Students from Catholic high schools serve as pallbearers at indigent burial

By Michelle Martin | Staff writer
Wednesday, November 2, 2022

Students from Catholic high schools serve as pallbearers at indigent burial

Auxiliary Bishop Andrew Wypych lays his hand on the casket after blessing the remains. Students from St. Laurence, Mother McAuley and Brother Rice high schools joined the Archdiocese of Chicago, Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle and other Cook County officials during a committal service to bury indigent and unborn persons on Oct. 26, 2022 at Mount Olivet Cemetery. The committal service included burial of 39 unborn persons and 163 cremated indigent remains. (Cynthia Flores-Mocarski/Chicago Catholic)
Hearses arrive from the Cook County morgue arrive with the remains of the indigent and unborn. (Cynthia Flores-Mocarski/Chicago Catholic)
The students gather before the service. (Cynthia Flores-Mocarski/Chicago Catholic)
Catholic High School students from St. Laurence, Mother McAuley and Brother Rice joined funeral directors in accompanying the remains as they arrive from the hearses. (Cynthia Flores-Mocarski/Chicago Catholic)
Father Lawrence Sullivan leads the service. (Cynthia Flores-Mocarski/Chicago Catholic)
St. Laurence students stand near the caskets during the service. (Cynthia Flores-Mocarski/Chicago Catholic)
Leena Webb, a student at Mother McAuley, reads a petition. (Cynthia Flores-Mocarski/Chicago Catholic)
Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle prays during the service. (Cynthia Flores-Mocarski/Chicago Catholic)
Andres Flores, a student at Brother Rice High School, reads a petition during the service. (Cynthia Flores-Mocarski/Chicago Catholic)
Students stand with the caskets during the service. (Cynthia Flores-Mocarski/Chicago Catholic)
Students stand by the caskets as Bishop Wypych blesses the remains. (Cynthia Flores-Mocarski/Chicago Catholic)
Bishop Wypych lays his hands on a casket containing cremated remains. (Cynthia Flores-Mocarski/Chicago Catholic)
Students place roses atop a casket. Each casket contains the cremated remains of several people. (Cynthia Flores-Mocarski/Chicago Catholic)
Roses lay atop the caskets. (Cynthia Flores-Mocarski/Chicago Catholic)
A student holds a rose. (Cynthia Flores-Mocarski/Chicago Catholic)

The more than three dozen students from Brother Rice, Mother McAuley and St. Laurence high schools who served as honorary pallbearers for the burial of indigent people at Mount Olivet Cemetery Oct. 26 bore witness to the human dignity that each of the 202 souls whose remains were interred possessed, said Father Lawrence Sullivan, priest director of Catholic Cemeteries of the Archdiocese of Chicago.

“Your presence here is not only a sign of your faith in God’s love, but is also a sign of respect for those who have been entrusted into our care,” Sullivan said at the service, which marked the 32nd time remains from the Cook County Medical Examiner’s Office were interred at Mount Olivet.

The Oct. 26 service, on a glorious autumn afternoon, included the remains of 39 unborn and the cremated remains of 163 adults whose families could not afford to claim their bodies for burial, or whose families could not be found. Since the burial services for the indigent began at Mount Olivet in 2012, the cemetery has buried the remains of 1,496 unborn and 2,988 indigent or unidentified adults.

“These are our sisters and brothers, these are our extended family members,” Sullivan said. “We not only remember these souls who have returned to God, but all who are suffering, all those who feel alienated and all those who feel alone.”

Deacon Ed Sajdak, campus minister at St. Laurence High School in Burbank, said the students who come to serve as pallbearers take the responsibility seriously.

“The names of the deceased are on white tags, stapled to the caskets,” Sajdak said. “I see the students reading them, trying to make a connection, or some of them stand and touch the caskets throughout the service.”

St. Laurence junior Jorge Rocha attended the Oct. 26 service as well as one in June. He says he feels the most connection to those whose remains are being interred near the end of the service, when those serving as pallbearers are invited to lay their hands on the caskets. It’s similar to the moment when he hands the censer to the priest at the end of the funerals he participates in as an altar server at his home parish of St. Leonard.

He said attending the prayer services evokes feelings of sadness, but also of peace.

“It is a nice experience,” Rocha said. “We have that relaxing feeling that these 202 souls have people to pray for them so that they have eternal rest. It was powerful for me to be part of this.”

Sajdak said he first brought St. Laurence students to be pallbearers to a burial service for the indigent in 2016, the year Pope Francis declared as a “Year of Mercy.” St. Laurence students were working to perform all of the corporal works of mercy; serving as honorary pallbearers offered an opportunity to bury the dead.

“The response was extremely positive from the students and, the next day, from their parents,” Sajdak said. “They were grateful that their kids went to it. We went again, and we had the same type of response.”

When other schools heard about it, they wanted to participate as well. Logistically, it’s easiest for schools that are close to Mount Olivet. So far, Marist, Brother Rice and Mother McAuley students have joined St. Laurence students, with at least one student from each school serving as a pallbearer to each casket, which contains the remains of several people.

On Oct. 26, the remains of 202 people were in 11 caskets, and 14 students from each of the three participating schools volunteered to be honorary pallbearers.

“We talk about, as creations of God, as people who are brothers and sisters to all of us, why it’s important that we be here to support them in prayer and be a part of the service when there’s nobody else there,” Sajdak said. “I’ve never once had a student who said, ‘I’m not happy that I came here.’ It’s always been positive responses.”

Mike Dolan, campus minister at Brother Rice High School, said that “celebrating and valuing the dignity of each person, and nurturing the development of the whole person” is one of the “essential elements” of a Christian Brothers education, and participating in the burial service is part of that.

“I feel like we achieve that for both our students, as well as for the 202 souls who were buried at Mount Olivet yesterday,” Dolan said in an Oct. 27 email. “We were that last human touch for too many people who were left alone, or forgotten. In the end, when we read the names written on the sides of the caskets, we add dignity to some lives where it may have once been lacking.  This idea reaches deeply into the hearts and souls of our students. … Every time we go to a burial service, we feel touched by the presence of the Holy Spirit. I wish every Catholic school had a chance to partake in the services.  It puts everything in a proper perspective for both the students, and their teacher chaperones.”

Isabella Pet, a senior from Mother McAuley who volunteered to be a pallbearer, said she always wondered what happened to people who had no one to bury them when they died.

“I would want someone there, even if it wasn’t my family,” she said. “During the service, I felt very close to God. I knew that he was there for all his children that didn’t have family, just like we were there.”

At the end of the service, after Bishop Andrew Wypych blessed all the caskets and Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle thanked all who participated, each of the honorary pallbearers and other guests placed roses on the caskets before they were lowered into the ground.

Sullivan asked them to remember the service and the people who were buried as the participants moved on with their lives.

“As we gather here today, we do so in the firm belief that these 202 souls have been returned to the presence of God, where they will know the fullness of God’s peace and the fullness of God’s love,” he said. “Our God is a wonderful God, our God’s love knows no bounds and our God is a God who understands our pain and our suffering and helps us during times of difficulty. It is our responsibility to share a sense of that compassion with all those that we meet. … Let each of us make a commitment to do all that we can to help others. Let us make a commitment to recognize the presence of God not only in the beauty of nature but the in the faces of all those that we meet.”


  • catholic cemeteries
  • indigent

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