Don Follis: Visiting a desert cemetery brings clarity

Don Follis: Visiting a desert cemetery brings clarity

Along with studying at Phoenix Seminary during my summer study break, I have spent Fridays at the Phoenix Rescue Mission, a homeless shelter known for helping those struggling with alcohol and drug addiction.

Early last Friday on my way to the mission, I stopped by White Tanks Cemetery, a Maricopa County-owned 20-acre facility where nearly 3,000 indigent souls are buried. At 7:15 a.m., I parked along the road just outside the cemetery. A 6-foot chain-link tan privacy fence surrounds the graveyard.

When I walked into north entrance, the entire cemetery grounds matched the color of the fence. There were no trees. No grass. No flowers. No bushes. Not even a cactus.

Off to my right, a man wearing a mask was spraying the ground, lugging a yellow hose connected to a 200-gallon tank sitting on top of a flatbed truck. Crisscrossing the barren cemetery were gray, gravel roads barely wide enough for one vehicle.

The man noticed me and waved. He pulled off a mask. We walked toward each other. We were the only two people in the cemetery. He introduced himself as Jeff. I said, "Jeff, what in the world are you spraying on this desolate piece of land?"

"Pre-emergent weed killer," he said, smiling. That's right. Weed killer. Weed killer on every inch of a cemetery entirely brought to you by the color tan.

"Crazy, isn't it? he said. "The county doesn't want anything growing out here."

Let me tell you: Their success is stellar.

Jeff said, "Let me show you around." It didn't exactly look like there was much to see. Still, I followed as we walked 200 yards deep into the desert cemetery. We passed hundreds of coaster-sized copper grave markers attached to metal stakes. The markers stick 6 inches above the ground.

We came to a spot where two more impoverished souls had been buried the day before.

"Right here," he said, pointing to the ground.

You could hardly tell the ground had been disturbed. Jeff said county inmates in their black-and-white-striped prison attire served as pallbearers. A chaplain spoke, standing at the head of the wooden coffins.

"Everybody deserves to be remembered one last time," Jeff said.

I heard about White Tanks Cemetery one day after I read 22 obituaries in the Arizona Republic newspaper. They all read the same: "John Doe, 27, Phoenix, died July 17, 2017. (Only it was the actual name, the actual date of death and the actual place where the person died.) If you have any information about this individual, please call (602) XXX-XXXX (The actual number of one of the four funeral homes the county uses)."

A woman at a funeral home answered when I called one of the numbers. She explained the obituaries. Most people are in fact identified, whether they die on the streets, in apartments, wherever. They usually have identification. That's why the name and the age are in the obituary. But the county is looking for more information. Does the person have a history here in the Phoenix area? Do they have a family? Does anyone know them?

"Sometimes we get information. Often, we get very little," she said.

A few times each year, bodies are found in metro Phoenix but never identified. They get buried, too. They even get a marker. One marker I saw read, "Male — #164527." There was no date of death, only the number tying it to the case number in the county coroner's office.

While we walked, Jeff the landscape worker told me his own story. He turns 36 next month. He has been out of prison nine months. He was incarcerated for 30 months. While he was in prison, Jeff's grandmother died. She raised him. Her death made him resolve to get his life together.

"I decided to live for her," he said.

Last November, a landscaping company (that contracts with the county to spray the cemetery) gave Jeff a chance.

"I'm doing great so far," he said. Jeff said he had been at the cemetery since 5:30 a.m. He works from 5 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. "Lots of overtime, too."

Wiping his brow, he looked out across the cemetery.

"I don't mind being out here. It reminds me of where I could have ended up, especially with some of my decisions," he said. "I think I got the chance that some of the souls out here never had. I don't mind being reminded."

As we shook hands, I said, "I'm proud of you, man. You're making it. You hang in there. The world needs what you have."

"Thank you, sir. Thank you so much."

Walking back to my car, I passed countless more copper, coaster-size grave markers. Many of the markers include the age at the time of death. Few made it to age 50. A verse popped into my mind from the Old Testament book of Ecclesiastes: "It is better to go to a house of mourning than to go to a house of feasting, for death is the destiny of everyone; the living should take this to heart."

Looking back at Jeff, who had returned to spraying weed killer on the inhospitable desert, I said, "Now there is a man who has taken those words to heart."

Don Follis has pastored in Champaign-Urbana for 35 years. He directs retreats and coaches leaders via blog.pastortopastorinitiatives.com. You can contact him at donscolumn@gmail.com, and you can follow him on Twitter (@donfollis).

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