US Catholic Faith in Real Life

Dignity in death for those who die in prison

By Elizabeth Lefebvre | Print this pagePrint | Email this pageShare

Recently in U.S. Catholic, we’ve discussed options for environmentally friendly funerals and green burials. Today, the New York Times casts a light on another lesser known type of burial: those for inmates who die while in prison.

The article features the Captain Joe Byrd Cemetery in East Texas, where the Texas Department of Criminal Justice operates burials for those prisoners whose bodies go unclaimed after dying while incarcerated.

Though the deceased is often a stranger to those who conduct the burial, it still is an occasion for solemn reflection and respect. The cemetery provides inmates with a place to be remembered and honored, and it is maintained with as much respect as one would expect from a religious institution.

Honor, respect – these are not words usually associated with those people considered to be among the lowest members of society.

Franklin T. Wilson, an assistant professor of criminology at Indiana State University, explains that being buried in a prison cemetery does not necessarily reflect a person’s crime. “I think everyone assumes if you’re in a prison cemetery you’re somehow the worst of the worst,” he explains. “But it’s more of a reflection of your socioeconomic status. This is more of a case of if you’re buried there, you’re poor.”

Many families of inmates do not claim bodies out of disregard—many of them are just unable to afford the cost of a funeral. The burials cost the state of Texas about $2,000, whereas the average funeral in the U.S., according to data for 2009, runs at over $6,500.

Inmates buried in prison cemeteries also share another quality – despite whatever crimes they have committed, they are all human beings. At the core of our Catholic beliefs is that every life has inherent dignity, something that we share in the nature of being human, created in God's image.

“It’s important, because they’re people still,” says James Jones, the warden of the nearby Walls Unit, which takes care of the grounds at the cemetery. “Of course they committed a crime and they have to do their time, and unfortunately they end up dying while they’re in prison, but they’re still human beings.”