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Youth honored for mercy in action: Burying the dead

By Marnie McAllister
July 31st, 2007
The Record (www.archlou.org/therecord)

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (The Record) - Burial of the dead is one of the corporal works of mercy people tend to reserve for family or close friends. It’s an obligation keenly felt and earnestly fulfilled.

But when it comes to strangers, few people feel such an obligation.

Cory Kress, a 2007 graduate of St. Xavier High School, is an exception. The former St. X wrestler and honor student - who’s heading to the University of Kentucky this fall - 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.”

In the past, people who had no money or family were buried without ceremony, prayer or even a grave marker at River Valley Cemetery in Southwest Jefferson County. Holmes changed this when he started the burial program several years ago.

With money from fund-raisers and other donations, the program provides headstones, and grave markers and aesthetic improvements at the cemetery - a desolate-looking place set against a landscape of sludge generated by an LG&E power plant.

Holmes also has started to carve wooden crosses for the caskets, and a sewing group from Epiphany Church - which has supported the program in other ways, too - makes funeral palls.

All of these things, Holmes said in an interview, give dignity to the dead. But perhaps none provide more dignity than the prayers and concern of the young people attending the burials.

“When I hear there’s a funeral, I try my hardest to be there,” said Kress. “This is something that needs to be done. The more people at a funeral the better.”

Kress learned about the society from his wrestling coach and teacher, Ben Kresse, who formed St. X’s chapter of the society - the first in the area - in the spring of 2006. And Kress was sold.

“As Coach Kresse always says, ‘You come into the world with people all around you,’ ” said Kress. “ ‘You should leave the world with people around you, too.’ ”

Since then, Kress has attended 80 to 90 percent of the program’s funerals. In the summer of 2006, he attended every burial.

Kresse also credits Kress with getting other students at St. X excited about the work of the society. About 40 to 45 students from St. X take part in the funerals.

“He put it in his mind from the beginning that he was going to make it happen on the student level,” Kresse said. “It wouldn’t have happened without that.

“If there is a family (at a burial), he goes over and shakes hands with them. He’s got a lot of empathy. When he sees someone suffer, he can’t walk away from it.”

Following St. X’s lead, DeSales, Assumption and Trinity High Schools, Presentation Academy and Bellarmine University’s campus ministry formed societies last year. Sacred Heart Academy is forming a society to begin this fall.

Deputy Coroner Buddy Dumeyer, who oversees the burial program and works closely with the students, said he could recognize 100 students for this service. But Kress went above the call by always taking the lead and being there when no one else could.

Kress was there the first time the society had to bury an infant, Dumeyer said.

“He carried the casket by himself, it was so small. He walked down to the grave that had been dug by hand, and he gathered with the mother and father and no one else,” Dumeyer said.

Kress and the others “have brought a dimension to this program that was missing - dignity and fellowship,” he said. “They contribute significantly to these families.”

One case where this was particularly evident, was the funeral of a 19-year-old murder victim. The victim’s parents were absent, and his 21-year-old brother bore the responsibility of burying him.

Eight Trinity students attended the funeral along with several teen-aged friends of the victim. After the service, the friends of the deceased thanked the students for coming and shared in a few moments of fellowship, Dumeyer said. “It was significant to the young men from Trinity to see that there are 21-year-olds out there who have to bury a family member.”

The society has buried about 70 indigent people this year, and there are many more expected. Dumeyer said there may be twice the number as in past years because “we’re saying yes to more people.”

The energy and attention brought to the indigent burial program by the students and other efforts has generated even more interest in the program, he added.

That’s good news, because River Valley Cemetery has enough room for about 100 more burials. It is expected to be full by year’s end.

Recently, though, Metro Parks “has gotten excited about this” and identified a new cemetery off Dixie Highway at Dearing Road, Dumeyer said. The six-acre cemetery will have room for thousands of burials, he said.

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