CLEVELAND - With solemn appearances, the unlined faces of six teenagers pulled the heavy casket from its resting place in the hearse and carried it slowly into a church where the family of the person had come to mourn had gathered. The teenagers, all high school students, had not known whose body they would bear, but the pallbearers were filled with respect and compassion.
The six were all students from St. Ignatius High School in Cleveland. The teenagers had been requested by the family of the dead to serve as pallbearers. The boys, each dressed in a blue blazer, khaki slacks, shirts and tie, follow the funeral director's quiet orders, moving the casket to where it should be placed for the service.
"The great teaching of our faith is to care for the individual and to value human life from the womb to the tomb," said Dan Baron, one of the advisors to the pallbearers group and a theology teacher at St. Ignatius. He and fellow theology teacher James Skerl work with 440 boys who have signed up for the pallbearer ministry, the largest at the historic school.
The ministry is busy, answering the requests of many families that have no one to serve as pallbearers for the funeral of a loved one. Sometimes, the deceased had been a graduate of St. Ignatius High School and his family had requested St. Ignatius students carry him to his burial site.
"When you're out on a funeral, you kind of feel close to the families although you don't even know them," said St. Ignatius student Danny Dreiling.
Fellow pallbearer Charlie Casa echoed the sentiment.
"The ministry was designed to not only give students an opportunity to perform the work of mercy, but also to help them see the real meaning of service," he said.
The boys provide their services under the guidance of funeral homes, which participate in the St. Ignatius project.
"They're not only pallbearers," said Lou Ripepi, owner of Ripepi Funeral Home. "They pray with the families, sit through the services, funeral masses, graveside services, and present a card to the family. These are young men that really care."
The school ministry is named after St. Joseph of Aramathea. He appears in all four Gospel accounts of the crucifixion of Jesus. Joseph of Aramathea is said to have donated his new tomb outside Jerusalem to receive the body of Jesus.
"Joseph of Aramathea was the guy who stepped up to the place," said Baron. "So we are stepping up to the plate for people in need," added the advisor to the St. Ignatius pallbearers.
When the body of the deceased is removed from the funeral service and returned to the hearse for the trip to the burial spot, it is the boys in the St. Joseph of Aramathea ministry at the high school who lift the casket again. At the cemetery, they carry the casket to the burial spot where they stand in a group offering their own silent prayers for the grieving family.
"I've learned to cherish my life as it is and to cherish my friends and my family," said student pallbearer Chris Bunder. "It really kinds of puts everything in perspective," he added.
Brendan Wagner said the ministry has helped him in his growing and maturing process.
"It's one of the best things we provide here at St. Ignatius," he said.
All the boys said they better understood the fragility of life because of their participation in the pallbearer ministry.
Before each funeral assignment, the pallbearers gather with one of their advisors for prayer in the chapel at the high school. They surround a large crucifix and pray openly for the souls of the dead, the family members for whom they will serve as pallbearers and for themselves. They are boys who stand on the brink of manhood and see death up close as they serve families, which have called for their comforting hands to carry the bodies of the dead.
"There was a little old lady I didn't even know who came out of the funeral home," said pallbearer Niko Minasola. "She looked up at us and she said, 'God bless you,'" he said, his voice dropping off softly as he uttered the last few words.
The boys all said their work was more than a service. They viewed it as a mission.
"I think about how important it is to have people there to put us in our final resting place; to guide us into the next life, " said Niko, as if he were speaking for all who have died in strong faith. "It's like guiding us into the next life; almost like presenting us to God," he said.
The pallbearers group consists of more than 400 boys at St. Ignatius. The group is busy, attending funerals in teams when they are requested. Even during the days when there is no school, the pallbearer teenagers of St. Ignatius are there, ready to offer helping hands.