Florida Priest Presides Over Burials for Those No One Else Will Claim—UPDATED

Here’s a story about a poignant and prayerful work of mercy most people never hear about.


No one Mary Helen Wells knew was at her funeral.

The physical sum of her 85 years filled a donated urn Monday afternoon, among 36 other donated urns full of unwanted remains. A kindly priest said prayers and stowed them in a crypt. A groundskeeper sealed it, and the mourners, gathered on principle, dispersed.

In South Florida, hundreds die every year without a survivor to claim them. The causes vary: liver failure,dementia. One homeless man died in 2011 when an industrial oven he was helping someone carry crushed him. Strangers — funeral homes or government workers — hold their bodies.

The Rev. Gabriel Ghanoum claims them. The local Catholic priest gives a ceremony for a new group of the lonely dead every few months. He says to their ashes, “I can tell all of you, each one, that I love you.” He blessed each little box with the tips of his fingers.

When Walter Hibson died in his bathroom in West Palm Beach, no one knew. His mail piled up, and a neighbor called the Sheriff’s Office. Deputies found his bones. A county social worker could identify no family or friends. Hibson was 69.<

Bobby Melton, 69, cut grass in exchange for room and board in a shed behind a Delray Beach home. Witnesses saw him collapse next to the lawn mower from a heart attack. The county contacted his ex-wife, divorced 15 years ago, who said he had no family. She declined his body.

Lawrence Grening, 65, of Lake Worth, had spoken to a neighbor about his two sons, but no one could locate them after his body was found decomposing in his apartment.

There were homeless people and people who apparently immigrated alone and solitary elderly people who outlived their social network.

“We pray that our brothers and sisters may sleep here in peace,” Ghanoum said.

 Read it all. 

UPDATE: A reader alerted me to a similar ministry at a Jesuit high school in Cleveland.   Which reminded me of a post I put up back in the early days of this blog, in 2007:

Cory Kress, a 2007 graduate of St. Xavier High School, has attended dozens of burials for indigent men, women and children in Jefferson County. He serves as a pallbearer, leads prayers, reads Scripture passages and offers heartfelt condolences to the decedents’ family and friends.

He was recognized for this service by the Jefferson County Coroner’s Office at a ceremony July 10. County Coroner Dr. Ron Holmes and Deputy Coroner Buddy Dumeyer presented Kress a plaque and praised him for his compassion.

Kress – and a growing number of students from Catholic schools in the area – are members of the St. Joseph of Arimathea Society, which assists the Jefferson County Coroner’s Office’s indigent burial program. Kress distinguished himself as one of the founding members and most dependable volunteers.

“It seems so sad for someone to live a whole life and then die alone,” said Dr. Ron Holmes, County Coroner. The indigent dead who “have no family, no friends – at least we can send them off with a prayer. If it weren’t for Cory and the other kids, they would have nothing.”

Photo: by Scott Fisher

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