01/04/2013 02:55 pm ET Updated Mar 06, 2013

Final Rest for the Homeless

For anyone seeking information about the national problem that is homelessness, a wealth of material is available from a variety of sources on just about every aspect of homelessness -- with one notable exception. There is not much to be found that addresses the death of homeless persons.

Most of what has been written about homelessness fails to discuss adequately, if at all, this morbid and problematic subject. I am among the guilty in that respect, for when I wrote my book, Homeless Isn't Hopeless, I was totally absorbed by the plight of the living, and I neglected the dying and the dead. In retrospect, there should have been a chapter devoted to the final rest of the homeless.

This came to mind a few days ago, when a neighbor asked me what happens to the indigent homeless when they die. I replied that the circumstances of the homeless varies widely across the country, and even differs greatly from place to place within each state.

But I told my neighbor that there was one place where I had acquired firsthand knowledge of how those who die homeless and indigent can, and should be given final rest. That place is Monroe County in the southernmost part of Florida, where the handling of homeless deaths provides a shining example for other areas throughout America.

This past December, as in other years, the Mayor of Key West proclaimed December 21 "Homeless Persons Memorial Day." It's an annual remembrance of those who have died homeless the preceding 12 months. The date of the 21st has significance, for it is the longest, darkest night of the year; the longest, darkest night for those on the street.

At 3:00 PM on the afternoon of December 21, 2012, an open-to-the-public memorial service was conducted in Key West cemetery by Rev. Stephen Braddock, president of the homeless advocacy group, the Florida Keys Outreach Coalition. The service was for some 50 persons who died homeless in the Florida Keys in 2012. Among the 50 were two infants and a number of veterans.

Several years ago, Rev. Braddock and his nonprofit organization purchased a vault in Key West Cemetery for those who have no other place to go for final rest. I am familiar with this program, because there was a time, not so long ago, when I was homeless, and found comfort in the knowledge that I had the promise of a dignified passing and a place of peace for my own final rest.