needs to be done, and because it is the right thing to do.”

As we stand at the grave of each man and woman that we bury, I remind the boys of the thin line between abundance and comfort of our own lives and the hardship and isolation of theirs. But they don’t need reminding. They get it. I can tell by their thoughtful silence that they feel it.

Some months ago, after a particularly moving service, one of the boys–the captain of the football team, in fact–recounted the story to his classmates in homeroom the next day. “As I looked down at that plywood casket,” he said, “it hit me that there was a human being there, a man who died alone with no family to comfort him.” He paused. The room was absolutely silent.

After a moment he said quietly, “Go home tonight and hug your mother.” If I could have, I would have gone home to hug mine.

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