Jonathan Wayne Liles was finally laid to rest Friday, Aug. 9. His burial was attended by nine people, none of whom knew him or had ever met him.
His graveside service was led by a funeral home grief counselor.
An employee of the company that provided Jonathan's casket, the man who delivered and set up the tent and chairs for the burial, sang "Jesus Loves Me," his work gloves tucked in his pants.
I was one of his pallbearers, asked to help by a funeral director. I put down my notebook and cellphone to lend a hand lifting the casket from the hearse.
The service lasted seven minutes, after which all the attendees quickly left — save for Colton Johnson, the Brown-Wilbert employee who was pressed into service as a singer, who stayed behind to lower Jonathan's casket into the ground before tearing down the tent and folding up the chairs he'd set graveside.
"That was the first time I ever sang at a funeral," Johnson said. "One of the funeral directors said, 'Does anybody here sing?' I said that I sing at my church. He asked if I'd mind singing something and I said that'd be fine."
Colton did a wonderful job, it must be said.
And so ends the story of Jonathan Liles, 58, of Fargo, who died July 14, 2019, in a north Fargo storage unit that caught fire. Police believe he was homeless, living in the storage unit located at 1725 First Ave. N. near downtown.
He was interred at Springvale Cemetery in north Fargo, a plot of land owned by Cass County where most burials are of people with no family members or those who can't afford a cemetery plot. Liles' burial was paid for by the county.
This is what happens when a person who dies in Cass County goes unclaimed, next of kin either nonexistent or uninterested in getting involved. After Boulger Funeral Home ran a brief death notice in The Forum last week as a call to anybody who might know Liles, and I wrote a column highlighting it, a woman in Georgia who was Liles' stepsister called Fargo police. She told Darin Haverland, Cass County's deputy coroner, to go ahead and bury Jonathan because nobody in the family was interested in claiming the body.
Haverland and Stacy Johnson, a medical examiner who works with the coroner's office, were among those at Liles' burial. Johnson was on call the day his body was found. They attended simply to show their respects.
And so, at 1:05 p.m. on a partly cloudy August afternoon, nine strangers stood before Liles' light blue pauper's casket while Boulger grief counselor Sonja Kjar, an ordained Lutheran pastor, began the brief service. A videographer from the funeral home recorded the service and posted it online, just in case a relative or friend of Liles wanted to watch it.
"None of us know exactly what Jonathan's life was like. We don't know the situations or the history that brought him to the places he had been. We don't even know everything that surrounded his death," she said. "But we do know that God loved him, loves him still and loves each of us. And no matter how hard life is for any of us, or for Jonathan, God's love is there and God welcomes Jonathan beyond this difficult life."
After a couple of Bible verses and Johnson's song, Kjar read from Revelation and led a brief prayer. Then we recited the Lord's Prayer, and it was over.
"And that concludes this brief service," Kjar said. "Thank you for being here."
It was subdued and sad but void of any real emotion. There was no pain, no tears, no laughter, no shared memories. How could there be? Nobody at the cemetery knew Liles.
There were four people from the funeral home, two from the coroner's office, the casket company worker, me and a woman named Deb Krueger.
Let's talk about her.
Deb lives in Fargo and showed up at Jonathan Liles' burial, the only person there not representing a business or agency, because she rented a storage unit near the one in which Liles died. Her unit, in fact, was badly damaged by the fire in Liles' unit.
Liles was in Unit 175. Krueger rented 179.
"I never saw him, never knew him. He was a stranger," Krueger said. "But he was a neighbor. So I am here as a neighbor."
Don't mistake: Krueger didn't live in her storage unit, she just kept her extra stuff there.
It is remarkably sad that the only person at Liles' burial who had anything remotely resembling a connection to him was there because she rented a storage unit four garage doors down from his.
But it also speaks of substantial sweetness. Krueger attended Liles' burial because she views herself as the closest thing to a neighbor the homeless man had. She felt it important to give her respects to a person she'd never met and knew nothing about.
With nobody who truly knew him interested, or him interested in them, it was the best Jonathan Wayne Liles could get.