Louisville cemetery serves as final resting place for the homeless

By Emma Collins

When it rains, the dirt on Dennis Racliff’s grave starts to turn to mud and sink, creating a coffin-shaped depression on top of where the 62-year-old was buried a little over a year ago.

Racliff’s grave rests in the left corner of Meadow View Cemetery, the site of Louisville’s indigent burial program. Like the graves that surround his, Racliff’s grave is marked only by a small, plastic, green rectangle protecting a piece of paper listing his identifying information. A few of the graves in the other, more finished portions of the cemetery have flowers or stuffed animals from loved ones. But most of them, like Racliff’s, are equally unadorned.

Ben Kresse, a theology teacher at St. Xavier High School who attends burial services at the cemetery, said the simplicity of the area where Racliff rests does not detract from the ground’s importance.

“I believe it’s absolutely holy ground because it’s where the poor are,” Kresse, 55, said. “Christ always came for the poor and the marginalized.”


Meadow View Cemetery is right off the Gene Snyder Freeway, close enough that the sound of passing cars blocks out the sound of children down the street at Medora Elementary School playing at recess. The cemetery itself is a small square with a parking lot big enough for a small car and a hearse. It’s surrounded by a black chain link fence with a white sign reminding visitors to keep the ground a place of peace and respect.

The square, wooden funeral pavilion near the back fence is the most noticeable part of the cemetery. The two wooden walls and inverted V-shaped roof make a tunnel for the wind that whips at the prayer pamphlets guests are given at each burial. When the wind blows hard, it stirs up the dry dirt that covers the driveway and the ground and pushes it towards the center of the pavilion where the coffin stand rests, its dark blue fabric faded in the shape of a rectangular coffin from nearly eight years of burials. The smell of dirt mixes with the scent of fresh wood from the coffin and the pungent smell of exhaust fumes drifting over from the highway.

 

A wooden pavillion
The pavillion at Meadow View Cemetery. The prayer services are held here.

The concrete road leading up to the pavillion cuts a clear divide in the cemetery. The older graves are on the right, the flat, granite headstones barely visible above the grass. The newer graves, like Racliff’s, are on the left, with hardly any grass beside the indented rectangles of dirt and the stretch of empty land waiting for another casket.

“It’s a very simple place,” Kresse said. “I think it’s a wonderful purpose for the people who don’t have the means and the money to be able to be buried at a regular cemetery.”


 

The area now called Meadow View Cemetery was designated as the indigent cemetery in 2010. The land was set aside by Louisville to replace River Valley Cemetery, the previous indigent burial ground that filled up eight over years ago. Now, Meadow View serves as the final home for the bodies of those who have died with no family or with no money to pay for a service.

The cemetery, like Louisville’s four other public cemeteries, is run by Louisville Metro Parks and Recreation. At just 2.4 acres, Meadow View is the smallest of the five cemeteries. It is also one of the city’s newest public cemeteries having opened in 2010.

Lawrence Wilson oversees the maintenance of Meadow View Cemetery. He has worked in the position for three years, and although he doesn’t participate in the burials, he is at most of them watching from afar as he leans against the large, yellow backhoe used to bury the coffins when attendees have left.

Meadow View is divided into four sections. Wilson is having the coffins buried in section three right now, but that section only has five more rows left for coffins. Once that section is full, Wilson and his crew will begin working on section four which Wilson estimates will be large enough to hold 150 people.

With the number of burials each week, Wilson predicts the cemetery will be filled up in the next two-and-a-half years. His director is already looking for another spot of land.

Although the burials happen one day a week, Wilson works in the cemetery on the other days. He and his crew help keep it clean and make sure the graves look nice. Right now, they are battling the left side of the cemetery where the land keeps sinking. When it rains, the dirt turns to mud, and if the water sits long enough, the walls of the graves will start to cave in.

“What happens is the walls, if it’s saturated so long, the walls can cave in,” Wilson said. “This causes a problem, but then when it happens we just dig all that back out and refill it.”

Wilson said to prevent that, the crew in charge of the cemetery digs trenches to drain the water toward the road.

In addition to burying caskets, the crew also buries cremation urns in the cremation garden next to the pavillion. The entire container of ashes is buried about four feet deep then refilled and marked with either a tombstone or one of the standard green, plastic nameplates.

The burials used to make Wilson emotional, especially when there was no family. Now, he sees the job as more of a calling, a way to give back.

“The first day it really got to me to where I would have to walk away from the crew and rethink and regroup,” he said. “Now I see it as a job where I’m taking care and making people happy, making people see how much we care about the people we’re with.”


 

Kresse participates in the burials as the faculty moderator of the St. Joseph of Arimathea Society at St. Xavier High School. The Society started at Saint Ignatius High School in Cleveland, Ohio, in 2003. The group includes students and faculty moderators.

