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Honoring the Humblest of Vets in the Humblest of Ways

John Burger - published on 11/11/15

A Jesuit high school in Detroit provides pallbearers for vets who die alone

An estimated 40,000 to 50,000 veterans are believed to be struggling with homelessness in the United States. Some will get sick, get old, and die without friends or family around.

They served their nation, but who will be there to salute them when their remains are lowered into the ground?

Students at the University of Detroit Jesuit High School and Academy made an initial effort at answering that question as they accompanied three homeless veterans, men with no family around, to their burial.

It’s part of a new group at the high school called the St. Joseph of Arimathea Pallbearer Ministry.

AsMarine Corps Times eloquently wrote of the effort:

Three veterans laid to rest last week were not known in their communities. Their families had dispersed and dissipated, as did their battle buddies. But they served their country, and that’s all that mattered to students at the University of Detroit Jesuit High School and Academy who stepped up to serve as pallbearers at the funerals of those three homeless veterans.

Six students from the all-boys Catholic prep school in Detroit walked the remains to their final resting place at the Great Lakes National Cemetery in nearby Holly Township.

“The men we honored today put their lives on the line for our country and now they deserve our dignity and service in return,” Leonard Froehlich, a senior, said in a school news release Oct. 20. “There is no better way to pay our respects than by being pallbearers. We honor these service members by being with them in their last moments on earth, and that in itself is a privilege.”

The student-led initiative, which has so far trained more than 50 students, partners with local funeral homes to ensure the remains of deceased veterans that go unclaimed after 90 days receive their proper disposition. The Dignity Memorial Network Homeless Veterans Program provides caskets for the services.

“The students’ service is so important because they realize how they can give back to the people of our community who have given so much to us,” faculty program leader Todd Wilson told TODAY News.

“I know that these people had loved ones and, whether or not these loved ones could be there to say goodbye, it does not change the fact that everyone deserves a proper burial,” Nick Benedetto, a senior, told TODAY. “During the funerals, while listening to the eulogies, I heard a particular statement that I feel was very important: While you didn’t know him by name or sight, we are all here today to recognize his service to our country.”

The ministry was inspired by a similar one at another Jesuit high school, St. Ignatius in Cleveland. Established in 2002 by teacher Jim Skerl, the St. Joseph of Arimathea Pallbearer Society taps upper classmen to serve as pallbearers for those who died without any friends or family. The society produced the video above, about an annual visit to Cleveland’s Potter Field, where the bodies of poor, the homeless and the unclaimed are buried.

The ministries in both high schools are named, of course, for the man who volunteered to take care of the burial of Jesus. In Cleveland, the ministry has more than 500 trained student-pallbearer who serve at approximately 250 funerals per year, said coordinator Dan Baron. “Our mission is to serve anyone who is in need. Certainly we have served at the funerals of a number of military veterans, and we are honored to do so, but we do not focus primarily on veterans,” he explained. “Most of the requests for our service originate with area funeral homes who are making arrangements with the next of kin and become aware that the family cannot provide pallbearers.”

The U of D Jesuit students had gone to Cleveland to check out St. Ignatius’s program and to train. Students also got training from A. J. Desmond & Sons Funeral Directors in Detroit.

“The pallbearer program at U of D Jesuit says a lot about the school and the young men who attend there,” said Terry Desmond, an alumnus who is president of the A. J. Desmond Funeral Homes. “Their service to the less fortunate honors the dignity of individuals who are mostly out-of-the-view of our society.”

Typically, before departing for a funeral, the student pallbearers gather to pray for the deceased. They travel by carpool, take part in the funeral procession, carry the casket to the grave and share in the prayers of committal. After returning to school, students reflect prayerfully on their experience.

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