Only the lonely 

How a small group remembers Detroit's forgotten dead

Their names are read one by one. Each of them is dead, and nearly all of them died alone.

It's a winter evening inside Perry Funeral Home on Trumbull near Warren in Detroit. A handful of mourners and a few well-wishers are gathered in a small room, surrounded by flowers and candles and shaded lamps, the fixtures of funerals. This is the one place in town where unknown or unwanted bodies from the county morgue wind up to be prepared for burial.

Tonight's gathering is a memorial for these forgotten dead. Once a month, their names are read aloud slowly, solemnly, reverently. As each one is spoken, a bell is struck and a candle is lit on a table that stands where a coffin would normally be. By the time the final name on a long list is read, the front of the room will be lit a bright golden yellow.

Someone might wind up unclaimed for a few reasons. The body was discovered somewhere outside long after death and can't be identified. No next of kin can be found. Or the person was truly alone in the world.

"There's a whole group who, for whatever reason, have been cut off from society," says Carolyn Gamble, the 67-year-old organizer of this service. "In our city there are so many people who are destitute. They don't really have family, so for whatever reason, they end up in the morgue like this."

Tonight, the list of the deceased holds 30 names.

"Paul Brown," says her friend, Della Woodall, wearing church finery as she stands behind a lectern. A long pause follows her words. Nobody here knows Paul Brown. Nobody's ever heard of him. But in silence they contemplate his name, and for a brief moment he isn't forgotten anymore. 

"Date of birth: March 6, 1954," Woodall continues. "Date of death: Nov. 2, 2011. Age: 57." Another pause. Then the mourners, all eight of them, make the same intonation: "May he rest in peace."

They'll never speak of how he died, or why he's now on this list of the forgotten, even though some here have learned those facts from the morgue. This is to merely recognize that he, like the others on the list, is now missing from the world.

"Matthew Wilson," she continues. "Feb. 22, 1970. Date of death: Nov. 20, 2011. Age: 41."

Again, a pause. "May he rest in peace."

James Gallagher. Nora Adams. Gerald Freedman. Cornelius Wright. Duncan Cameron. Thomas Webb Jr. A couple dozen more names follow. Some barely middle-aged. Others in their 90s. 

Finally, the list comes down to the last of the deceased. "Baby Boy Watson," Woodall says. "Aug. 9, 2011." Alive so briefly he didn't even get a name.

The group then sings a hymn. "Bind us together, Lord, with ties that cannot be broken," it goes. It's almost a plea that those still here don't wind up as lonely as those on that list.

When the hymn ends, Woodall says, "Let us now offer a quiet moment of silence for the souls of those we are especially remembering today." And the room falls still.

 

A few years ago, some parishioners at St. Christopher's-St. Paul's Episcopal Church, on West McNichols near Grand River, heard that the county morgue had a lot of unclaimed bodies, found out that the burials were being handled by this funeral home, and called to ask if they could perform a memorial service for each of the deceased now and then. The problem was, there were just too many dead to honor.

But Betsy Deak, Perry's operations manager, thought their idea was beautiful. Years of working here, combined with her own spiritual beliefs, incline her to emphasize each deceased person's individuality, even if the body is so far gone nobody could tell who that individual was.

"The sights, the smells, are very graphic," says Deak, 61. "And yet I never ever looked at one of those people that I don't think this is someone's baby, somebody's little boy, somebody's someone. And if it were my family, this is how I'd want them to be treated."

The unclaimed wind up with the cheapest burial — unembalmed in a pine box, batched in sets of four that are buried together at a west side cemetery. 

With such an anonymous final rest, the least they could do, she figured, is recognize them in a thoughtful ceremony. They named it "A Celebration of Friends."

"I like the idea that, seven years down the road, if someone calls and says, 'Oh, I just found my uncle,' I can say we had a service for him, we recognized him at the service, we read his name, a candle was lit, a bell was sounded, a flower was dedicated to him," Deak says. "And what's more, when he was buried, prayers were said for him. It was respectful, and it was dignified."

This same small group has gathered here monthly for almost four years now. Sometimes a stranger will walk in and sit with the group, drawn by its meaning. But most often it's just these few, keeping the faith alone.

"When she mentioned it to me, I just got so full, 'cause I said, 'How can somebody not have anybody to acknowledge them?'" says the 67-year-old Woodall. "That's how I really became involved. It just touched my heart. All of these people on that list ..."

Three soldiers march slowly into the room. Their uniforms are crisp, their steps are precise.

They're members of the Michigan National Guard, and performing military funerals is their sole function. They've done thousands of these ceremonies; some elaborate and packed, some simple and sparse. None has been like this one though.

Deak had noticed that a few of the names on the list were veterans, and so she arranged this military component to the ceremony. This time, when a candle is lit for an unknown soldier, a miniature flag will be placed next to it.

The guardsmen flank the table where the candles sit. A large American flag has been placed in the middle, folded into a tight triangle. One of them lifts a bugle, and taps is solemnly played.

They take the flag from the table and unfurl it until it's stretched its length and held like a banner. A long pause follows. It's then refolded and taken by the commanding officer, Master Sgt. Robert Moore, 54. He's done 1,400 funerals. He even did Rosa Parks' funeral, surrounded by thousands of mourners remembering someone famous and loved. Now he's in a little room where there's not even family present to accept the ceremonial flag.

He instead walks to Bill Kiesgen, the funeral director, seated as a stand-in for the usually present wife, or son, or daughter of the deceased. Moore gets down on one knee, and hands the flag to Kiesgen, slowly to signify the seriousness of the gesture. Then he stands, and the soldiers march out of the room.

"It gives you a little closure at the end of the day," says 25-year-old Spc. Jacob Rizkallah, in a quiet voice. "Who can go to work and say you do something like this?"

 

A stack of white roses rests on a little table. Each is wrapped and bow-tied with a card attached to it, and each card has the name on it of one of the people remembered here today. 

After the service has ended, after the last bell has tolled, after the final flame is extinguished, the mourners here will take the flowers home, and hand them out, and ask people to pray for these strangers, to keep them in mind so their memory is not entirely extinguished. 

The room has an air like the end of a church service, as if blessings have been bestowed. Deak sits among the mostly empty seats and smiles at what just took place.

"We don't live in a society where bodies are just put into a grave and covered in lime," she says. "Everybody matters. And you don't have to know people to want to care for them, even at this point, even if we don't know if they're male or female. This is something that's real necessary to do. It means something."

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