RAYTOWN, Mo. — On a school day otherwise like any other, about a dozen high schoolers solemnly gathered for life's most intimate final act at Mt. Olivet Cemetery.
"It's one that's voluntary, so it is up to the young men to give up of their day to come out here and take part in one of the corporal works of mercy — which is burying the dead," Rockhurst High School teacher Paul Winkeler said in reference to the Saint Joseph of Arimathea Society, which is taught at Jesuit schools across the country.
It was first adopted and last practiced at Rockhurst High School more than a decade ago, until this past spring.
"When Jesus died, Joseph of Arimathea showed up and took his body and found him a grave," Father Gary Menard, with Rockhurst, said.
That's how the society got its name.
With that in mind, in pairs of two, the young men serve as pallbearers. On that particular day, they showed up for the unclaimed cremated remains of 120 people, after the county exhausted all efforts to find family and loved ones.
That's something Rockhurst junior Drew Franke found "tough to hear."
"I know I could not live this life on my own," Franke said after the ceremony was over.
"These guys are surrounded by love and support but these folks we buried today didn't have that, at least not at the end of their life," Menard said.
Being involved in such a group can help give the teens perspective.
"It's important for the boys to come to understand the gravity of their own life and of how precious life is," Winkeler said. "From that, there's a transformation throughout the day of. They walk into the chapel to begin their day kind of in a regular every day [way] to them and then when they leave, they've had an experience that is unlike any other in terms of what they really understand about life."
Rockhurst senior and member of the Saint Joseph of Arimathea Society Brenden Guzman said it can bring on tough realities.
"It's a really hard thing to just accept there are people out there who might not feel as loved as others," Guzman said. "Especially with today, I feel like today was just all about making sure that as they passed from this life to the next, they feel truly loved."
Guzman described what goes through his mind when he's on the last walk.
"That last walk is, it's a sobering but very very reverent moment, but at the end of the day it's just all love," Guzman said.
In voluntarily showing up for death, the young men are finding perspective.
"These men and women have tried their whole life to be loved like I was loved," Franke said. "Today was a way to respect their lives and their bodies."
Guzman added to that.
"In burying the dead, it's just one of the truest ways to honor people, honor their lives, honor what they went through and then just love them," Guzman said.
Winkeler said it's through those conversations they begin to understand what their role is in the ceremonies.
"This is not a job, it's not a club, it's a ministry and so that conversation was meant to conform what they thought it was going to be, into something that is far more important than they ever realized," Winkeler said.
"It's about human dignity really. It's about the preciousness of every human life and these folks, even though they died without relatives they are still loved," Winkeler added.
Once the ceremony is over, the boys go back to Rockhurst to unload and process what they just took part in; giving love to someone they didn't know and someone who might not have had a lot of love at the end of their life.
The Jackson County, Missouri Medical Examiner's Office updates an unclaimed bodies page in hopes that the public can help locate next of kin or friends to claim remains.
The cremated remains are placed so that if a family member or loved one later learns of the person's passing, they can be retrieved and returned.
If you think you have information or have questions about the individuals in this story, contact the reporter at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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