Boston funeral home provides free burials for the homeless

For the last 25 years, 150 homeless people yearly received a free, dignified burial thanks to a Boston funeral home.

The Robert J. Lawler & Crosby Funeral Home provides a no-cost funeral with pallbearers for homeless veterans and homeless adults in greater Boston each year.

The Lawler Homeless Funeral Program was founded by Robert J. Lawler, Sr. in 1946 and has continued under the leadership of his two sons, acting co-directors Robert J Lawler, Jr.  and William L. Lawler.

Lawler, Jr. says his father became involved in burying homeless veterans because his first funeral home was right next door to the Jamaica Plains Veterans Administration hospital.

Lawler mentioned that his father’s work grew with the help of one of Massachusetts’s former governors.

“Former Gov. Michael James Curly helped get my father a contact in the 1940s to bury homeless people who died within Boston,” Lawler said. “This contract helped my father to work with the state and the city governments,

Lawler highlighted that the homeless population that his father worked for was relatively small compared to what it is in 2016.

“When my father started the burial program it was one third the size of what it is now,” Lawler said. “He buried approximately 50 people who were mostly veterans.”

Lawler attributed the growth to the cutback of state hospitals and the closing of Long Island Shelter, which pushed many homeless people onto the street with no place to go. The fact that some of them were sick helped contribute to the funeral program growing in size.

Lawler commented that they help bury two different groups of homeless people with dignity: veterans and homeless adults. Each group is buried at different cemeteries and has a service accompanied by pallbearers from the Roxbury Latin School.

Lawler pointed out that homeless veterans are referred to the funeral home by the VA-hospices-hospitals. These people are buried at two state cemeteries located in Agawan and Winchendon along with the Massachusetts national cemetery in Bourne.

Homeless adults, on the other hand, are referred to the funeral home by city shelter programs like Pine Street, Rosie’s Place, The New England Shelter for Homeless Veterans and the City Medical Examiner’s office. These individuals are buried at the municipal cemetery called Mt. Hope.

“When homeless adults expire, they are sent to the medical examiner’s office,” Lawler said. “If no family can be found they are then handed over to the state’s Department of Transitional Assistance.

“DTA’s responsibility is to find the deceased a funeral home,” Lawler said. “They are responsible to get them buried.”

Lawler remarked that the state provides a stipend to help defray the costs of burying people in need. Lawler referenced that Gov. Barker visited him after reading the Kevin Cullen article in the Feb. 6 edition of the Boston Globe: “Giving A Veteran A Much-Deserved Send Off.” The governor listened to his request for an increase in the stipend to help cover the cost of getting cementers to bury the poor.

“Gov. Baker authorized an additional $1,000 to help offset funeral setup and burial costs,” Lawler said. “The stipend is now $2,100.”

According to Lawler, he accompanies homeless veterans along with a group of seven to eight people from the Roxbury Latin School. The casket arrives and is placed for burial with an American flag draped over it. Six student pallbearers and one or two teachers stand next to the casket. Two groups of three pallbearers stand on each side. Each of the pallbearers reads a prayer for the deceased. A home team consisting of two members of the veterans’ service plays taps. The flag is folded and handed to kin present. If no kin are present, it is taken and given to them later on or given to the student pallbearers. Sometimes retired veterans show up and form an honor guard, firing a three-volley gun salute.

“I have a sheet with information on the veteran to read out loud in the prayer,” Lawler said. “Sometimes the information is limited.”

For homeless adults, Roxbury Latin students stand on each side of the casket and read a prayer out loud followed by the name of the individual, asking that the person rest in peace at the city cemetery.

Lawler commented that every member of the Roxbury Latin School senior class has participated in the program.

“Many of the student pallbearers have experienced a funeral for the first time as part of the program,” Lawler said. “Many have continued to serve as pallbearers in their senior year.”

Lawler highlighted that the funeral program will continue to serve people who need a funeral. Other regional Catholic high schools have inquired and expressed interest in participating in our program.

Robert Sondak is a vendor and a writer for Spare Change News.

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