This article appears in the May 2011 issue of Louisville Magazine. To subscribe, please visit loumag.com .
The casket was no bigger than a shoebox, what the funeral business calls a “preemie,” and before anybody else had arrived at the cemetery, two Metro Parks workers had used a rectangle of beaten-up plywood to keep an early-morning drizzle from dampening the shallow hole in the earth they’d dug with shovels. Blanched artificial flowers were stuffed into the tops of the metal poles lining the cemetery’s paved path, where a half-dozen vehicles started parking a little after 10 a.m. In the distance, beyond the barbed-wire-topped chain-link fence, industrial smokestacks at LG&E’s Cane Run power plant released bulging plumes of white smoke — cotton balls against a clearing pale-blue sky.
On that spring morning, a small congregation formed a semi-circle around the 13th grave in the sixth row of the infant section, the only part of River Valley Cemetery not at capacity. It was where they would buryJazmon Hannah Jr., whose premature birth had also been his death. The Jefferson County coroner’s office, at no cost to Jazmon’s family, provided the opportunity through its indigent burial program, overseen by a muscular 55-year-old named Buddy Dumeyer, a chief deputy coroner and former police officer whose career included 11 years on a Jefferson County SWAT team. As Dumeyer passed out the ceremony programs,Jazmon’s grandmother, Natalie Hannah, cradled and rubbed the casket, which a satiny white cloth encased. Hannah’s job at the Park DuValle Community Health Center had her wearing scrubs, and she pressed a clenched fist beneath her eyeglasses in an attempt to suppress the tears wetting her cheeks.
“I’m very happy that Natalie, the grandmother of this child, is here to be with us,” Dumeyer said, getting things under way. “It’s a wonderful day. We thank God for the sunshine.”
The campus minister at Assumption High School — one of a few area schools that has students conduct prayer services and serve as pallbearers for the poor — had driven seven young ladies to River Valley in a 12-passenger van. The students, seniors dressed in school-uniform maroon or plaid skirts, typically sing “Amazing Grace,” but after three Bible readings — including one by Hannah’s father, the Rev. HaroldHollins — they instead went with “Baby Mine” from the movie Dumbo. It was all over in 10 minutes, maybe less, and a purple-and-green foam cross adorned with lambs would serve as Jazmon’s headstone until something more permanent could replace it.
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.”
During a phone interview, Suiter described her father as “the life of theparty.” She did not have a memory of him being in her childhood home but did recall that he was estranged from his five sons. Judson was a country musician, she said, who “taught himself to play every instrument known to man” and performed at venues in town that have since been torn down. “He wasn’t a drunk, but his life was in the bars because that’s where he played the music,” Suiter said. Her father could never hold down a job and had a “medical file literally about as thick as the phone books they’re putting out now.” Before his heart finally gave out, his girlfriend — who was too distraught to go to the cemetery — had been taking care of him. “At 5:50 a.m. he started hollering. She got his feet on the floor, grabbed both of his arms and tried to pull him up. She said, ‘James, you’ve gotta help!’” Suiter said. “When she went to pull him up again, he collapsed. And that was the end of it.”
“He had been acting funny for three days. One time he yelled, ‘Get me up, get me up, I’m drowning!’ He hollered, ‘Daddy! Daddy!’ His father’s been dead for, gosh, 40 years,” Suiter added. “Looking back on it, all of it made sense that he was going.”
Her husband left a message with the Mayor’s Office explaining howDumeyer “brought dignity and respect to an otherwise horrible situation.”Suiter said, “These young men meant — I don’t even know how to put it in words what it meant to me. For my father, it wasn’t just me and my two sons and my husband standing there. That floored me.”
Kresse, 48, was a youth minister at Church of the Epiphany in 2005 when coroner Holmes, a member there, asked if he’d lead a project at River Valley. “The caskets themselves are very inexpensive, and so at some point, the weight of the earth caves in the casket, pulls down the dirt,”Kresse said. “At another time, you have to go through to fill in more dirt.” The thing that struck Kresse were the homemade grave markers, some of which displayed misspellings. One cross for a former auto mechanic was actually a gold-painted tire iron with a dirty baseball cap hanging on it. Beyond the fence, earthmovers hauled coal ash heaps. “It was this very human cemetery,” Kresse said. “I really felt that this place was holy ground, even though to look at it with your eyes you might not feel that way at all.” At that time, during ceremonies for the destitute, somebody from the coroner’s office or Owen Funeral Home would say a few graveside words. “None of them were just dumped into the ground,” Hardin said.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org