Kresse first heard about the group in 2005 when he was approached by a coroner who attended his church. The coroner asked Kresse if he had some students who could assist with indigent burial services at River Valley Cemetery.

Kresse agreed to look for students, and he worked to start the group at St. Xavier in 2005. Kresse initially received some pushback from some adults at St. Xavier who thought participating in the services would be too difficult for students. Kresse admitted at first it was hard for students to wrap their heads around, but after the first six months, he never had to look far to find students to attend burials.

The group’s first burial was in April 2006. In the 12 years since then, Kresse estimates that more than 1,000 students and teachers from St. Xavier have participated in the society. The group does about 150 services during the school year and 30 to 45 burials during the summer.

Since then, other Catholic high schools in Louisville have started their own St. Joseph of Arimathea Societies.

Kresse is humble about having brought the group to Louisville. To him, participating is an honor and an opportunity to bring dignity to what is a sacred event.

“I do see it as an honor because I know that for the family members we’re allowing them to grieve and to let go,” he said.


 

Services are held on Thursdays. Owen Freeman, 18, is a student at St. Xavier High School who participates in the indigent burials with the St. Joseph of Arimathea Society at his school. As a participant, Freeman serves as one of the pallbearers and participates in the prayer service.

“It’s very overwhelming,” Freeman said. “I personally have not really experienced death in my life either, so I don’t know that feeling, but even with a person I don’t know, I still sympathize like I’ve known that person my whole life.”

Freeman has been participating in the burial services at Meadow View Cemetery since his sophomore year in high school. He was looking for a way to earn service hours, and he had heard about a number of groups that would help him get those hours. Participating in the burials was the first idea that interested him.

Freeman said he was overwhelmed during his first burial service at the cemetery. The deceased was a young woman in her twenties, about 10 years older than Freeman at the time. She had died of a heroin overdose. Unlike many individuals, this woman had family who attended.

“I’ve never seen a group of people more open or more joyful that they’ve had these high school kids celebrating the life of their family members … ,” he said. “It just kind of filled my heart with joy and pride.”

Since then, Freeman has become the chapter’s president. His job has expanded to include recruiting other students and marketing the chapter. Many students are interested in joining the society, and he hasn’t had much trouble finding people to participate. All of the students are given a chance to attend a service, and each student who attends plays a critical role.

Even three years later as a senior, Freeman is still moved by the burials at Meadow View Cemetery.

“If you want to experience something that transcends you into a new way of thinking, this is the place to come to,” he said. “You, for sure, get a new experience with the real world by being a part of this person’s funeral.”


 

Jo-Ann Farmer, Metro Louisville’s chief deputy coroner, oversees the indigent burial program at Meadow View Cemetery. Farmer said the program was designed specifically to provide burials for homeless people and those without families. She said most of the individuals buried in the cemetery are referred to the coroner’s office by social workers in hospitals. In some cases, families who are unable to bury their loved ones will go to the coroner’s office themselves to request help.

“Most of the people that come to us really need it, rather whether it be a social worker coming or a family member that absolutely just cannot do it,” she said.

The average cost of a funeral is $5,000 to $6,000, according to the Funeral Directors Association of Kentucky. Indigent burials cost between $500 and $700, according to Louisville Metro Parks, and taxes cover the costs. Farmer said the coroner’s office looks at the deceased individual’s assets to see if he or she qualifies for the program.

Cremations cost less than funerals, and Meadow View does have a cremation garden, but Farmer said Kentucky law requires that indigent individuals be buried unless the next of kin is willing to sign to allow the individual to be cremated.

“That’s because the evidence is gone at that point because when you cremate somebody, you can’t come back later and say there’s foul play involved because there is no evidence left after that,” she said.

Farmer said very few of the deceased individuals have family who attend the burials, and most of them were either homeless or abandoned by their families. She said in some instances, a body has been left in a morgue, and the family has been contacted but refused to claim the body. In other cases, a family member simply cannot be found.


 

The people buried in the cemeteries range in all ages. Beulah Harris’ life stretched the longest. Her gray granite headstone lays flat with the ground, her birth and death dates obvious, March 3, 1916 to Dec. 29, 2011. She was 95.

The youngest bodies rest in the small infant section lining the outer left side of the pavillion. There are about 10 graves. A few of the babies have specific names, but some are simply labeled “Baby Boy” with only a birth date.

Green marker for grave of baby boy
A green marker sits on top of a grave for a baby boy.

While most of the people in Meadow View were buried, some were cremated instead. The cremation garden is on the outer right side of the pavillion. A little under 60 people were cremated, and the containers holding their ashes were buried there. Like each of the graves, the individual cremated bodies are marked by either a granite headstone or the small plastic grave markers.

While most of the tombstones have only  identifying information, a few have tombstones that add some detail to their lives.

Franklin D. Rutherford has two tombstones, one above the other, with one that identifies him as a Vietnam War veteran who was a private in the United States Army.

