College student helps bury the dead no one else mourns

Growing up in Boston, Sam Gardner went to the Roxbury Latin School, where he internalized its philosophy "from whom much has been given, much is expected."

Now he is studying political science, economics, and classics at Oxford College of Emory University.

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In this remarkable piece, Gardner talks about his volunteer role as a mourner at burials for Atlanta’s poor who have no family or friends to arrange a service or bid them farewell.

You can read more about the minister who conducts these funerals in this 2016 AJC story

ExploreBy Sam Gardner 

One hour ago, I walked to breakfast on an elegant brick pathway. The grand glass doors, framed in a dark walnut and emblazoned with the Emory logo, welcomed me to the dining room. The pungent smell of Murphy’s Oil Soap off the immaculate tables was certainly inviting – Emory does not use generic industrial cleaners: too many chemicals. The kitchen staff served organic acorn squash, kale, and heirloom tomatoes from the local farm. Even the hamburgers were freshly cooked and never frozen.

As I strolled in, I saw all my friends. Some sat beside the fireplace talking; some stood in line waiting to be served; and some waved, smiling and asking how my day was. None of us thought we were particularly fortunate to have this treatment. We often complained. This orzo is disgusting. The lines are too long. These eggs are so bland. But I had to eat quickly; I needed to make it to a funeral later this morning.

The funeral wasn’t for someone I knew. In fact, the funeral was for someone nobody knew. He or she died alone and indigent, the body sent to the Atlanta coroner for a public health burial. I finished the last of my egg on toast and shelved the empty plate onto the moving conveyer belt where it would be cleaned out of sight.

As I drove the 56 miles to southwest Atlanta, the city around me became more industrialized, rural, and impoverished. I drove the last five minutes in silence, without any of my music, reflecting on my experience before today.

I had buried five other men and women in Boston with my high school advisor at Roxbury Latin School through a program called Ave Atque Vale, from the Latin poem, Catullus 101. The literal translation is “Hail and Farewell.” I had decided to continue the program as I moved to Atlanta to attend Emory.

I couldn't help the men or women who I was burying – they were already dead. This duty was for human dignity, both the homeless and my own: to embody the belief that no human should leave this earth alone and reflect upon the friends, benefits, and privileged life I lived as I stood over the body of someone who never did.

There wasn’t a cemetery really. Just a tall metal cross placed in a field of dying grass. It was called Lakeside Memorial Gardens; it was a potter’s field. Instead of tombstones, small plaques were scattered across the grounds where women and men were buried. I pulled my car into a narrow gravel path and parked it on the side, making sure not to run over any graves. Getting out of the car I felt the warmth of the sun against my face. Ominous clouds hung close but for now, the sun had his own way. It was a welcome contrast to a graveyard.

More cars pulled up behind mine. I stood respectfully to the side of my car in a blue Brooks Brothers coat, dark black GAP pants, black Allen Edmond shoes, and my Tag Heuer watch. I also wore my Latin tie that day, my alma mater. It was a black tie with the Roxbury Latin crest printed many times across it. Roxbury Latin’s motto is “Mortui Vivos Docent,” “The Dead Teach the Living.”

While peering through the glare on the cars parked behind mine, a man emerged and came up to shake my hand. “Sam?” he said, rather enthusiastically. “Hi, nice to meet you, I’m Rev. Cliff Dawkins.”

“Nice to meet you,” I replied. “My name is Sam.” Instantly, I realized the redundancy of that statement. Of course, he knew that. Rev. Dawkins had a round face and a warm smile. You could tell he was a good storyteller.

I waited beside him while four hearses filed in front of us. Only one of the bodies had a family to say their final farewells. The other three did not. My service was to say goodbye; to stand over the simple cardboard coffin and be family for those three people.

I stood back while Rev. Dawkins officiated the first funeral.

Family members surrounded an open coffin and cried. One silent man toward the back, most likely reminiscing about his time spent with his lost friend, wore Nike shoes, sweatpants, and a baggy T-shirt. I felt out of place but not uncomfortable. The family sat on metal foldable chairs under an E-Z UP blue tent. The service lasted for about five minutes.

As it concluded, the minister said a final prayer and the family dispersed. Four cemetery workers carried the coffin gingerly over to one of the four side-by-side pits that would be filled today. Rev. Dawkins turned to me and nodded. I followed him to the back of the hearse and we unloaded the first coffin with the help of the driver. He calmly told me it was a woman and her baby. They were riddled with bullets in a drive-by shooting.

I lowered my head and scrunched my eyes fighting back my own tears. My shaky hands laid red chrysanthemums on the coffin and I read my prayer out loud finishing with the lines:

“Frater, in perpetuum ave atque vale; 

requiescas in pace, Amen.” 

One by one, we carried the bodies out of the hearses, and I read a prayer. I couldn’t help to think of the hundreds, even thousands, of people these men and women knew throughout their lives and yet not one was here to see them leave. My head hung low after all the bodies had been lowered to their eternal resting places. Rev. Dawkins saw this and came to my side. He was already seasoned: he had buried over 4,000 bodies since 1999.

I asked how many bodies were buried on this one field. He looked around and said about 10,000 in total. Bodies were laid head to toe and side by side. Just this month, they had buried 27 adults and 4 babies. He gestured over to a smaller patch: that was the baby section.

After the cemetery workers left and the hearse drivers pulled out of the gravel path, I shook Rev. Dawkins’ hand and thanked him. He smiled and said something nice that quite frankly I do not remember. He drove away in his minivan, and I sat in my car, my arms drooping low like they were made of dough. I couldn’t help but think of the privileged life I live: the organic vegetables, luxury watches, and perfect brick pathways, tangential benefits of my elite education. The people I buried today feared they wouldn’t have shelter in Atlanta’s pop-up thunderstorms; they feared for their lives. If I die today, I know that my friends and family would surround me and return me to the earth with gravitas and love. Today, I was the family for those that had none.

As I arrived back at school for a late lunch, my friends greeted me the same way they always had. I sat down and stayed silent as one of my friends explained how unfair his life was – He got an 84 on his macro test.

Ave Atque Vale isn’t a service for the dead. They have passed. The service creates an understanding of perspective. It draws back the curtain of everyday life and reveals the deeper meaning of our existence.

Every time I attend a funeral I am reminded of this. That is why I will continue to honor the passing of Atlanta’s homeless – to show my fellow class members and friends a new perspective on our lives and to extend our privilege to those who are equally deserving.

We must understand that living parochial lives is contrary human nature. It is my duty – and every person’s duty – to continually seek to understand our place within the entire human community, not merely our own comfortable spaces. This is why I cherish any opportunity to travel to the forgotten places of the world. Where the impoverished are preyed upon and struggles for survival are tangible. I am always eager for new perspectives and experiences and I hope to better myself through them.

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