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Brian Mittge commentary: Four local residents, alone but not forgotten
“No man is an island entire of itself ... any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind. And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.”
- John Donne, 1624
On Thursday, a few dozen members of our community gathered under a weak autumn sunfall to remember four of our neighbors who died with no one to claim their remains.
We showed up as members of the human family for these four people whose cremated remains have been sitting, unwanted by anyone who knew them in life, in the Lewis County Coroner’s Office for the past year:
• Virginia L. Hoyt, 78, of Tenino
• Danny R. McGlone, 53, Chehalis
• Michael C. Witzel, 73, of Chehalis
• Thomas J. Hammond, 56, of Chehalis
Perhaps alone in life, all-but forgotten in death, these are four neighbors who deserve — like all of us — to be acknowledged for their humanity when they leave this world.
“I can say, looking around today, that they are not abandoned by society,” McLeod said to the crowd attending the short, solemn event at the foot of Pioneer Cemetery, a privately owned graveyard rising above the otherwise unremarkable intersection of 20th Street and Market Boulevard in Chehalis.
At its conclusion, McLeod formally passed the sealed bags of cremated remains — which had been covered with yellow roses — on to John Panesko, owner of the cemetery. Panesko said that a century or so ago, people who died at the local tuberculosis sanitarium would be buried anonymously in his graveyard under cover of darkness. Unwelcomed even in death, they were hidden as they entered eternity.
These four people were at least acknowledged for their humanity as they pass from life and memory.
I had seen a Chronicle preview of the event and asked the coroner if he would like me to lead a few hymns for attendees. It seemed a fitting addition to the ceremony, and he agreed.
For the first song, we all sang “I’ll Fly Away” together. I thought its lyrics captured a hint of the difficulties these folks might have experienced in their final days, as well as the hope that those of us with faith have for the life beyond:
“When the shadows of this life have gone / I’ll fly away
Like a bird from these prison walls I’ll fly / I’ll fly away”
We ended with “Amazing Grace.” I let my guitar fall silent so attendees could sing unaccompanied for a verse. The act of singing together is one of the oldest and most powerful human group experiences. Our society needs more of it. This was the proper occasion, I thought, as we gathered to show unity with these lost strangers and with one another.
While I’m generally in favor of Johnny Cash at almost any time or place, I’m not sure that “Folsom Prison Blues” would work for the occasion.
It occurred to me, though, that Cash actually did write a song that hits on the same themes: Man in Black.
His 1971 creation, which he debuted on his television show just a few hours after he finished writing it, is a powerful criticism of the alienation and loss plaguing his society at the time. It still rings achingly true today:
“I wear the black for the poor and the beaten down
Livin' in the hopeless, hungry side of town...
I wear it for the sick and lonely old
For the reckless ones whose bad trip left them cold...”
I don’t know the stories of the four people we laid to rest this week. But I do know we have many other people around us right now, still alive, who are hungry for food, for warmth, for simple human companionship.
It’s hard to know how to respond. Maybe, like Cash, we’ll “wear the black in mournin' for the lives that could have been.”
Maybe we’ll step up to volunteer, to offer a bit of human kindness and a hand-up to those on the margins.
Maybe we’ll stay engaged with politics and civic groups to find enduring solutions to the underlying causes.
Maybe we’ll pray and seek to be God’s hands and heart to his lost children, imploring divine intervention for those suffering with the demons of addiction or exploitation.
Maybe we’ll simply greet those around us with respect and acknowledgement of our shared humanity.
Whatever we do, let’s not turn away. Let’s not let loneliness tighten its grasp on our society.
May the lives and solitary deaths of Virginia Hoyt, Danny McGlone, Michael Witzel and Thomas Hammond remind us that life is short.
We would do well to remember and honor one another while we still can.
Brian Mittge can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.