Dcn. James Leggett began a Graveside Ministry at St. Alphonsus, Greendale, last year. Parishioners attend the interments of people who have passed away with no family. (Photo by Larry Hanson)
A simple phone call from Jeff Klemmer of Heritage Funeral Home to Dcn. James Leggett of St. Alphonsus Parish, Greendale, has grown into a ministry that requires very little commitment and satisfies a corporal work of mercy.
In May 2022, Klemmer told Dcn. Leggett there was a person being buried at Good Hope Cemetery in Greenfield who had no family. Klemmer asked his fellow member of St. Alphonsus if he would come and say a few words and some prayers.
When Dcn. Leggett got there for the interment, it was just the funeral director, two grave diggers and him with the body at the gravesite.
“I feel that it is important and the right thing to do to have committal prayers said for someone at the gravesite,” Klemmer said. “To have no one there, I felt that it is not paying respect to that life lived and does not align with my values or show value to that life. Every life is worth paying respect to and celebrating their welcoming into heaven.”
Since then, the Graveside Ministry has taken off, and the parish has a roster of 21 people who will attend burials and say prayers over the deceased. However, at the very beginning, Dcn. Leggett didn’t know what to expect.
“I really didn’t know,” Dcn. Leggett said. “The first one I did, I didn’t go any further with (Klemmer) than that. When he called me for the second one, which was just a few days later, I asked him more questions.”
Later, talking to his daughter, Janel Bucci, about what he had done, Dcn. Leggett recalled that she asked if she could attend the next one with him.
“I thought it was wonderful that my father was taking the time to give these people a proper burial, but it saddened me that nobody attended the funeral,” Bucci said. “I was immediately moved by the situation and offered to be there the next time he had one of these burials come up. I thought to myself that nobody deserves to be put to rest alone. I brought my friend Kelly (Worden) because I knew it would be easier doing this with someone else. We are very close and talk of spiritual things often. She said she was very moved by the experience and felt like it was an honor to be there.”
Soon after, Dcn. Leggett set up a table at the parish’s ministry fair and shared the need with his fellow parishioners. About six or seven people signed up, he recalled.
“The surprising thing is, word got around,” Dcn. Leggett said. “People talked about it and before long, we’re 21 people now.”
Donna Schmidt, the Bereavement Minister at St. Alphonsus, said, “Fellow parishioners are always amazed and saddened that there are people who die alone. Being at the burial is truly moving — people often experience tears and deep emotions as the service proceeds. These burials also remind us all how blessed we are to have so many people in our own lives.”
Often, Dcn. Leggett said, he knows very little about the deceased other than their name and dates of birth and death; however, one of the interments he attended was for a military veteran with two Purple Hearts.
“It’s not a big commitment,” Dcn. Leggett said. “From the time the hearse comes, in 20 minutes, a half hour, we’re done, and we go on our way.”
Dcn. Leggett, who was ordained as a deacon Jan. 22, 1983, “retired” about a decade ago from the insurance agency he started in 1967. However, he said he still goes into the office every day to help out or visit with people.
Bucci said starting the Graveside Ministry is something that doesn’t surprise her about her father.
“Nothing ever surprises me about my dad,” Bucci said. “He works hard at everything. He saw a need and set forward to fill that need. This is in keeping with who he is and how he serves as a deacon. I am so happy that this group of parishioners is willing to take time to be there for people who are alone.”
What Dcn. Leggett started has become one of the few ministries where members don’t want to hear from their leader.
“I have people call me and say, ‘Dcn. Jim, I haven’t heard from you in a while,’” Dcn. Leggett said. “And I said, ‘Isn’t that a blessing?’ Those who have died have had family members so they could do it properly. Isn’t it wonderful that we don’t have to do this?”
People interested in starting a Graveside Ministry at their own parish can call Dcn. Leggett at 414-421-2442, or email Donna Schmidt at email@example.com.