On a cold, snowy December morning, six young men ride silently past the James A. Garfield monument at Lake View Cemetery in Cleveland, Ohio. Founded in 1869, this sacred ground is the final resting place of an American president, John D. Rockefeller, Eliot Ness, members of President Abraham Lincoln’s cabinet, Civil War generals and many other notables.
This day, however, it’s not the rich and famous whose lives are being honored. It’s an elderly gentleman with no surviving family and a modest funeral contingent. The high school volunteers are accompanying the casket as pallbearers, suspending their Christmas break to mourn and pray for an individual whom they have never met.
Foundations of a Ministry
Their service is part of the St. Joseph of Arimathea Pallbearer Society at St. Ignatius High School, located on Cleveland’s west side. The group is named for the rich man and disciple of Jesus who requested his body from Pontius Pilate for burial (Matthew 27:57-58, Mark 15:43, Luke 23:50-53 and John 19:38). Joseph and Nicodemus, another disciple, wrapped Jesus’ body in clean linen and placed it in the tomb prepared for Joseph.
On Easter morning, Mary Magdalene and other women disciples went to the tomb to perform the anointings not possible because of the hurried burial. The service of Joseph of Arimathea recalls Tobit, who buried the bodies of Jews killed by King Shalmaneser (Tobit 1:16—2:8).
Since the society’s inception in 2002, juniors and seniors from the all-boys’ institution have served at more than 800 funerals. While the vast majority of the funerals at which they serve are Catholic, the society also serves at funerals for people of other faith traditions, as well as nondenominational funerals, secular memorial services and military burial honors.
James Skerl, the group’s founder and co-moderator, started the society as an outgrowth of the school’s homeless ministry. In addition to providing food, blankets and other supplies to the indigent, Skerl’s plan was to escort those who die alone on the streets to their final resting place. He and his team, however, soon discovered a need for able-bodied men in other circles to serve as pallbearers.
“Many people were outliving all their relatives, sometimes even their own children. So at their moment of death, our kids get a chance to walk with them in grief and consolation,” says Skerl, a theology instructor at St. Ignatius.
The Pallbearer Society, the largest student organization at St. Ignatius, falls under the umbrella of the school’s Christian Action Team, which calls students to practice the spiritual and corporal works of mercy through outreach to the homeless, the poor and those with mental disabilities.
“It’s an important part of their formation,” says Skerl. He describes the pallbearer ministry as one of respect and care, presence and prayer. It provides the young men an opportunity to live the gospel message through quiet witness to God’s peace and love, and their willingness to bring God’s warmth to those in need.
Co-moderator and theology instructor Daniel Baron says, “We see kids being good all the time, but many others have a different view of young people that is pretty pessimistic. This ministry offers a sign of hope to the community.”
The simple, humble deed allows society members to assist in the spirit of their patron while alleviating a huge worry for grief-stricken survivors. “Part of our responsibilities as adults shepherding kids is to provide them with opportunities to let that goodness in them come out. We shouldn’t underestimate the hearts of our kids,” says Skerl.
This school year, 399 students comprise the Pallbearer Society. Last year’s student leaders were seniors William Brady, Andy Grayson, Alex Hurley, William Lawless, Patrick McGervey, Kevin McGowan, Alex Michalko, Michael Nichols, Peter Russo, Keighan Stacho, Harrison Stadnik and Christopher Thom.
Summing up the ministry, Patrick McGervey says, “We’re there for people who didn’t have people present to mourn them when they died. We’re making sure that their right to be mourned and prayed for in death is fulfilled.”
In addition to serving at funerals and burials (sometimes involving only the funeral home and cemetery, and at other times the funeral home, church and cemetery), members of the pallbearer ministry gather twice each year for a prayer service at Potter’s Field, a burial ground for the indigent. Students also assist in cleaning up neglected cemeteries in the Cleveland area. The commemorations at Potter’s Field occur within a sea of unmarked graves.
“It’s a way for us to honor people we didn’t get to bury,” notes Kevin McGowan. In that sparse setting, the pallbearers remember the deceased, then separate for solitary meditation. “It’s just a bunch of guys praying for the same thing. Looking out and seeing—that is a very touching experience,” says Michael Nichols.
