Some spectators mistook the procession around the Capitol Square for a festive occasion, thinking the horses were pulling a carriage with newlyweds.
It was a much more somber event than that. The carriage was an 1800s hearse with an empty casket in the back. The mourners, about 75 of them, walked to the side in silence, some carrying candles.
This was the seventh year a group of local clergy members and others have organized a memorial service to honor people who died without shelter in Dane County and elsewhere in the past year or in recent years. It was held outside, as it is every year, regardless of temperature or snow or rain.
“When you’re homeless, you don’t get to say, ‘It’s bad weather, I’m not going out,’” said Linda Ketcham, executive director of Madison Area Urban Ministry.
The mourners gathered around a park bench at South Pinckney and East Main streets. Dwayne Warren, a homeless man, died there on a June day in 2009, at the foot of the state Capitol. He was 38. That’s where the annual memorial service has been held ever since.
“Homeless people too often become faceless,” said the Rev. Eldonna Hazen of First Congregational United Church of Christ in Madison, who officiated at a memorial service for Warren in 2009 and was at last Sunday’s event. “This is our way of saying, ‘You are valuable.’”
Prior to the service, people were encouraged to submit the names of deceased homeless people whose names they wanted read. In an accompanying funeral folder, the names were listed, sometimes with comments about them.
Billy Briggs: Age 52. Died in 2011. He always had a laugh and a smile that wiped away your worries for a while.
Andrea Mannis: Age 50. Died in 2013. Andrea was an avid reader and held a master’s degree in literature. A shy person, she only opened up to those whom she trusted.
Joette Smith: Age 58. Died in 2014. Loving mother and grandmother. A kind woman who cared deeply about her family and community.
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“May they rest in the peace that only God can provide,” Ketcham said.
In his comments to the crowd, Richard Wildermuth of Madison, who said he formerly was homeless, drew numerous parallels between Jesus and the less fortunate in today’s society.
“While performing the work of his heavenly father, he lived in borrowed housing, slept out of doors, was never a host until the Last Supper,” Wildermuth said. “Even after his crucifixion, he was placed in a borrowed tomb.”
The Rev. Dean Kirst of Lakeview Lutheran Church in Madison said holding the memorial service during a time of abundance, when feasts and gift-giving are common, adds to its poignancy.
“It’s a public acknowledgement that things are not all smooth around us during this holiday time,” he said. “This makes it harder to block that out.”
Karin Clark, one of the mourners, dissolved into tears as bagpipes closed the service. She said later it was her first time at the event and that many of the words spoken in unison by the crowd during a prayer for the homeless hit her especially hard.
She works at a nearby suburban high school where many students come from homeless families, she said.
“When we’re warm and cozy in our houses, it’s so easy for us to forget what it’s really like for so many people,” she said. “This opens your heart.”
Many of the mourners brought gloves, socks, hats and thermal underwear to donate to homeless shelters.
At the end of the service, some walked to the nearby shelter at Grace Episcopal Church to wait alongside the homeless men seeking shelter for the night.