I was inspired to write this post this morning when I heard Michael Krasny’s interview of the Reverend Glenda Hope on Forum. She is retiring to “dance with God” after 40 years of ministering to the poor and the troubled in San Francisco’s Tenderloin district and its surrounds.
In her interview, she talked about honoring the people who died in her community virtually alone with no one to bury them. Some were young who died violently or whose drug addiction had caught up with them fatally. But others were homeless, derelict, forgotten. Some were living alone plagued by their own demons. She felt that a proper funeral might somehow restore their dignity in death what maybe they did not have while living.
She recalled one old woman well into her 80’s who died with no family. She lived alone in a hostel and went from one free kitchen to another to keep herself from starving. After she died, they had discovered that she had over $100,000 in her name. She never used it. The Reverend said that many people are so fearful of ending up with no money and sacrificing so much for that “rainy day” that might come.
I remembered hearing on NPR a few years ago about the increasing trend of people dying alone in Europe. One such report was presented in Soundprint entitled, The Lonely Funeral, back in 2010. It was an account of what some people have done for those who passed away with no friends or family in Amsterdam. Some of them are the last in a family to die, or have been cut off all their family ties. One poet, Frank Starik, took it upon himself to write eulogies for them. Here’s a sample of one such eulogy he wrote:
“Who then, loved you? In which rooms did you sleep,
who kissed you goodnight, who’ll wear out your shirt?
Who will want to stand where you once stood?
Who now takes the road you took?”
The entire topic also reminded me of a Chinese feature film in 2012 called “Getting Home.” It was about a poor construction worker who carried his dead colleague on his back across the country in an effort to get him a proper burial.
In Britain, the growing number of elderly people living alone by choice or circumstance, and dying alone has been increasing (up to 1/3 or 2.5M of the current home-aloners apparently fit this category). Their newspapers have been inundated with horror accounts of people having been dead for a year before their bodies are discovered in their own homes. This has been a well-recognized trend and so the calls to address it have been growing.
I also remembered an NPR news feature last year of how in Bernalillo County, Albuquerque, Deacon Pablo Lefebre and his community try to provide an honorable funeral to many unnamed unclaimed bodies in his county. There is an annual program wherein, the unclaimed and unidentified deceased whose remains have been in county possession for at least two years, would be cremated and buried in a common grave. In lieu of names, a sample headstone reads:
We grow afraid of what we might forget. We will find peace and value through community in knowing that we belong to each other. Dedicated to the Citizens of Bernalillo County.
This post was inspired by the Daily Post’s Weekly Photo Challenge: Family. I know that it would have been easier to post something about human connectedness and togetherness. Instead, I wanted to talk about what of those who are alone, who lived alone, who died alone, for whatever reason. I feel uplifted by the efforts some people have made to give them their dignity by honoring them at their final send-off. More importantly, I see it as an effort by those still living to embrace them back into a community or even a family.
Better late than never, right?
- Giving a Respectful Funeral to Lonely Strangers (telegraph.co.uk)
- The Funerals Without Mourners (news.bbc.co.uk)
- Classic Dox – The Lonely Funeral (rnw.nl)
- Confessions of a Bachelor (goodfuneralguide.co.uk)