Few college students can say they head to the local cemetery after class. Sam Gardner (19Ox, 21C), however, finds spiritual fulfillment among the tombstones: the student volunteers as a mourner for those who have no one to grieve for them.
He’s attended about eight funerals, many at which he was the only one present.
The deceased who do not have friends or family to bury them are sometimes put to rest by complete strangers. Gardner is one of those strangers, volunteering as a mourner and pallbearer.
Prior to attending Oxford College, Gardner was involved in a volunteer pallbearer program at his high school, the Roxbury Latin School, in Boston. He decided to continue the service during college. Through the Ave Atque Vale program, which is Latin for “hail and farewell,” Gardner volunteered as a mourner for indigent funeral services Boston. Often, the student volunteers were the only people present to grieve for the deceased, Gardner said. The school’s seniors have volunteered at 85 funerals since the foundation of the program in 2013, according to Roxbury Latin faculty member Mike Pojman.
Pojman, who founded the program, said Gardner was heavily involved in the program during high school.
“[Gardner] took an immediate interest in participating, and he served most often of anyone in the class,” Pojman wrote in a May 6 email to the Wheel. “I was greatly impressed — but not surprised — that he has been working to do … similar [volunteer work] at Emory.”
Gardner said that he initially struggled to find a means to continue his volunteer work near the Oxford campus. Covington, Ga., the area around Oxford, did not hold indigent services and city officials were not receptive to his outreach, according to Gardner. His adviser, Visiting Assistant Professor of English Sarah Higinbotham, helped connect Gardner with Fulton County Chaplain Rev. Cliff Dawkins.
Higinbotham said it was an honor to foster the relationship between two people as compassionate as Dawkins and Gardner.
“Dawkins responded immediately that he would love to have Sam’s help, and the very next day, Sam drove to help with a funeral,” she said.
Gardner said that indigent funerals in the Atlanta area typically occur at Lakeside Memorial Gardens Cemetery in Palmetto, Ga., and the drive to the cemetery takes him about an hour each way.
Gardner said that he was initially shocked by the number of indigent burials in Atlanta in which the deceased lacked mourning family or friends because it was significantly higher than what he had experienced in high school.
“In Atlanta, they’re burying four people every Tuesday and Thursday who don’t have a family … I was seeing a lot more bodies,” Gardner said.
The Ave Atque Vale program in Boston attends about 10 to 15 funerals annually, each senior typically participating once, according to Pojman. Since moving to the greater Atlanta area to attend Oxford in the fall of 2017, Gardner said he has volunteered at four services.
Despite the potentially upsetting nature of the volunteer work, Gardner said he believes every person deserves recognition as they are put to rest. All humans share a common bond and responsibility to one another, he said.
“No matter what kind of person an individual was in life, they should be returned to the Earth with respect,” Gardner said. “Whether they were a criminal, a nice person, the president — it doesn’t matter. At the end of the day, they were human.”
Higinbotham echoed Gardner’s sentiments, saying that his work extends “dignity to the people that Atlanta failed and forgot.”
Since working with Gardner, Higinbotham said she has become inspired to volunteer as a mourner herself. She attended her first funeral this January to honor those buried alone.
Although Gardner said he believes in the importance of respecting all human life, he recognizes that he benefits from the volunteer work more than those whose funerals he attends.
“The actual act of being present for the burial … [is] more for me to contemplate what’s important,” Gardner said. “What kind of connections do I want to make in life so I’m not in this position where no one is burying me [and] where no one remembers me? It’s a reflection on myself as a human.”
Mourning allows him to reevaluate his privilege and be more appreciative of everything he has, Gardner said.
At Oxford, Gardner said that he occasionally finds himself losing gratitude and feeling “less privileged compared to the people around [him].” Volunteering at indigent funerals reminds him “to think critically about what [he] can do because of privilege.”
Gardner’s friend, Isabela Cardenas (19Ox, 21C), said Gardner internalizes his philosophy of self-awareness.
“He’s really focused on being a good man — on being a good human,” Cardenas said.
Gardner said that he is hesitant to create an official Oxford program for volunteer mourners. While he is happy to help anyone get involved and volunteer, he said he does not want create the leadership hierarchy inherent to many community service programs. To him, there should be no president or secretary to regulate the volunteer work. Anyone who wants to support and respect the deceased should be able to, Gardner said.
Higinbotham encouraged Gardner to write an article about his service work and reflections on his place of privilege. Despite his initial reservations, Gardner’s article was published in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution in May.
Gardner said he believed that his experience as a pallbearer was actually not the most important part of his story.
“I didn’t want the piece to be about me,” Gardner said.
He wanted instead to highlight those who are buried alone.
“I’m careful not to go down that path and try to get recognition,” Gardner said. “It’s more about being a citizen of the world … [and how] to be a better person and have a better understanding of myself and the people around us.”