“There but for the grace of God, go I”, a statement which we have all heard and one whose origin is debatable. This phrase has become central to my thinking and (at least in aspiration) the root of my actions in my working life. I try to remember that at our core, we are all the same. We have strengths and weaknesses that become what the world sees, and if we are lucky, someone loves us.
I work in an area of town that most of my friends wouldn’t drive through. It has its problems, but it also has people who have made a home here. Real people who often have a hard time solving the problems that life presents. The problem that I get asked to help solve is often something like “My mother died and I don’t have any money”. More honestly stated it’s more like “my mother died, and we live in a house together with a bunch of other family, and it’s all we can do to feed the kids and keep the lights on, but we really want mom to be buried and we can’t afford to do what she deserves. Help.”
So it was that I was making an egg for breakfast on Monday and heard a very familiar tale made sadder by where it happened, the story of T. C. Latham on NPR’s Morning Edition. T. C. was a homeless man who died in Detroit. The desperation of indigency in a city like Detroit is heightened (in a “summit-of- Everest-way”) by the city’s own indigency. The story highlighted the decency, regret, guilt, and pity shown by a group of people in Detroit who “knew” T. C. Latham (more accurately, they saw him and interacted with him or more likely sought not to interact with him as he pan-handled). These are the people who raised money and buried him, a sad and beautiful gesture. There but for the grace of God, go all of us.
The story featured a quote that lines up with my thoughts and the first sentence above, “The difference between an animal and a human is we bury our dead. These people, regardless of what kind of life they lived, they deserve a final resting place. I would hope for no less if it were some loved one of mine and I couldn’t afford to do it.” Yep and Amen.
T. C. Latham was a homeless man living on the margin of society. Most people who think about his death and burial will decide that his final arrangements being funded by a government agency or some form of charity is to be expected. “Well, how else would it happen?” Most people will decide that the second scenario, a poor family in a transitional neighborhood is not too hard to understand either. But to stop there is only part of the picture, the easy part – the part that makes sense.
The rest of the story is that this “problem” is far more pervasive than most people realize. It is not contained to low rent districts or to stereotyped groups, and it probably never was. Every community in Ohio by law must have funds to use for indigent burial. The part that will surprise most people is that most communities have paid for funeral services for the indigent. I have personally called government officials in our most affluent suburbs to lay the groundwork for an application for indigent funds for cremations. When I made one in my own zip code I was given pause. When I received charitable funds to pay for the services of a man living within walking distance of million dollar homes and a private golf course, it became pretty clear just how pervasive real poverty is. These were not people “playing the system”, believe me.
There are days and weeks where burying the broke and the desperate is pretty rough business. With that said, I am thankful for many things as I do it. I am thankful that I live in a city with resources to help those in the direst need. I am thankful that I work for an organization that wants to help those in need. I am thankful that I know how to help them. Selfishly, I am thankful most of all to be on my side of the desk. No one has ever wanted to bury someone they love, and even less to not have the means to do it.
I never meant to be a Funeral Director. If you’d told the college-aged me that I would do this, I would have laughed at you. A few transitions and 17 years in funeral service later, I can’t imagine what else I would do. I like to cook, and laugh, philosophize and entertain so many of my friends have suggested that I should be a chef or run a bar. My educational background is pure science and I taught gross anatomy for a while. I have worked in a steel mill, a chemical factory, an independent record store, and a wine shop but I think I’m meant to do this. Along with my wife Beverly, I live in Northwest Columbus. We have no children or pets but usually have a house full of company!