The mission statement of the St. Joseph of Arimathea Pallbearer Society is very simple:
- to practice the works of mercy by offering pallbearer services free of charge to those in need, especially the poor and elderly
- to affirm the value and dignity of human life
- to represent the community at a person’s final commendation
- to commemorate and pray for the dead.
Hope and Love
Those who join the organization come from a variety of backgrounds. Harrison Stadnik became involved in the society through an uncle who operates funeral homes in the Cleveland area.
“He would mention that the Ignatius pallbearers came to a funeral so I was drawn to that,” says Stadnik. Others, like Alex Michalko, chose pallbearer service because an older brother volunteered when he attended St. Ignatius.
Through his sibling, Michalko discovered how stressful finding pallbearers can be for many families. “When you lose somebody, it’s the worst day. Hopefully what we do lightens the load a little bit, helps bear the burden of grief,” he says.
Skerl’s image of the pallbearer ministry is one of hand-holding, supporting others in grief. “We often tell the boys that someday they’ll be thanked, and I think the person who will thank them is the person they have carried,” says Skerl.
The majority of those escorted by the teens are elderly, such as one 92-year-old woman whose only survivors were senior citizens themselves. In one instance, the St. Ignatius pallbearers were contacted by the representative of an elderly client charged with arranging her funeral services. The woman had two living relatives, one estranged and one in failing health. The represen tative was as gratified by the pallbearers’ presence in church and at the cemetery as he was for the manpower they rendered.
Most funerals served by the St. Joseph of Arimathea members average fewer than 10 mourners in attendance. Before Michael Nichols’s first funeral, the anticipation of a small turnout brought
uncertainty about his mission. Shortly after arriving at the funeral home, however, all doubts evaporated.
“You heard the family talk about how much they loved this person. That hit me. We were helping in this task of extending that love,” observes Nichols. Through handshakes and hugs, the teens celebrate an earthly life and the transition to a heavenly reward. “You’re really connecting with someone, showing them compassion and generosity,” William Brady explains.
The moderators note that this service is both a ministry of the heart and a spirituality of inconvenience. “The actual task is very simple. The ministry is more about giving of themselves,” explains Baron. Alex Hurley recalls a day he found himself torn between offering his time and conserving energy for an afternoon football game. In the end, his dedication to the ministry won.
“Sometimes we don’t realize that we’re more selfish than we should be. Sometimes the inconvenience is actually a blessing because as pallbearers we’re getting peace of mind and the families are being helped,” he says.
Dignity and Respect
As the ministry has evolved, the teens have incorporated their own meaningful touches to the observances. Skerl served as the adult companion for one of the society’s first funerals. At the sign of peace, he witnessed the boys leave their seats on one side of the casket, cross the aisle and extend handshakes to the six mourners present.
“The family remarked how beautiful that was and how the liturgy came alive for them when the boys offered their consolation,” relates Skerl. That student-initiated action is now an integral part of the ministry.
Offering an expression of sympathy to someone you’ve never met can be uncomfortable, says William Lawless. “At first, I was a little anxious because you don’t know how people are going to react,” he continues.
For Lawless and the other pallbearers, the trepidation was short-lived. “By the time we are at the sign of peace and go over to shake the family’s hands, it is really moving,” says Peter Russo.
At Stadnik’s first funeral the deceased’s uncle and sister were the only ones in the pews. “When we went across the aisle to shake their hands [at the sign of peace], you saw this look of genuine gratitude. Each person has their own dignity and it’s all about respect,” says Stadnik.
Guidelines for Service
To be selected as pallbearers, students must attend a training session and then weekly meetings throughout the year. Strict guidelines for student pallbearers emphasize respecting academic obligations, dressing appropriately, displaying maturity and courtesy while actively participating in Church and committal rites.
An adult companion leads students in prayer before leaving for the funeral home or cemetery, drives the teens to the funeral services, acts as a liaison with the family and funeral director and also designates one pallbearer to present survivors with a sympathy Mass card, stating the deceased will be remembered in a Mass offered by the Jesuit community at St. Ignatius.
The prayers before leaving for each funeral take place in the Third Week Room in St. Mary’s Chapel on the school’s campus. The Third Week Room refers to the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola, a monthlong program of meditations, prayers and contemplative practices divided into four
“weeks” or stages.
