I know this will sound weird and morbid, but the highlight of my week was going to a funeral with six teenage Catholic school boys.
A Powerful Teen Volunteering Experience
About twice a month, I serve as an adult companion and driver for a student service group at my son’s Catholic high school called the St. Joseph of Arimathea Pallbearer’s Ministry. This group offers pallbearer services free of charge to anyone who needs them, but especially the poor and the elderly. It was founded to practice what Catholics term the ‘corporal works of mercy,’ which include burying the dead. The purpose of the group is to affirm the value and dignity of human life and to ensure that every person who dies has someone praying for them and mourning them.
Whenever there is a need for pallbearers, local funeral directors call the group to arrange for student pallbearers. I meet the students at school, and after a brief meeting where we learn the name and a few details about the deceased, we pray in the chapel and pile into the school van.
Going To A Funeral With Teenage Boys
On the way to a funeral, the boys can be lively, talking about the weekend’s basketball games, the brutal AP Chem quiz that they just had, or video games. Sometimes they’re all quiet and it’s a race to see who falls asleep the fastest. As we roll up to the funeral home, however, everyone becomes serious and solemn. My job is to remind them to button their shirt collars, straighten their ties, and tuck in their shirts. In their blue blazers and khakis, they look smart, and even though not one of them is actually my son, I often feel a swell of maternal pride as I look them over.
We meet briefly with the funeral director, who gives the boys a few instructions. Usually the deceased is an elderly person in their 80s or 90s who has simply outlived all of their family and friends and has no one left at the end of their lives. There may be a few surviving family members or friends, but usually not more than a handful.
The boys meet the family members and pay their respects to the deceased, often in an open casket. We attend a burial mass, drive to the cemetery, and carry the casket to the grave site. After a few words, one boy presents the family member with a mass card and expresses his sympathies on behalf of the school community.
Teenagers and Respect
After they finish, the boys write a short reflection. Sometimes, I glance at what they’ve written before I put them into the briefcase, and I’m always surprised by what these very ordinary teenage boys have written. “I’m glad that God used me today to comfort someone else.” “I feel good that I helped this family today.” “Lord, help me to remember never to overlook or neglect another person.”
Attending funerals of people I never knew is profoundly moving for so many reasons, not the least of which is this: these young men give me hope. Every funeral I attend, someone takes me aside and tells me that seeing these young men performing this simple yet meaningful act of service for someone else is inspiring, reassuring, and gives them hope for the future.
After reading about teenage drug abuse, bullying, cutting, and suicide, it’s easy to become disheartened. But on these occasions, watching teenagers live their faith and willingly give their time to go to a funeral for a complete stranger, I catch a glimpse of these young men at their finest, and it is beautiful.