By McKenzie Layne
GEORGETOWN, Texas – (July 18, 2014) – It’s no secret to how each life story ends. Each life consists of different characters, different plots, a different number of chapters, but the last pages share a common theme – death.
When Joseph Gwatney, 71, died June 8 at Ascension Seton Medical Center Williamson, a mere handful of people knew him. No family or loved ones claimed his remains. He wished to be cremated, but he didn’t leave behind any money to pay for it, much less cover the costs of a memorial service.
Yet 100 strangers – including Ascension Seton Williamson assocates – came together July 17 to write Gwatney’s final chapter in a Georgetown funeral home.
The story later was shared with thousands of Central Texans. The Austin American Statesman did a story and posted a photo gallery. Time Warner Cable News and the Williamson County Sun also covered the event.
“Every one of us has a story,” Tara Strain, Ascension Seton Williamson senior patient representative, told the memorial service crowd. “And when patients come to us, especially the indigent and poor and vulnerable, their stories should not matter. We cannot judge them.”
When Gwatney died and his remains were placed in Strain’s care, she knew very little of his story except for that he was a former U.S. Marine. Regardless, Strain knew he deserved a dignified ending to his story, one that would honor his military service and his verbalized wish to be cremated.
“For four days straight, I made so many calls and advocated for this patient in every way to ensure that he would have a dignified cremation,” Strain said. “I really was allowed by Ascension Seton to do the work for Mr. Gwatney.”
Unlike surrounding counties, Williamson County does not provide financial assistance for indigent burial. So Strain, with help from Ascension Seton Williamson Chaplain Leigh Jackson, continued to reach out into the community for support.
Judge Bill Gravell, a Williamson County justice of the peace, and Kevin Hull, vice president and operator of the Cook-Walden Davis Funeral Home in Georgetown, stepped up and became leading characters in the final chapter of Gwatney’s book.
With the help of a $300 donation from the Ascension Seton Williamson Foundation, Cook-Walden Davis covered the cost of cremation and all memorial service-related expenses. Meanwhile, word got out via email and social media in and around Georgetown about Gwatney’s Marine service and his memorial service. That led to Marine Corps honor guards, veterans, the Patriot Guard Riders motorcycle group, police officers, public officials, Ascension Seton staff and others touched by Gwatney’s circumstances to gather and celebrate him.
“I’m humbled by your compassion. I just did not think it was right not to have a memorial service,” said Gravell in delivering the eulogy. “Mr. Gwatney was an American who served our nation and a resident of Williamson County who deserved a proper funeral service.”
Gwatney received full military honors at the service, where a U.S. Marine Corps honor guard played taps and held aloft an American flag as the slow song was played and guests stood silently, many saluting.
Two Marines then carefully, ceremoniously folded the flag into a tight triangle. One of them took the flag and turned to a bearded man sitting in the front row.
Gary Hatcher, a 10-years-long friend of Gwatney and just one of three people in the crowd who personally knew him, accepted the flag.
“I was only expecting a handful of people to show up,” Hatcher said afterward. “I was so surprised to see this turnout.”
“So many people came together for a person we just don’t know,” Strain said. “But that’s why we’re here – to help him finish his story with dignity and respect, even if we don’t know how it started.”