Clergy group ensures Nashville's 'abandoned' have a voice, even in death

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Posted at 5:00 PM, Mar 31, 2022
and last updated 2022-03-31 21:08:50-04

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WTVF) — It's an early morning in January. Nashville is in the middle of being walloped by the strongest winter storm of the year. Snow has just begun falling from the gray skies above, onto the gray headstones dotting the horizon of the Hills of Calvary cemetery. By the end of the day, more than six inches of flakes will fall, making driving conditions particularly dangerous.

But Jay Voorhees has showed up here anyway.

"Our agreement is that anytime burials are happening here we will be present," Voorhees said, trudging through the snow.

Voorhees is a pastor with City Road Chapel United Methodist Church. Last year, he hadn't heard much about Nashville's indigent burial program — a city service that provides a free casket and plot for those who can't afford to pay, or for those who have no family members to claim them.

Medical examiners have a term for such bodies: abandoned.

Voorhees had been asked to preside at one of the burials, when he noticed other caskets lined up.

"I was surprised to see seven burial vaults lined up for burials," Voorhees said.

While the city provides the burial, what's not included is anyone to say anything about the people being buried.

"I looked around at these other burials, and there was no one there, no one representing," Voorhees said. "These people were absolutely alone in their death."

So Voorhees organized a group of clergy from around Nashville to form the Call The Name initiative.

"Everybody deserves to have somebody at their burial, someone to remember them," Voorhees said.

At every indigent burial since November, Voorhees says someone from his group has been there.

"We do a short service just to be with them," Voorhees said. "We don't know anything about the folks being buried, but they're of sacred worth and they deserve someone calling out their name one last time."

Each person buried as part of the indigent burial program gets a small nameplate placed atop their grave. Some are simply labeled "John" or "Jane Doe."

"Somewhere along the line, somebody loved them," Voorhees said. "Somewhere along the line, they brought joy to someone. Somewhere along the line, they were part of our society, so we feel its important to acknowledge them, and be with them."

So far, Voorhees and his team have been present at more than three dozen burials.

Back on the frozen ground of the Hills of Calvary cemetery, Voorhees reflected on the good to come out of what could so easily be seen as a sad story.

"There are people in this community that love their neighbors to the point where they are willing to get up early in the morning and trek out in the snow to say, 'We love you and we're here with you,'" Voorhees said.

"That's the good part of it."