No headstone of his own

"No headstone of his own" Continued...

Issue: "Getting paid not aid," Feb. 22, 2014

Jeffrey Rivers was a man whom Bowery staff had known for about five months. Rivers had been sleeping around the corner from the mission and was found dead in October. Storbakken suspects foul play, but that’s only his speculation—the police, in any event, didn’t pursue that possibility. Storbakken requested an autopsy but hasn’t received the results. He arrived on the scene as the police and medics were removing the body, and told them he knew Rivers. The police officers said Rivers had no identification. They left behind all of Rivers’ possessions, which Storbakken brought back to the Bowery chapel.

When he spread them out, he found Rivers’ wallet as well as letters that Rivers had written to his children. Storbakken went to identify Rivers at the morgue, then arranged a memorial service for him in the Bowery chapel. Rivers was buried on Hart Island. Storbakken asked to visit the grave; the city denied his request. Under the current policies, Storbakken should have been able to visit the island.

More importantly, Storbakken wanted to find the children Rivers wrote notes to—he has tried Facebook, but “Rivers” is a common name, and he didn’t have much else to go on. At Rivers’ memorial service, Storbakken urged the men in the chapel to call home. “Maybe your parents or children will be angry at you, maybe they have every right … but you need to do that work,” he told them. After the service several men asked him to help relocate their children. On Storbakken’s desk next to Rivers’ death certificate was a small handwritten note from one of the men, with all the information he had about his child he was trying to find. Storbakken sighed as he looked at the paper: The child’s name was also quite common, making his search difficult.

The Bowery handles each death of homeless men in the community as it comes, and uses whatever resources the mission can find for burials. On a shelf behind Storbakken’s desk sat an American flag folded in a triangle, which had covered the coffin of Andre Griffin. Griffin had been a fixture at the Bowery since the 1980s, but he had a drinking problem. In March, at age 68, he drank himself into a coma; a day later he died in the hospital. Griffin had no family that the Bowery staff knew of, so Storbakken claimed his body. A ministry partner who also ran a funeral home helped with a coffin and burial. Griffin was an Army veteran who served in Vietnam, so he was granted a plot in a veterans’ cemetery on Long Island. The Army Honor Guard played taps at his burial. On his headstone the mission had inscribed, “A friend of the Bowery Mission. Luke 6:20.” The verse reads, “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.”

Inmates bury baby caskets.
Fred R. Conrad/The New York Times/Redux
Inmates bury baby caskets.
THESE MEN CAN SLIP PAST society’s notice so easily. Reggie Stutzman, now a pastor of Real Life Church in the Bronx, was the chaplain at the Bowery for a decade preceding Storbakken. He recalled burying six men during his tenure at the mission, including Don Howard. Howard had been coming to the Bowery for meals and showers for years, and Stutzman knew him for about five years. One day Howard went missing. Stutzman searched all of Howard’s usual hangout spots, with no sign of the man.

“How do you find a homeless guy with no ID?” Stutzman said. Eventually Stutzman found him—in the city morgue. Howard had died in a subway car, surrounded by a pile of empty beer cans. Stutzman claimed Howard’s body because no one else had. “There are no legalities because it’s better for everybody if you take care of the individual,” he said.

Stutzman knew someone at Catholic Charities, and the organization was able to give Howard a burial plot it owned in a private cemetery in Queens. A private burial plot in New York City is quite a luxury, and that was an unusual situation. Today, a Catholic Charities’ spokesperson had no idea the group even had burial plots to give out. “It’s not a regular thing,” said Pierette Imbriano, spokesperson for Catholic Charities New York.

“I don’t know how it worked, but it worked,” said Stutzman.

Stutzman held a funeral for Howard at the mission; several homeless men served as pallbearers. Stutzman gave a eulogy, then they drove out to the cemetery, read Psalm 23, and buried Howard.

“Let’s show these men—the rest of the two, three hundred men—that life is precious,” Stutzman said about the purpose of the funerals. “Here’s one of your own, and we’re going to love you to the very end. We’re going to show you dignity to the very end.”

Emily Belz
Emily Belz

Emily, who has covered everything from political infighting to pet salons for The Indianapolis Star, The Hill, and the New York Daily News, reports for WORLD Magazine from New York City. Follow Emily on Twitter @emlybelz.


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