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Poet proud among paupers

If there’s one thing that is certain in life, it’s that it ends.

That’s also where certainty ends. Death comes in myriad ways, usually not in the hour or the way of our choosing.

Some of us die alone. Some die poor. Some die with no desire for the grim grandeur of a gilded coffin and calla lilies because we had no desire for grandeur while we lived.

And some end up as ash and bone in a cardboard box as the responsibility of the county.

In Bernalillo County, that’s not such a bad way to go.

On Tuesday, 89 of those whose ashes were never claimed for a requisite two years, or whose loved ones could not afford the cost of death, will be laid to rest en masse at the Evangelico Cemetery at Blake and Coors SW.

The boxes will be placed together into a casket and lowered into the ground with a headstone marking this last resting place. Music, eulogies from different denominations, final words from loved ones and flowers will be a part of the services, provided through the county’s Unclaimed/Indigent Cremation Program.

It’s the second time the county has held a mass burial for its poor and forgotten, with this year’s cost for the program coming in at about $70,000.

Last year, 182 souls were buried at Evangelico, some of the deceased having waited longer than the two years a county must hold on to cremains before burial.

The mass burial was the idea of Charlie Finegan, owner of Riverside Funeral Home, which is contracted with the county to provide cremation services for the unclaimed and indigent. Finegan also donates the headstone, plot and casket for this final, dignified farewell.

Last year’s burial went over so well with the public that it has been made into an annual event, said Danielle Romero, administrator of the program, which is run out of the county’s Purchasing Department.

Joe Speer traveled the country in a Volkswagen bus, performing his poetry and meeting people, until his death in 2011. (COURTESY OF PAMELA ADAMS HIRST)

Joe Speer traveled the country in a Volkswagen bus, performing his poetry and meeting people, until his death in 2011. (COURTESY OF PAMELA ADAMS HIRST)

This month, the program also launched an online searchable database of all the deceased it handled back to 2006.

The program is the only one of its kind in New Mexico and, as far as Romero can tell, the country.

“It feels human, like we have brought dignity to these people and these families,” she said. “We are honored to do this.”

Among those who will be honored Tuesday is Joe Speer, performance poet, raconteur, world traveler and film producer, affectionately referred to in literary circles from New Mexico to Nashville as Beatlick Joe.

He was from Bernalillo County, born and raised in Albuquerque, but it’s more accurate to say he was a citizen of the world, his life lived on the road as far and as often as his lime green Volkswagen bus or his thumb could take him.

“He truly was the Jack Kerouac of Albuquerque,” said Pamela Adams Hirst, who was on the road with him for the last 22 years of his life as his collaborator and life partner.

“Joe was exceptional,” she said. “He was the most spiritually developed person I’ve ever met in my life. Everybody you talk to who knew him will tell you that.”

Hirst, who runs the grass-roots Beatlick Press she and Speer founded, sent me a list of “everybody” that reads like a who’s who of the counterculture art world – literature professors, publishers, poets, journalists and university library curators, among them.

The Evangelico Cemetery near Blake and Coors SW is the site where the cremains of 89 unclaimed or indigent people who died in Bernalillo County will be buried Tuesday. (ROBERTO E. ROSALES/JOURNAL)

The Evangelico Cemetery near Blake and Coors SW is the site where the cremains of 89 unclaimed or indigent people who died in Bernalillo County will be buried Tuesday. (ROBERTO E. ROSALES/JOURNAL)

Speer’s writings and newsletters are archived in the library at his alma mater, New Mexico State University, in Las Cruces. His poetry and arts newsletter, “Beatlick News,” had at one point amassed a global audience.

Most of all, Speer is known for sharing his poetry with anybody who wanted to listen.

He barely made a dime.

“He used to say you should live to support the arts, not wait for the arts to support you,” Hirst said. “Joe and I were minimalists. We gave away everything we owned, just stripped life down to its bare bones.”

Then pancreatic cancer stripped Speer down to his bones.

He died Jan. 25, 2011, at age 62, just 10 weeks after he was diagnosed. It was just enough time for him and Hirst to travel back home to Albuquerque and to work on the publication of his book “Backpack Trekker: A 60s Flashback,” about his strange trip of a life.

“We talked about things before he died, how he didn’t want the fancy stuff,” Hirst said. “It wasn’t like we had the money to bury him that way anyway.”

That he will be buried along with others Tuesday who lived and died, some alone, some poor, all with no grim grandeur, is perfect, she said.

“Joe always wanted to be with the people, and he will be, even in death,” she said. “He always loved an audience. He’ll have one forever now.”

UpFront is a daily front-page news and opinion column. Comment directly to Joline at 823-3603, jkrueger@abqjournal.com or follow her on Twitter @jolinegkg. Go to ABQjournal.com/letters/new to submit a letter to the editor.

 

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