Sunday, October 6, 2013

Bury the dead

This past summer while I was in Missouri, I was privileged to tour the newly created columbarium erected by the Odd Fellows of Washington, Missouri.  Frankly, I had no idea what a columbarium was until Marc Houseman—my favorite Odd Fellow—explained it to me some time ago.  (And if you’re curious yourself, here’s a link to a very brief but very cool YouTube Video with Marc explaining—as he stands in front of the new columbarium:

When Marc became involved with the Odd Fellows, he realized that part of their charter dictates that they have a responsibility to “bury the dead,” an edict Marc—as a mortician and as a humanitarian—feels quite passionately about.  He presented the Odd Fellows with the idea of building a columbarium—a consecrated venue created to respectfully house unclaimed cremated remains.  When he told me about this project, it brought to mind the day, a few summers back, when Marc took me to a cemetery in St. Louis and we toured the crematorium.  In a dusty back room (yes, dusty with the ashes of countless Missourians), stacked upon several wooden shelves in a most undignified manner, sat row after row of nondescript cardboard boxes, each holding the “cremains” of someone whose family had never come to collect the ashes.  We began to read the names and death dates on the boxes, and after only a few minutes, the three of us--Marc, myself and our companion, Ginger Justus—were so overwhelmed we left the room to get back to the open air and serenity of the cemetery.

It happens frequently, Marc told me, that people are cremated… and no one picks up the ashes, even when the cremation has been paid for.

And so the project was discussed, funds were collected, and the columbarium moved from dream to reality.  Upon its completion, Marc contacted every crematorium in the state of Missouri to offer the space for unclaimed cremains.  Cool, right?  But being a historian, Marc felt compelled to go further, to search for possible living family members of those who came to be interred at the columbarium.

So it was that on September 11th, 2013, Private Albert Louis Onyika was laid to rest at Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery with full military honors, including the playing of “Taps” and the folding of the flag passed on to a family member—just like my mom and dad had for their memorials.  Because when Marc went digging, he discovered that Albert Onyika was a veteran of WWII where he earned a Bronze Star and a Purple Heart, and as a veteran, he had earned the right to a military burial.  Arrangements were made by the Odd Fellows, and Pvt. Onyika’s remains were accompanied to the cemetery by the American Legion Riders and the Missouri Highway Patrol.  Thirty individuals attended his memorial service, including his granddaughter and representatives of MIAP, the Missing in America Project whose members track down “lost” veterans who are deceased.

So, so cool, right?  When Marc told me this story in an email recently, it just brought me to tears. Would that every civic or community group would dedicate itself to such altruistic endeavors.

Wonderful in a way words can’t describe.