In Louisville, residents who are homeless or without family aren’t buried alone.
Every Thursday, volunteers gather in Meadow View Cemetery in southwest Jefferson County to take part in Louisville’s Indigent Burial Program
About a dozen students from St. Xavier High School attended a service on a recent afternoon.
Toby Larkins, director of Owen Funeral Homes, instructed them on pallbearing.
“Y’all stand close to the vehicle like I am,” he told the teenage boys, all dressed in suits despite the hot summer weather. “As I pull the casket out, you all use your left hand.”
They place the handmade wooden casket on a metal table underneath a pavilion. The volunteers form a circle around it, reciting prayers and psalms. They didn’t know the deceased when he was alive. In fact, all they know about him is the name printed on the funeral pamphlet: Kenney Stone.
Louisville has been providing funeral services for people who would otherwise go without since at least the 1980s. It’s historically been run by local government–first Louisville’s Social Services Department and then the Jefferson County Coroner’s office. Now though, Catholic Charities of Louisville is taking over the program, a move advocates hope will ensure long-term sustainability.
Funerals like Kenney Stone’s are simple, just roughly 15 minutes long. But that’s more than residents in many other cities receive. Municipalities like New York City often put homeless or those without family in mass graves.
Former Jefferson County Deputy Coroner Buddy Dumeyer helped expand the program to what it is today.
“One of our philosophies was that everyone comes in this world with nothing other than, hopefully, loving arms around them,” Dumeyer said. “When people leave this world with nothing, because they are homeless or they’re living in poverty, we want to make sure we give them back with that same loving arms and that same embracement.”
In 2019, the Indigent Burial Program became the subject of a push-and-pull between the Coroner’s Office and Louisville Metro Council.
The city needed to make budget cuts. During negotiations with Metro Council, Coroner Dr. Barbara Weakley-Jones threatened to end the program.
“The indigent program was put on our office before I became coroner, and [I] have dealt with it till now. You will need to find another agency to run that program and eventually find more land to bury individuals,” Weakley-Jones said in an email published by the Courier-Journal at the time. “This will be affective (sic) at the end of the month.”
Metro Council responded by approving an amendment to the budget that made all of the coroner’s funding contingent on continuing the funerals.
This year, Metro Council set aside $65,000 for the program. Catholic Charities of Louisville will take over administering it with assistance from Metro Government.
Weakley-Jones sees this as a win-win. The coroner’s office has been over-taxed in recent years with increased deaths from the opioid crisis, gun violence and COVID-19.
She says two deputy coroners are currently splitting their time arranging the burials.
“In between answering phones and doing all the other stuff, they’re trying to get a hold of family members to come in and, yeah, it just can be very overwhelming,” Weakley-Jones said.
The increased pressure of the job means there’s not as much time to do everything that Dumeyer did before he retired in 2016. He and a couple of the other deputy coroners who came after him not only organized services: they built community connections.
They found a volunteer to create a low-cost headstone, which typically run more than $400 each. Dumeyer said he also worked with nursing homes and hospice services to help eligible residents with their end-of-life plans.
“That way, we were prepared to take care of them. It was already done,” he said. “And the person was at peace knowing that we were going to be there for him when they died.”
The student volunteers were also the work of Dumeyer, along with St. Xavier theology teacher and service coordinator Ben Kresse. The program now has student volunteers from Catholic high schools throughout Jefferson County, as well as Bellarmine University and the University of Louisville.
Kresse said he’s seen the program help students mature emotionally and spiritually.
“Since the inception of this program, I’ve never had a student come up to me and say they never want to do it again,” he said. “You get the understanding that these people have really struggled with being alone in life, and at the very last moment, before they are buried, we are holding their hand. That part, I think, is felt deeply by the students.”
Kresse and Dumeyer said they both know students who’ve returned after graduation to attend services.
“We Catholics talk a lot about how the dignity of the human being extends from natural conception to natural death, but it’s not just that, it extends beyond death,” Lisa DeJaco Crutcher, CEO of Catholic Charities of Louisville, said.
The organization has already signed a cooperation agreement with the coroner and Louisville Metro Parks, who bury the dead and maintain the cemetery. They’re currently in the process of interviewing candidates to run the program. That person will be responsible for helping identify any next of kin and organizing the services and volunteers.
A few members of Bates Memorial Baptist Church attended the recent funeral for Kenney Stone. Associate Pastor Walter Holder, Jr. said the 66-year-old frequently attended services there.
Holder offered a prayer during the funeral. Afterwards, he reflected on his memories of Stone.
“He had some health issues,” Holder said. “He had trouble just getting around walking, and he never stopped coming to the church when he could. He never stopped helping people when he could.”
Holder said he’s grateful for a program that could give his friend some dignity in death. He’s now making plans to volunteer his own time at a future service.