Last February I was leaving New Hampshire, driving down to Boston at the end of an exploratory visit by former Virginia Governor Mark Warner – exploratory less as a question of mineral deposits in Green Mountain mines – and more as a vote-o-meter of how he might be received by the Democrats of New Hampshire. Being New Hampshire, the populace is used to meeting Presidential candidates first hand: the joke is that they never vote for anyone that hasn’t dropped by their house for coffee. Warner, I thought, was quite impressive, bringing a sense of propriety, intelligence, and yes, even humility, to a Presidential search. If you can imagine someone Humble running for President (remember Pres. Bush’s plea in the 2000 debates for “a more humble American foreign policy?”) perhaps Mark Warner might have been that person. But just last month he decided, after getting a look at what might be required to actually run, to pass on the ’08 nomination quest, spend a few quality years with his family, and blurt from time to time when the moment moved him. I found that a disappointing turn of events, since he seemed to be one of the least bull-shitty potential candidates we would have had the pleasure of following and covering in the next campaign cycle. Too bad.
So, there I was, heading south past all those giant green Waltham signs on the Interstate (why do they have Waltham in 4’ letters, and Boston in 2’ letters?) on a Saturday morning, radio keeping me company. Somewhere between Waltham and the airport, I happened on an interview by NPR’s Scott Simon on Morning Edition. He mentioned that in Cleveland, there was a group of High School kids who had banded together to form a Pallbearers society. It sounded interesting. When the young man, a high school junior - Dan Slenka, was asked about it, his voice responded in the most intelligent yet humble tone I could imagine. Burying the dead, he said, is one of the seven corporal works of Mercy. Like most other listeners I’m sure, I felt some minor relief when Simon asked him to refresh his memory about the other six.* Again, Slenka responded in a confident yet softly understanding voice. While at the beginning, most of the funerals were for indigent, poor, or those who otherwise had no family or friends, the mission evolved to include people who had heard of the good works, and wanted to be “carried to their final resting place” by these young men. Four years into its existence, the boys of the St. Joseph of Arimathea Pallbearers Society were serving at more than 125 burials a year. Named for the Saint who carried Jesus to his tomb, the society now includes nearly 300 boys from St. Ignatius High School, a Jesuit high school in central Cleveland.
I was so impressed by that interview that I scrambled to find a pen and write down all the names, and locations mentioned. Later that month I spoke with one of men involved from the school, and was told that in November, on All Souls day, the boys go to the Potter’s Field, an unremarkable green, muddy expanse on the edge of downtown where, over the years, nearly 17,000 people have been buried. There are no head stones, no flowers, virtually no markings of any kind that would belie the presence of what would be a very large small town. Here, the boys participate in a prayer service for all the souls resting beneath the muddy turf. The city of Cleveland doesn’t permit anyone to attend burials at the Potter's Field, no one quite sure why. But with encouragement from Jim Skerl, the faculty adviser, some 125 boys along with a few faculty members, came today, to pray for a while. I met Dan Slenka this week on my trip to Cleveland, where I have been spending the past few days with the boys of the Pallbearers Society. In person he impresses me even more than his voice did on NPR. No question, in an age of lousy music, crass television, and a non stop onslaught from the Me Me generation(s), it’s very refreshing to meet young men who have begun to appreciate the spiritual side of life.
I suppose if I counted it all up, I have probably been to Mass at least as often as Friday night services (all those trips with John Paul II, and Bishop Pedro Casaldaliga in Brasil…) but I feel a certain kindred sentiment with young men who give the impression that they really do understand the value to themselves, and society, of reaching out in this most personal way. I wasn’t allowed to attend a funeral until my Uncle Max died when I was in college. Funerals were never really spoken about nor dwelled on in our house. My dad, the ultimate Pollyanna who never met a stranger he didn’t like, somehow hated going to funerals, suspecting I think that there was something curiously uncomfortable about the demise of a friend. So it was later in life that I came to understand the importance of funerals. Whatever your view of life, God, the spiritual world, it is important that people are respected in the end. Listening to Dan Slenka, and the high school kids from St. Ignatius, I was reminded that perhaps Mark Warner isn’t the only voice left which combines intelligence, compassion, and wisdom. Too bad they can't run for office just yet. We’re just sayin… David
* The 7 Corporal Works of Mercy:
1. To feed the hungry,
2. To give drink to the thirsty,
3. To clothe the naked,
4. To shelter the homeless,
5. To visit the imprisoned,
6. To visit the sick,
7. To bury the dead.