Remembering the forgotten [Louisville Magazine]

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On the paved path, a minivan converted into a hearse carried another coffin, this one containing James Judson, who was born in 1937 and died on March 18, 2011. For the next interment, Dumeyer and Kenneth Hardin Sr., who was driving the hearse for Owen Funeral Home, needed to get to Meadow View Cemetery, off Dixie Highway south of the Gene Snyder. “We’ll see you at the next one,” Hardin said to Dumeyer, “and do it again.”

 

Last year, the coroner’s office, in Dumeyer’s words, “took care of” about 300 people — 200 potter’s field burials, 80 cremations and 20 veterans laid to rest at Fort Knox. Since 2005 the number has more than tripled, and on average Dumeyer organizes three or four services a week. “It is a sign of the times that people are dying without the means to pay for a funeral,” Dumeyer said. “We want to make sure these folks don’t fall through the cracks.”

 

A person is eligible if he or she didn’t own property or a car or have life insurance, a burial policy, etc. “If somebody’s got a vehicle that’s sitting up on blocks, I’m not going to deny them,” Dumeyer said. “If the families can help, if there is any possibility they can help offset the costs, we’ll take it. We want to be good stewards of the taxpayers’ money, but we always want to be good stewards of taking care of people who need ourhelp.”

 

Whether a traditional burial or cremation, the coroner’s office pays $495 to Owen Funeral Home. An additional $235 covers the cost of opening and closing the grave. When the funeral home got involved almost a decade ago, Hardin said, he and other staffers cleared out their closets and donated old suits for dressing the deceased. Now he makes trips to Goodwill, searching for slacks and shirts that are oftentimes nicer than what some of the  people they bury owned while living. “A lot of times, their address is listed as ‘city at large,’” Hardin said. 

 

Dumeyer works on the seventh floor of a Barret Avenue government building that used to be a hospital, with the coroner’s office on one end and the medical examiner on the other. First thing most days, he scans obituaries in the Courier-Journal. He spends so much time in his car driving to Meadow View that he calls the ride his “apartment.” (At the graveyard, if somebody forgets to bring a CD player but wants to play a song — “Amazing Grace” or something by, say, Andrea Bocelli or the Rolling Stones — Dumeyer said he’ll open his sedan’s four doors and crank up the volume knob.) During an interview in his office, Dumeyer told a story about how when he was working for the police department, he was located in the same building as the coroner. “I saw people who had exhausted all other avenues and were asking for help burying their loved ones,” Dumeyer said. “I knew I wanted to oversee the program.”

 

In 2005, after 27 years on the police force, Dumeyer was the last person in his recruiting class to retire. He began coordinating prayer services in April 2006 and took over the indigent program that December, three years after the coroner’s office, led by then coroner Ron Holmes, started handling burials. The city’s social services department was in charge before then, and Holmes wanted the coroner’s office to take the lead in an attempt to streamline the process. Since 2003, the agency has buried about 1,000 bodies at River Valley, which is the final resting place for about three times that many paupers. When this story was published, the city had already interred almost 30 adults at Meadow View, which opened last December. 

 

About halfway into the hour-long interview, Dumeyer began recounting emotional memories. “In some instances,” he said, “I’ve actually buried two or three people from the same family. They’re living in poverty and will come in and go, ‘Buddy, you buried my brother last year and my sister just died.’” With each story, Dumeyer could recall names. “I remember all of them,” he whispered, fighting to get the words out. 

 

“Knowing all the struggles these people faced in life, there they are, side-by-side. I feel like we give them that peace they’ve been looking for, like we put everything back together again,” he said. “When we buried the last person (at River Valley), one of the hardest things I’ve had to do was to drive out of there, knowing that I wouldn’t be going in there at least once a week. I remember pulling my car out and just sitting and thinking for a long time.”

 

At Meadow View, six St. Xavier High School students rolled James Judson’s denim-colored, compressed-wood casket out of the back of Hardin’s hearse and placed it on two metal stands beneath a collapsible green canopy. It was Adam Roth’s first time serving as a pallbearer, and he made sure the wind didn’t ruffle the cloth pall spread over the coffin. The 17-year-old, who is on St. X’s power-lifting team, would later comment on how the casket’s heaviness surprised him. Judson’s 47-year-old daughter, Kathy Suiter, and her husband and her two sons listened as the students and Ben Kresse, who teaches spirituality at St. X, conducted the prayer service. “Before I found out about this program,”Suiter said, “I thought I’d have to have my father cremated because he was indigent.”

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