The lives of 16 people who died in the past year will be remembered Monday, as Lafayette continues a tradition started three years ago to inter the remains of those left unclaimed at the coroner’s office or whose families could not afford a burial.
“Every year, when we perform this burial, it reminds me of how many people are walking through this life alone in our community and it should serve as a reminder to seek those people out and to find a way to be community to people who have no one in their lives,” said Kim James Boudreaux, director of Catholic Services of Acadiana, the nonprofit agency that provides food and shelter to those in need.
In the past two years, 173 unclaimed people have been laid to rest in the cemetery behind the Cathedral of St. John the Evangelist.
This year’s service — held on All Souls’ Day — follows a 5:30 p.m. Mass on the plaza of the Cathedral of St. John the Evangelist. The group will proceed by candlelight to the columbarium in the cemetery that now holds more than 150 whose cremated remains have been interred there in the past few years. Among the names etched in the gray granite: three John Does, one “Unknown” and “Baby Girl Cone.”
“A lot of these are patients who died at (public hospitals) and their families can’t afford a burial,” said Brady LeBlanc, cemetery director at the cathedral.
Many others were left behind at the parish Coroner’s Office.
“It brings a dignity to all life by respecting the dead,” said LeBlanc, who coordinates the community burial service. “It’s a ministry that’s very much needed.”
A separate tomb closer to the church holds the small bodies of babies. In 2012, more than a dozen babies were buried, and their names were unknown. LeBlanc gave the babies names: Therese, Dominic, Gabriel, John Paul, Giana. In subsequent years, more names and bodies have been added to the tomb. The remains of another short life will join them Monday, although in the days leading up to the ceremony, a name hadn’t been decided yet.
LeBlanc said the 16 to be buried included two nursing home residents, two veterans and a baby whose body was found in a box in a storage unit in June. Police have said that the baby died shortly after birth in 2001 and the infant’s mother, Rebecca Landry, was indicted in September on a second-degree murder charge for the newborn’s death.
LeBlanc said he asked a friend whose family was praying for the newborn child to come up with a name.
All of the bodies will be laid to rest, thanks to a man whose name is etched in the columbarium’s granite: Brian Walker.
“Brian was a client and over the years; everybody was very fond of him,” Boudreaux said.
Walker moved from the Catholic Services’ homeless shelter into his own apartment, but shortly after he settled into a home of his own, he died of a heart attack in 2009, Boudreaux said.
After she heard that his family had claimed his body, the shelter held its own small memorial service. But six months later, Boudreaux said, she learned Walker’s body remained at the Coroner’s Office.
“I was devastated that someone I knew and loved had gone unclaimed for six months,” she said.
As she asked questions about what she needed to do to claim his remains, she learned that he had not yet been cremated and that several other bodies were awaiting cremation due to budgetary issues. She later learned that there were about 100 other people who, like Walker, had no one to claim them. She worked with the coroner’s office to arrange interment of all those bodies. The process and paperwork to release the remains took about two years.
“It deeply saddened me that there were people that through their death were never claimed. There was something significant about that,” Boudreaux said.
More simply, for Boudreaux, it was the right thing to do.
The initial service was an ecumenical one that filled the cathedral’s pews in April 2012 on a Saturday morning of Lafayette’s largest downtown festival — Festival International de Louisiane. That initial year, 93 bodies were laid to rest.
In a 2012 interview with The Advocate, Boudreaux said it was fitting that she learned about those who have been forgotten because of Brian.
“He was the one that always told me what’s going on. He loved to surprise me and catch me off-guard on things,” she said at the time.
The cathedral has continued the burial, fulfilling the Catholic Church’s teaching that burial of the dead is one of the seven corporal works of mercy, LeBlanc said.
The cathedral has received support from across the country with donations for the first columbarium and tomb for the babies. Another fundraising effort is now underway for a second columbarium that is needed and the cost is estimated at about $8,000, LeBlanc said.
Follow Marsha Sills on Twitter, @Marsha_Sills.