St. Joseph of Arimathea Society
“Inasmuch as you have done it for the least of My brothers, you have done it unto Me.”
In the spring of 2006, a small group of students and teachers from Saint Xavier High School began an ambitious program that would soon touch the hearts and minds of people around the country. After hearing about a burial service for the poor called the Saint Joseph of Arimathea Society, started at Saint Ignatius High School in Cleveland, Ohio, they felt called to initiate this ministry in Louisville. The society’s role is to act as Pall Bearers for the poor and to provide a Christian burial service for the deceased who do not have the funds to be buried at a private cemetery, many of which have no one at end of their life to pray for them or to carry them to their final resting place.
They began their Act of Mercy of praying for, and burying the dead at River Valley Cemetery, where the poor and indigent are buried in Louisville. During the first six months of the ministry, the Saint Joseph of Arimathea Society attended 32 funerals. In the summer months, many of the young men took time off from their jobs in order to be a present at the funerals. They would each take a role, leading the prayer and carrying the casket to the grave site.
Each funeral they attended was unique. They were called upon to bury the homeless, some of which had died on the streets. They buried murder victims who had died at the prime of their lives. They buried babies and children whose death tore at the hearts of their parents. They buried the elderly and disabled who had lost touch with their families. At some of the funerals, grieving family members were present, thankful for our prayers and our presence. While at others, there was no one, but the society members and the dedicated staff from the coroner’s office.
The young men who attended the funerals grew in many facets of their life. They developed a deeper understanding of who their brothers and sisters were in Christ. They began to mature as men, believing that what is most important in life is not what they receive, but rather, what they give, especially to those who are most in need of their love. Finally, they learned to serve those who are unable to thank them for the work of their hands and for the kindness of their hearts.
As the word spread throughout the city of their ministry, the media began to take notice of the society and shortly thereafter, began to run human interest stories about the burial program and the students involved in the service. The young men also spread the word of the society to their friends attending other Catholic schools in the area. From the beginning, the society knew that if the work was to take root in the Louisville community the responsibility of the program needed to be shared with others. Early on in the development of the program an invitation was sent out to all the Catholic schools and to two colleges in the Louisville area in hopes that they too would embrace the program and begin to create their own Saint Joseph of Arimathea societies.
In the first few months, as Saint Xavier continued with the burial program, the other schools began gathering students to learn more about the ministry. They would often come to observe the burials Saint Xavier conducted and also met with many of the student leaders to learn more about how to conduct the services. By the fall of 2006, six Catholic high schools, Bellarmine University and the Newman Center at the University of Louisville had created their own Saint Joseph of Arimathea societies and were prepared to share the ministry as the new school year began.
In August of 2006 the coroner’s office put together a rotation schedule in which each of the schools would take turns leading the burial services. In the past eighteen months there have now been 112 burials conducted by the high schools and colleges. Each school has about 48 hours notice to prepare for the service. They all bring their unique gifts program. Some schools bring singers to the funerals, while others collect money for flowers to be placed on the graves after the service. In addition, they have volunteered many hours of service to enhance the grounds of the cemetery.
The program continues to touch the lives of countless students and educators who participate in the society. It has opened the eyes of the Louisville community to the needs of the poor and to the great work of the coroner’s office who oversees the indigent burial program in our city. It has been a great source of inspiration to the Catholic community as they support the work of their youth, who give so freely of their time and talents. The program has far exceeded the expectations that Saint Xavier high school had when they first began the program on a cold April morning so many months ago.
Written by Ben Kresse - Theology teacher, Campus Minister and moderator of St. Joseph of Arimathea Society