Hayden students honor life by serving as pallbearers for those in need of them
by Jessica Langdon
TOPEKA — Patrick Monaghan, a senior at Hayden High School here, had an unusual request for a few of his friends.
It was a Friday, and he had just been asked to spend part of the weekend serving as a pallbearer at a funeral for someone he didn’t know.
More volunteers were needed to help him carry the casket.
Fellow senior Thomas Wittman was hesitant at first, wondering if it might be a little irreverent to go to the funeral of someone you didn’t know. And he wasn’t alone.
But it turned out that a small group of Hayden students would soon realize that serving as pallbearers for those who had no close friends or family to do so was an amazing way to show respect for others — and for life.
Each young man has now served as a pallbearer at several funerals.
“When we’re at the cemetery and they’re having that procession [to the graveside], it becomes a moment of deep thought,” Patrick said. “Seeing what everyone else is going through — then being able to shake their hands?
“That’s a great moment.”
Society just beginning
The Hayden students are part of a group, still just forming in the Topeka community, called a St. Joseph of Arimathea Society.
The society’s mission is to provide pallbearers for people in need.
They’re often called upon when it comes to the attention of a local funeral home that the family doesn’t have enough — or any — relatives or friends to serve in this way.
The society, like others that have started in different parts of the country, gets its name from St. Joseph of Arimathea, a man believed to have been a secret disciple of Jesus. It was he who provided his own tomb for Christ’s burial after the crucifixion.
In addition to the physical work of carrying the casket, the society members pray for the deceased and their families.
As the Topeka program develops, they also plan to extend their ministry to the dead who have no one left to remember them. On All Souls’ Day, for instance, they’ll visit the graves in the potter’s field on the grounds of the old state hospital in Topeka and spend time praying silently for the people buried there.
A new perspective
Aaron Broxterman, a senior at Hayden, has played a different role in funerals in the past — as an altar server.
His work with the society is different. The high school boys attend the funerals, taking their places near the front of the church.
“You feel that special connection with the family,” Aaron explained.
Connor Dinkel, also a senior, had served as a pallbearer before at his great-grandfather’s funeral.
“That one was emotional,” he said. So he understands how important the gift of his presence can be at such a time.
“After the funeral, you can see how grateful the people are that you were there for them,” he said.
“I think people need to understand how important this really is to the families in need,” said Thomas.
A real need
From the outset, it was clear that the group would be addressing a vital need of the community.
Deacon Dan Ondracek, who is assigned to Most Pure Heart of Mary Church, had read an article about high school boys in Ohio who were serving as pallbearers for those in need.
“I thought this is such a simple and profound way for Catholic youth to serve communities,” said Deacon Ondracek.
He broached the possibility of doing something similar in Topeka with associate pastor Father Nick Blaha, as well as leaders of the archdiocesan office of evangelization and Catholic formation of youth.
Hayden‘s administration embraced the idea.
Most Pure Heart of Mary parishioner Jim Johnson presented the concept to funeral home director Kevin Brennan, who assured him there was, indeed, a need for such a ministry. But even Brennan didn’t realize how quickly he’d have to call the society for help.
“Before this all was finalized, Mr. Brennan contacted us for a funeral that needed pallbearers,” Deacon Ondracek said.
So Mike Monaghan — assistant principal at Hayden and Patrick’s dad — started recruiting boys and rounding up jackets and ties for them to wear.
Ready to pray and serve
Despite their rapid recruitment, the young men were nevertheless ready when that Saturday morning came.
“The boys were reverent and prayerful,” said Deacon Ondracek.
In fact, Monaghan has received many compliments from people at the services about the boys’ demeanor and actions.
Zack Weekley had mixed emotions when he first thought about volunteering but, once he began, he wanted to keep serving.
“It’s just a good feeling to know we’re helping a family and doing a corporal work of mercy,” Zack said. “I think that we’ve all talked about it. We can go out and help people who need it, and it’s a great feeling to know we’re helping people.”
Hayden senior Lucas Haefner was surprised, in fact, to find out how much he and the others were gaining from this experience.
“At the cemetery, we go through and shake the family’s hands,” he said. “That’s a very touching moment.”
‘True moments of grace’
Rain or shine, warm or freezing, in the middle of a school day or early on a Saturday morning, whenever the call comes, the boys are ready to serve.
They take pride in what they do, and they focus on respect for the deceased and those mourning.
Some of them attended services for a U.S. Army veteran and were touched by the folding of the flag for the family.
And when some of the boys arrived at the cemetery for another service, a few pointed out sites where their own relatives were buried.
“After the graveside service they went to those graves and, standing like sentinels, bowed their heads and were obviously saying prayers,” said Deacon Ondracek. “These were not scripted moments, but true moments of grace.”
In some ways, this isn’t a difficult task, said Father Blaha.
“On another level, it takes a lot of character. It takes a lot of humility,” he added.
He told the boys they’re really in a position to leave a legacy.
And Aaron, knowing he’ll be heading off to college soon, said he’d like to start this program there.
It’s a way to “spread the word for this ministry that’s needed.”