Dying alone and anonymously is a scary thought. People worry that no one will attend the funeral or seem to notice their passing.
For the homeless, this will most likely happen. No one deserves to die alone or go unremembered. The homeless who die every year are certainly no exception.
In New York City, the homeless are buried at Potter’s Field. It is closed to the public.
Picture the Homeless, a New York City group, fights for the rights of homeless people. One of its campaigns is to open Potter’s Field and provide, “access for the homeless to Hart Island so they can mourn the loss of their close friends who passed from their community.”
The group often has difficulty navigating the bureaucracy and getting onto the island, but with the help of religious leaders in the community, it was able to hold bimonthly memorial services on the island.
In Philadelphia the situation is not as bleak. Unidentified bodies are sent to the Medical Examiner’s office.
The Medical Examiner investigates the manner and cause of death. The office does not look into the person’s housing status. A body is held for three months.
If no one claims the body, it is cremated by the city and the remains are kept at the Medical Examiner’s Office indefinitely.
Every year, on the first day of winter there is a candlelight vigil at City Hall.
At the vigil, names are read and there are testimonies, songs and sometimes dances by current and former members of the homeless community.
Jennine Miller, coordinator of education and advocacy for Project H.O.M.E., a homeless advocacy group, said that members of the homeless community are often forgotten. The vigil is about not forgetting them.
But this is the city of Brotherly Love and we can do better. Services could be held more often. Better obituaries could be written.
A memorial service and candlelight vigil is a start. It is poignant and important.
But hearing a list of names makes death seem more abstract, just like statistics make homelessness seem more abstract.
It is crucial for us to help the homeless when they are living, but it’s also important to honor them when they pass.
According to the Medical Examiner’s Office’s Web site, “anyone, including friends and neighbors, may claim a body after three days from the date of pronouncement of death.”
Friends can mourn the loss and remember the life of a friend in a concrete, tangible way. According to Miller, sometimes they will assist families who cannot afford a funeral. People even donate supplies for a proper funeral.
Miller said Project H.O.M.E. will work for,”dignity in their passing, just as we fight for the dignity of people in life.”
In New York City, people have to go through a web of bureaucracy to visit a lonely island and lay flowers on a lonely grave.
People who wish to mourn cannot get to a gravesite without tremendous work and hassle.
Does our housing status dictate the extent to which we should be honored? It shouldn’t.
People who die without homes deserve more than a large gathering once a year.
They deserve to have their stories told in a more intimate environment. They deserve to be cared about in life and in death.
Carolyn Steeves can be reached at email@example.com.