The third week of the Exercises centers on Jesus’ last days, his passion, crucifixion and death. In St. Mary’s Chapel, a large, white crucifix with a detailed carving of Jesus is the room’s focal point. There, teens recite the Prayer for Generosity, hear as much of the deceased’s life story as possible and pray for the grace to serve with honor, respect and dignity.
“You try to know the person as best you can and be as reverent as you can,” says Andy Grayson. Beyond the story shared in chapel, teens get to know the deceased on another level through
pictures displayed at the funeral home or church.
Carrying the casket of a stranger brings pallbearers into contact with their own relatives, reminding the young men perhaps of what their relatives have done or will do. For Peter Russo, whose grandfathers served in the armed forces and whose brother currently serves, military funerals convey special meaning. The honor guard, playing of “Taps,” presentation of the flag to the next of kin, and a 21-gun salute can be emotionally draining.
“Hearing that, seeing the emotion and the eye-to-eye contact is the most moving thing for me,” says Russo.
Organizing the Pallbearers
The pallbearer service is offered free of charge to homeless people, small families, indigent people or those who die alone. Pallbearers average two to three funerals per week throughout the entire calendar year, including summer and school holidays. Their services are now requested by more than 30 funeral homes in the Cleveland Metro area.
To secure the pallbearers’ service, a phone line is set up that goes straight to voicemail. Alumni volunteers Joseph Sheehan, Aaron Mekker and Rob Zdankiewicz check messages twice each weekday and daily on weekends and holidays.
The information regarding the date and time of the funeral service is relayed to student leaders—seniors who have served as pallbearers their junior year. Being selected as a student leader is a great honor, says Grayson. It’s also a unique, behind-the-scenes experience that allows the students to utilize their talents in a different way.
Each Thursday morning at the pallbearers’ 7:15 meeting, two student leaders handle that week’s planning. When notified of a request for service, the leaders contact pallbearers to fill the needed spots. The goal is to balance veterans and rookies while ensuring each member of the society has an opportunity to serve.
“Serving at a funeral is a moving experience, but for me more so is being a leader because you switch directions. Instead of being asked, you’re asking people to serve. Seeing people my age respond with a ‘yes’ is rewarding,” says McGowan. Because it can be hectic when multiple requests come in for the same day, it’s important to stay focused on the religious aspect of their ministry, says Lawless.
Being a leader entails responsibility, not only for securing six pallbearers, but also for letting others know how much people care. “Part of being a pallbearer leader is the accountability you feel for the deceased and their loved ones,” Hurley explains.
One tangible display of their service is the pallbearer pin that teens receive after serving their first funeral. The pin, depicting the cross with Jesus’ burial cloth draped over the arms, symbolizes the Resurrection and hope for new life. This badge of honor is worn by the teens on their sport coats to all school events.
Reflection and Appreciation of Blessings
During the return trip from each funeral, pallbearers complete a reflection sheet that asks them to recognize the voice of God in that day’s experience. These contemplations enable the teens to see the face of Christ in others, recognize the importance of sharing their talents with others, give thanks for their own blessings and live with compassion. Serving funerals with only a handful of mourners also brings to mind their own funerals and who might attend.
“It’s humbling to know you will pass on and no matter who else is there, God is with you. Whether we attend funerals at our home parishes that are packed or assist in one for a homeless person with only the city director present, the same emotions occur,” says Brady.
Participating in the ministry has also created a more hopeful view of death, as one of a doorway to Christ. “You realize we’re all one people, one community. People will come together to pray for you and you’ll have an eternal life in heaven,” says McGervey.
The following are excerpts from the many letters received by the St. Joseph of Arimathea Pallbearer Society, thanking the students for their service.
“I cannot tell you how happy my husband would have been to know there are fine young men who would give their prayers and help in service.”
“I can’t say enough about how respectful, empathetic and genuine [the pallbearers for my husband’s funeral] were both for the task they had to perform and also towards me, his wife.”
“The pallbearers took a heavy weight off my mind. I worried myself sick [about finding pallbearers for my dad’s funeral] until the funeral home said St. Ignatius has a pallbearer ministry.”
“We were so impressed and comforted by the members of your group who escorted our cousin into new life. The young men are a credit to St. Ignatius and to the Catholic faith.”
“What a considerate and needed gift you offer to the community, especially to families such as ours whose members are older and whose young people are located long distances away.”