BLOUNTVILLE, Tenn. -- Twenty-two people are gathered on a hill in this church cemetery. One small grave awaits.
Today, the red-clay earth will receive the cremains of 17 souls. They may have been forgotten in life, but here amid this mountain splendor, they will be remembered and kept.
“We are here to acknowledge the value and love for all these persons being laid to rest in this hallowed ground,” the Rev. Will Shewey says during the graveside service. “Some of them we didn’t know. Some of them we know very well. They are all precious in the sight of God.”
Shewey asks the mourners if they will help carry the bags of ashes, each marked with name tags, from the hearse to the grave. As each deceased person’s name is spoken, a bag is gently placed among the others in the open plot, followed by a red rose.
For four years, Shades of Grace United Methodist Church has led this community memorial service, always timed for the Saturday near All Saints Day, for local persons whose bodies were never claimed. Shades of Grace also pays for their cremations.
The ministry of caring for people in their final earthly existence is expanding due to COVID-19, addiction and poverty, said Shewey. The need was revealed a few years ago after the deaths of a few regular participants at Shades of Grace, a storefront church specializing in serving the homeless and addicted in downtown Kingsport, Tennessee.
“We got up to about five or six urns that we kept in the church, and then we said we can’t just keep adding them here. We need to find a permanent resting place,” said Shewey, pastor at Shades of Grace.
A partnership was born with Immanuel Lutheran Church, which offered a choice part of its cemetery for the burials. Trinity Memorial Funeral Home stepped up to work with Shades of Grace to care for the unclaimed bodies at a discount.
“When it comes to the homeless, the standard response from churches is, ‘Our benevolence fund is all used up. We don’t have any funds for that,’” said Weston Leonard, Trinity Memorial Funeral Home owner. “Will’s church is the only one I’ve found that helps with the cemetery costs.”
This year, Shades of Grace has spent $19,552 on cremations so far, Shewey said. In the last four years, 61 persons have been laid to rest by Shades of Grace in the Immanuel Lutheran cemetery.
A recent Washington Post investigation showed the number of unclaimed bodies across the nation is spiking, with as many as 34,000 to 100,000 bodies left annually for local governments with strapped budgets to handle.
Shewey says he gets telephone calls from hospices and hospitals, desperate to find a resting place for bodies left for days in the morgue.
"I just like helping the clientele he is helping," says Leonard. "They deserve some dignity, too, even if they're down on their luck. Everyone is created in God's image."
In the first years after Shades of Grace began its partnership with the Lutheran church and funeral home, every memorialized person got their own plot and a personalized headstone. When the number of cremated bodies shot up to 22 in 2020, the United Methodist and Lutheran pastors and funeral-home director decided to combine all names on one plaque and lay the cremains in a joint resting place each year.
Due to the higher cost, Shades of Grace cannot pay for burial without cremation, although the church will sometimes offer donated grave plots to families in need, Shewey said.
“To be honest, we had no idea how big the need is,” said the Rev. Mary Louise Sitton, pastor at Immanuel Lutheran. “We are here to be faithful to our mission of respecting all God’s people, wherever we find them and wherever they find us.”
Natosha Doty is one of the people gathered around the grave on this drizzly, chilly day. She drove here in a funeral procession that started 12 miles away at Shades of Grace, led by the hearse.
“I wanted to be here to be supportive, because nobody should have to pass away without being loved,” Doty said before the service. She was typical among the mourners here: She didn’t know any of the persons interred but admired Shades of Grace’s ministry.
Midway through the service, Doty’s face fell when she recognized her own uncle’s name among the 17 remembered.
“That hit me like a ton of bricks,” she said later. “I thought someone had claimed him. He was always good to me.”
Shades of Grace is intimate with death, even more so than most congregations. Shewey’s Facebook page teems with stories of the tragic ways his congregants leave this world: by overdose, fire, pedestrian accidents, disease, murder, suicide, exposure, neglect.
For years, even before he founded Shades of Grace in 2014, Shewey was one of the go-to funeral pastors in his community for families without church homes. A former floral shop owner, Shewey also arranges casket sprays as a gift for many of the 70 funerals he officiates at each year.
“John Wesley said the world is my parish,” he said. “If we’re going to be servants, you can’t be part-time. You’re always on call.”
The pastor points at each of the headstones in this peaceful place and tells story after story of the people who found love at Shades of Grace during and after life: The teenager who committed suicide. The mother and baby hit by a car on the highway. The mentally ill woman who slept in her car. The homeless man who carried his mother’s ashes with him on the street, until he discovered that Shades of Grace had a place for her to rest.
“We have become the community church,” he said. “People in the country, in the back alleys and in the street -- they all call Shades of Grace when there is a problem, and they know we’ll always take care of them.”
Did you like this story? Sign up for a free weekly subscription to The Call. Holston Conference includes 850 United Methodist congregations in East Tennessee, Southwest Virginia, and North Georgia.
Annette Spence is editor of The Call, the Holston Conference newspaper.
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