Hundreds gathered at the Cathedral of St. John the Evangelist Saturday to honor the lives of more than 35 unclaimed decedents in Lafayette Parish and lay their remains to rest.
The ceremony has been a tradition since 2012, when the cathedral and Catholic Charities of Acadiana partnered to hold the first service for the unclaimed and impoverished. The individuals are laid to rest in a devoted section of St. John’s Cemetery, where the remains of more 300 unclaimed, unknown or poor community members have been laid to rest in columbariums and tombs.
Bishop J. Douglas Deshotel led the service and called on all gathered to remember the unclaimed and all departed souls as part of All Souls' Day, the holy day devoted to remembrance of the dead.
“Though they are forgotten and unclaimed by the world, they are not forgotten and not unclaimed by God the father,” he said.
After the Mass, pallbearers guided caskets filled with the individuals’ remains to the cemetery as the hundreds of celebrants filed out in solemn silence as students from St. Thomas More sang “Amazing Grace.” Following a final blessing under the crisp, fall sky, the participants laid white carnations on the caskets before a team stored the cremains in the tomb.
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Mercy and dignity for all is at the heart of the burial ministry’s mission, said Kim Boudreaux, chief executive officer of Catholic Charities of Acadiana. Catholic Charities serves homeless men, women, children and veterans in Acadiana with shelters, transitional housing, medical care and other services.
Boudreaux spearheaded the ministry after a longtime homeless client and friend went unclaimed at the morgue for at least six months after his passing in 2010. After the discovery, Boudreaux learned there was no public burial option for the dozens of others who remained unclaimed.
“I was devastated,” Boudreaux said. “My only reaction was, ‘I want them all. Can I have them all?’”
The problem is more far reaching than people realize, she said. Many people’s remains are left behind at nursing homes, the morgue and funeral homes either because no family or friends remain or because they’re unable to afford the burial and funeral costs, Boudreaux said.
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It took two years to get the paperwork cleared and the process underway. The first ceremony was held in 2012. Each year since, Boudreaux said, she often knows individuals on the list personally.
“I hope this service is a reminder that so many people walk through our community alone,” she said. “It’s important it is for us all to be called to seek out opportunities to accompany others in some way.”
Marybeth Harrington, funeral director of Louisiana Funeral Services and Crematory in Broussard, has partnered with the diocese for the last four years to prepare the remains, guide the burial services and ensure the proper permits are in place.
Harrington said she often gets to know the decedent through the family while providing funeral services. While she may never know the stories of the deceased buried on Saturday, the funeral director said, she values being able to provide them a dignified burial and the same service she provides to other families.
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One of those who died especially struck her this year, Harrington said.
A woman whose ashes were donated to Goodwill was among those buried this year, she said. The woman’s remains were kept in a pink urn and donated after the home they were found it in was cleaned out. A Goodwill employee thankfully recognized the urn was not a decorative vase, Harrington said.
“We have to take care of people even if we don’t know them. We shouldn’t discard people,” she said.
Charles Stemmans was a pallbearer Saturday. Stemmans is a member of the Knights of Columbus Council 1286 and has been volunteering for the burial of the unclaimed for the last four years. Stemmans said it’s a day he never misses.
The volunteer said he’s been a pallbearer twice and each time he hopes that his reverence during the act of service provides additional prayers for the deceased.
“No matter what anyone’s place in life was here on earth it’s giving them a respectful place to rest. It’s thanking them for their life,” Stemmans said.