Remembering the forgotten [Louisville Magazine]

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Soon, Kresse was teaching religion and theology and coaching at St. X. On the way to a wrestling tournament, he heard a National Public Radio story about a group of students from Cleveland’s St. Ignatius High School called the St. Joseph of Arimathea Society. The group, which served as pallbearers for paupers, was named after the man who, according to scripture, donated his tomb to Christ. Kresse listened to the story again online and sent it to Holmes, who wondered if Louisville high school students could do the same thing.

 

In the beginning, four St. X wrestlers and Kresse went to the burials. During an interview in the chapel on St. X’s campus, Kresse recalled the first one they attended, in April 2006, when they knew little more than the person’s name. “It was a light-blue felt casket with three handles on each side,” Kresse said. “By pushing on it, I had the sense that a good part of it was made out of cardboard.” Another story he shared was about an unidentified Hispanic man who was murdered shortly after coming to town. They nicknamed him Juan Doe. “It was Christmastime, snow falling, and here we were with this man, putting him to rest in a foreign country,”Kresse said.

 

The original four students doubled to eight, then doubled again and again. Now there’s a list of 60 to 80 students, plus 10 to 12 teachers. That first summer, one young man attended almost every burial. In the fall of 2006, Kresse contacted other local high schools, hoping to set up a rotational schedule. Though seven schools got involved — and the University of Louisville and Bellarmine have participated — the core group right now is St. X, Trinity and Assumption. “As far as I know, it’s just us and St. Ignatius in Cleveland doing this,” Kresse said, “but we’ve had many, many responses from around the country throughout the years.”

 

Michael Dermody, an 18-year-old senior at St. X who was a pallbearer for Judson, has been involved with the St. Joseph of Arimathea Society since freshman year. “Sometimes, people have lived for 60-some-odd years, and at the end of their life, there’s not a single person there for them,” he said. 

 

Louisville’s first almshouse went up in the 1830s at Eighth and Chestnut streets and by 1851 had moved to Duncan Street, between 28th and 29th streets. According to City of Louisville municipal reports from the 1860s and ’70s, “Alms-Houses are places where poverty is sent to be fed and clothed as much as doctored — hotels for the poor, more than hospitals.” Though about 160 “inmates” stayed there and 20 or so died each year, the reports do not specify where those folks were buried. In 1872, however, the city bought 225 acres in what is now Shively and soon built the Home for the Aged and Infirm, which had a cemetery on the grounds for indigents. This graveyard off Manslick Road was used until 1988, when more space was needed and River Valley opened. Dumeyer said more than 1,500 graves will fit in Meadow View’s more than two acres.

 

At Meadow View in early April, temporary metal markers still served as headstones. The first person to be interred there — row one, grave one — was Dennis E. Barr, who was 49 years old and died Dec. 13, 2010. Police officers found him face-down on a Portland sidewalk, the victim of an apparent homicide. Next was Valeriy Glachov, 69, who died Dec. 19. A sash that said “Dad” was on a wreath at the head of Ronald L.Kundert’s grave, and a pot of fake flowers rested on its side near James R. Thompson’s plot. Women from local churches sew crosses onto the palls that Dumeyer gives to the family of the deceased; although the coroner’s office raises money to cover headstone costs, it cannot afford the $295 for everybody. At River Valley, for instance, some of the temporary markers have become permanent. Those whose families can afford it get a simple rectangular slab that typically displays a person’s name, dates of birth and death, and an image — praying hands, a horse, an angel, a NASCAR flag. 

 

Rodney Rowe is the foreman of the Metro Parks crew that digs the graves. Following a recent service, the 54-year-old mentioned the first burial he ever did. “I had a feeling about it — not a sick feeling, but a knot. Never again after that,” he said. “I feel sympathy, but it’s a job now.”Dumeyer said 55-year-old parks worker Mike Murrell, who wears a do-rag over his braids, is strong enough to “handle one side of a casket byhimself.” Curtis Wilcox, 53, is the “heavy equipment operator” who drives the backhoe that digs the deep graves — 7 feet long, 3 feet wide, 6 feet deep — and lowers the caskets into the ground. “I myself wonder how I do it,” he said. 

 

Tom Jordan, 64, is a retired long-haul trucker who has been a graveyard worker for about four years, cutting grass and making sure the temporary nameplates are neat. Dumeyer said Jordan, who has Elvis-like sideburns, can locate any plot at River Valley. “Last summer,” Jordan said, “a daughter was fighting to get away because she wanted to be with her dad. She wanted to go into the grave.”

 

“You can crawl in a hole,” he said, “but you won’t be with them.”

 

A week after burying Jazmon Hannah and James Judson, Dumeyer pulled his sedan into Meadow View on an afternoon cold enough to see your breath. It was the second service of the day, and near the gravel driveway, construction workers were welding the frame of a pavilion where prayer services will take place in the future. “We’ll only be about 15 minutes,” Dumeyer said to them. They shut off their noisy tools.

 

No family or friends gathered around the casket of Franklin Rutherford, who was 76 when he died on March 24. Instead, the group includedDumeyer, a Trinity teacher and four Trinity students, the hearse driver, some parks employees and a neighborhood man, who gets to as many burials as he can. “Mr. Rutherford was originally from Indiana,” Dumeyer said, adding that Rutherford had spent time in a Louisville nursing home before his heart failed him. “We placed an ad in the paper, tried to find family, but this is one of those days where, if it wasn’t us, he’d be alone.”

 

Following the ceremony, Trinity students and a few parks workers grabbed the handles on the sides of the casket. They lifted it and trudged until the grass beneath their feet became the dirt of the 28th plot in the first row, where Wilcox — the heavy equipment operator — sat in the idling backhoe. After Wilcox lowered the coffin into the ground, he scooped a mound of dirt into the front bucket, then unloaded the earth back into the hole. The first clumps coated the casket’s lid with a succession of hollow thuds. Then, silence.

 

Reach writer Josh Moss at jmoss@loumag.com

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