published Friday, November 2nd, 2012

For all the saints: Church of the Nativity members place bouquets for graves of homeless, indigent

The Rev. Betty Latham sprinkles holy water and says a blessing over a grave belonging to someone homeless or indigent Thursday. Members of the Church of the Nativity, along with Brother Ron Fender, placed wreaths at the Ruth Cofer Cemetery on Thursday afternoon. The cemetery is the final resting place for many homeless and people who have no next of kin.
The Rev. Betty Latham sprinkles holy water and says a blessing over a grave belonging to someone homeless or indigent Thursday. Members of the Church of the Nativity, along with Brother Ron Fender, placed wreaths at the Ruth Cofer Cemetery on Thursday afternoon. The cemetery is the final resting place for many homeless and people who have no next of kin.
Photo by Jake Daniels.

When JoAnn Tatum arrived at hilly Ruth Cofer Cemetery on Thursday, it was the first time she had visited her husband's grave.

When he died more than a year and a half ago, "my heart was overwhelmed," she said, and she couldn't go.

She and Clifford Tatum Jr. had been married for 19 years and, for many of those years, they had lived on the streets. He had been shot once, healed from that, then was diagnosed with the cancer that eventually claimed his life.

JoAnn Tatum was part of a group from the Church of the Nativity who had come to the almost-hidden cemetery off Jenkins Road on All Saints' Day to place 240 bouquets of fall-colored silk flowers on the graves of homeless or indigent people.

As it turned out, 240 bouquets made by members of the Episcopal church in Fort Oglethorpe weren't enough to grace each grave. Not nearly.

But the two dozen people present -- including several homeless clients of the Chattanooga Community Kitchen -- were pleased at the effect of the flowers on the rolling hill that contains the graves.

"This is amazing," said Charlie Hughes, executive director of the Community Kitchen. "I never thought of it looking this way."

Because only flat markers can mark the graves, the bouquets wrapped in wire and tied with ribboned bows gave the area a uniform look.

"I've never seen anything more beautiful," said Brother Ron Fender, day center manager at the Community Kitchen.

Fender, a member of the Brotherhood of St. Gregory, has conducted most of the funerals for the people buried there, including one earlier Thursday. When hospitals, police and others can't find families of a deceased homeless person after eight days, he said, "I become the next of kin."

A burial in Cofer Cemetery is arranged, Fender said, and the unembalmed body is placed in a "pressboard but nice casket." Prisoners at the Silverdale Detention Center dig the graves and serve as pallbearers. The casket is buried "directly in the dirt," not in a vault as in most cemeteries, he said.

The Church of the Nativity's rector, the Rev. Betty Latham, said church homeless committee member Hollis Holland called Fender to see what he did involving the homeless dead on All Saints' Day.

Fender said he usually put together several bouquets of flowers and placed them "here and there" on graves at the cemetery.

"A divine moment," Holland said, led to the decision to put together a spray for every grave.

"This is absolutely gorgeous," said Holland, after Fender, Latham and the Rev. Buckley Robbins had blessed the graves. "We'll do this forever."

Tatum, looking down at her husband's marker -- born Sept. 15, 1951, died Feb. 13, 2011 -- was likewise impressed.

"There's a lot of love, a lot of concern and caring," she said.

about Clint Cooper...

Clint Cooper is the faith editor and a staff writer for the Times Free Press Life section. He also has been an assistant sports editor and Metro staff writer for the newspaper. Prior to the merger between the Chattanooga Free Press and Chattanooga Times in 1999, he was sports news editor for the Chattanooga Free Press, where he was in charge of the day-to-day content of the section and the section’s design. Before becoming sports ...

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