Ave Atque Vale: Class I Students Help Bury Boston’s Unclaimed Citizens
Eternally resting atop a small hill in Fairview Cemetery in Hyde Park, Mayor Thomas Menino watches over the most destitute of Boston’s deceased citizens. Menino’s gravesite overlooks the City Poor Lot, a section of Fairview owned by the City of Boston and reserved for the burial of its indigent and unclaimed denizens. On Tuesday, a man by the name of Dennis Kelly joined those buried in this small patch of land. Mr. Kelly passed away on August 19 at the age of 66; no friends or family came forward to claim his body, and so he was to be buried in a simple casket, in a grave that would remain unmarked. Sadly, this is the reality for so many in our City. Government-owned land like the lot at Fairview Cemetery is scarce, and what does exist is rapidly filling.
Typically, Mr. Kelly would be buried with no one to bear witness, honor his life, or say goodbye. Instead, members of Roxbury Latin’s senior class carried his casket to its gravesite and read aloud a series of poems and prayers to give Mr. Kelly in death something he lacked near the end of life: company. The boys were there as part of the Class I service program, Ave Atque Vale. The phrase, which translates to “Hail and Farewell,” comes from the closing line of Catullus’s poem addressed to his deceased brother. RL’s Assistant Headmaster Mike Pojman began the Ave Atque Vale program at RL six years ago, having seen it done at his own alma mater, Saint Ignatius High School in Cleveland, Ohio.
Ave Atque Vale partners with the Robert J. Lawler & Crosby Funeral Home in West Roxbury. Bob Lawler, whose brother and nephew attended Roxbury Latin, is flooded each year with burials for those with no family and no resources. Since Mike and Bob teamed up to begin this program, RL boys have served as pallbearers and witnesses at nearly 100 funerals. “We’re not here to change the world,” Mike says. “But everyone deserves a dignified burial. It’s the right thing to do.”
Mr. Pojman believes that so much about this RL tradition is valuable for the boys. “We are thanked for many things,” he explains. “We get affirmation all over the place. This is a small thing, done for somebody who has no capacity to thank you. And there’s something important in that.” To stand together as witnesses for someone they do not know, quietly reflecting on an ultimate reality of life, also has a unifying effect, he believes. “I think boys feel a certain closeness in this experience,” he says. “There are so few times in their busy RL lives, after all, when the boys can pause and stand together in silence.”
On September 17, six seniors carried Mr. Kelly’s casket to the hearse, processed behind him to the funeral, and presented six readings before he was lowered into his grave. They ended with this:
We pray, Lord, that when it is our time to depart this world, we will be surrounded by those who love us. Sadly, Mr. Kelly was not so blessed. He died alone with no family to comfort him. But today, we are his family; today we are his sons. We are honored to stand together before him now, to commemorate his life and to remember him in death, as we commend his soul to his eternal rest.
Frater, in perpetuum ave atque vale; requiescat in pace, Amen.