John “Chips” Eastridge has a Harley Davidson motorcycle on his dark gray tombstone.

Mark Beasley’s tombstone bears the inscription “My Beloved Son,” while Michael J. Vinyard’s says “Peace at Last.”

Judy Green Davis and her son Timmy Green share a tombstone. Davis gave birth to Green at 16 years old in 1967, just two months before she turned 17. He died in 2010, and she followed four years later.


 

While the term “indigent” is used to describe the people who are buried, it can just as easily be applied to the cemetery itself.

The square plot of land holds 568 graves. Most of the graves have simple headstones, granite rectangles with the person’s name and birth and death date. The headstones are cheap, roughly $50. Kresse said they used to purchase the headstones for about $350 each, but someone offered to make them for just $50.

Many of the graves are marked only by a small green rectangle protecting a sheet of paper with the person’s name, race, gender, birth date, death date, burial date and position in the cemetery.

Jasmin Snyder     W/F

DOB6/27/1984 DOD6/18/2015

Age 30 Interred 6/25/2015

See 2 Row 10 Grave 24

119’6” From Fence

The words are smashed together to fit an entire life on an index card.

Kresse said the goal is to eventually make a headstone for every grave. For now, many remain barely marked, almost indistinguishable from one another, dirt covering each face.

 


 

The first day Betsy deGolian drove to Meadow View Cemetery for a burial, she drove right past the cemetery.

Although the cemetery is next to the highway, it isn’t obviously marked. It’s on the edge of a residential area in a flat field, and with the exception of the black chain link fence, there is nothing to stand out from the tall grass that surrounds it. Even the green wood sign with the white words “Meadow View Cemetery” manages to blend in with grass.

“It’s easy to miss, which it also makes you sad because when you think about when people are buried, there’s a lot more that goes into it,” the 38-year-old said.

Gray tombstone
A tombstone marking a grave in Meadow View Cemetery. Students at St. Xavier help make the tombstones.

DeGolian first heard about the indigent burial program when she started working as a library media specialist at Trinity High School in Louisville. Like St. Xavier, Trinity also has a St. Joseph of Arimathea Society. DeGolian became the group’s faculty moderator a little over five months ago. Since then, she has participated in several burials helping the students she accompanies lead the funeral prayer service.

The service is similar to a Catholic funeral mass with an opening prayer, a reading from the Bible, a reading from the Book of Psalms, a Gospel reading, a reflection by either the coroner or a family member and a final prayer. Each burial is tailored to the individual, even if not much is known about the person. There is always some sort of eulogy, even if no family is present.

“It just gives that person some dignity, even in death, and sometimes that’s dignity that they did not have in life,” deGolian said.

As a Catholic, participating in the burials provided a good way for deGolian to live out the Gospel while helping those who may not have anyone to be there for them.

DeGolian said she has noticed a change since she first started attending the burials. When she first began attending the services, she said many of the burials had family members in attendance. Lately, however, most of the services have been conducted without any family members present.

Regardless of the deceased’s family situation, deGolian said she is proud to be able to provide an individual with a dignified funeral service, especially if the individual was not offered much dignity in life.

“It kind of gives you a sense of purpose and a sense of accomplishment that you are standing up for that person and their life,” she said.


The funeral started a little after 10 a.m. By that time, the hearse had arrived and the neighbors from the surrounding houses stood around chatting. As a few stragglers pulled into the driveway in their cars, two men leaned against the yellow backhoe waiting for the service to end. None of the people gathered there knew 58-year-old Robert Montgomery, but they had come to his funeral to witness his last time above ground.

The service was simple, the prayers brief and the readings from Romans and the Gospel of John reminders that in the end, no one is separated from God. The words were printed on mint green pamphlets, and when the sound of the cars on the highway became too loud and drowned out the voice of the speaker, the guests surrounding the coffin could still follow along, could still know when to respond “Amen” or “Thanks be to God.”

The service ended with the “Our Father,” and everyone moved forward to place a hand on the coffin protecting Montgomery. At the last minute, a man pulled out his phone, his fingers flying as he pulled up Alan Jackson’s “Amazing Grace.” Jackson’s voice grew louder until it overpowered the trucks on the highway. A few people sang along, while others closed their eyes and bowed their heads.

When the last notes ended, everyone walked out of the pavillion.

“That was nice,” someone whispered.

A few nodded in agreement.

They headed to their cars, chatting as they went. One by one they drove away not waiting to watch the coffin be placed in the ground. When the crowd had disappeared, one of the men near the backhoe attached a chain from the hoe to the coffin. Ever so slowly, the backhoe’s driver lifted the coffin and maneuvered it toward the grave. The coffin barely swung as it was lowered into the ground. When the coffin was finally buried, only the two men remained, the only ones left to watch Montgomery enter the ground.

Flowers and cross collapsed on mud on a grave
A cross and flowers collapsed on a grave after a heavy rain.

 

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