There is nothing sadder to see than a homeless veteran abandoned by the very country they served. But the situation is even more heartbreaking when those veterans pass away with no friends or family to give them the dignified, respectful burial they have earned.
Dr Peter Folan, president of Boston’s Catholic Memorial College Preparatory School, is changing these circumstances, one deserving veteran at a time. Since 2017, the school has proudly embraced an initiative to host the funerals of America’s forgotten service men and women in the school’s chapel or the gymnasium. The school’s entire student population, roughly 600 strong, attends these emotional ceremonies to honor the lives of those who gave so much to America.
The students actively participate in the funeral services, from reading scripture to acting as pallbearers and honor guards. Others take the opportunity to mourn the loss of those who, having served in the armed forces, would otherwise be forgotten.
Catholic Memorial is just one school ensuring that these homeless and forgotten veterans receive the honors they deserve at the time of their deaths. The University of Detroit Jesuit School features a Pallbearer Ministry dedicated to veterans and run by volunteer students.
The University of Detroit’s Jesuit School Pallbearer Ministry was founded in 2015 when six volunteers assisted in burying three unclaimed veterans. Their mission has expanded, and volunteers now participate in funeral services throughout Detroit, including the Great Lakes National Cemetery.
The teen boys at this school dedicate time during the school day to volunteering for the last rites of veterans or individuals who would otherwise be buried alone. According to Richard Mazyck, campus ministry and service coordinator, the boys provide extraordinary services, especially for those left to die on the streets without any known family or friends. He sees it as a reminder, particularly within the Christian religious tradition, that every person is made in the image of God and deserves special regard and respect. Participating in the burial process is a way of honoring these individuals and recognizing the inherent worth and value in every life.
“It’s a wonderful experience to join others in prayer, to provide encouragement, or simply to be there for them during moments of sorrow. We all face times of grief, such as losing loved ones, friends, and colleagues,” said Mazyck. “Being able to offer support is both an honor and its own source of consolation.”
The Pallbearer Ministry operates alongside the A.J. Desmond & Sons Funeral Home in Troy, Michigan. While the county actively attempts to locate family or friends for deceased veterans, the funeral home assumes care for them after 90 days if no relatives can be found.
Desmond & Son’s funeral director, John Desmond, expressed gratitude for the program. He explains that the students provide valuable services to his firm because the funeral home seeks to serve the community by caring for and honoring the dead, regardless of financial circumstances.
University of Detroit Jesuit School and the A.J. Desmond & Sons Funeral Home have partnered with Dignity Memorial Network’s Homeless Veterans Program, which provides caskets and other military funereal services for homeless and unclaimed veterans nationwide.
Folan notes that his school’s program fosters a broader student perspective on the world while opening students’ hearts and deepening their awareness of the homeless veteran crisis. The program’s goal is to encourage a deeper understanding and empathy. He observes that the school’s approach encourages his students to advocate for better treatment for people experiencing poverty, increases their desire to provide care for marginalized individuals, and enriches their sense of community and inclusion.
Folan challenges students to reflect on these experiences and consider how they can change their outlook.
Tom Lennon, a former University of Detroit Jesuit School student, looked back fondly on his time spent with the Pallbearer Ministry, calling it a chance to provide dignity to individuals who had “ended their lives on the fringe of society.” He emphasized the importance of acknowledging the contributions of these veterans, underscoring the belief that every person, regardless of their background or actions, deserves a proper burial.
Through their selfless acts, the volunteer teens recognize the sacrifices, duty, courage, and honor displayed by these servicemen and women. And in these final moments, when homeless veterans would otherwise be alone, the students stand with them and bring them, if only for a short while, back to the community.