GILLETTE — Clarence Barry followed the white hearse past the half-staff flag and up the hill that climbs through the entry gate of Mount Pisgah Cemetery.
He knew almost nothing about the man lying in the hearse before him.
Like the handful of veterans who Barry invited to the service Tuesday morning, he didn’t know where the man was from, or how he got to Gillette. He didn’t know whether the man had ever been married, or what kind of life he lived after his military service.
Barry didn’t even know what branch of the military the man had served in.
“All I can tell you is his name is Mr. Babbs,” Barry said. “I don’t even have his first name at this point in time.”
What he did know was that the man was a veteran, and a veteran who would otherwise have been buried alone. He knew that’s something he never wanted to see happen to a veteran.
No drill team present. No taps played. No one other than a hearse driver and cemetery workers to see it happen.
“My point is, no veteran should be buried without someone there,” Barry said.
Now he’s working with local veterans to make sure that’s the case, starting with Babbs.
Grant George Babbs likely died sometime in November, before reaching his 63rd birthday in December. He was found alone inside his home in mid-January. A debit card transaction made Nov. 3 was the last trace of him prior to that.
Paul Wallem, Campbell County coroner, said that based on the condition of the body, Babbs may have been dead in his apartment for two months before he was discovered by an apartment worker.
Barry, a longtime Campbell County Jail worker and Air Force veteran of 23 years, said he learned of Babbs through Wallem. He had told the coroner to let him know if a situation like this ever arose — if one of the many unattended deaths that occur throughout the county each year happened to be a veteran without family, or the means for a proper send-off.
They worked with the funeral home to make sure Barry could be there when Babbs was buried.
Then Barry pulled on his connections within the local veteran community to ensure he wasn’t the only one there.
Sure enough, he wasn’t.
By the time Barry arrived up the hill, to the left then back down toward an indigent gravesite, more people than he had hoped for already stood around the plot.
Barry watched the veterans from the American Legion in Gillette arrive through the cemetery gates that morning, and pointed them up the hill as they filed in.
The result was about a dozen local veterans, many of whom found out about the service hours before at a breakfast for veterans. It was on short notice, and something they didn’t hesitate to take part in.
Once Barry arrived near the site, the hearse parked and its back opened.
Babbs rested inside a cardboard casket fashioned as if made to hold a refrigerator rather than a man.
“Handle with Care. Human Remains,” it read.
“We were told you weren’t going to be here, that’s why we came,” said either a funeral home or cemetery employee, to the veterans approaching the hearse.
A group of the attendees, ones who had never met Babbs and knew no more about him than Barry, grabbed hold of the box’s side. They lifted him from the hearse and together carried him to his grave.
They laid him down on a bed of straps suspended by ratchets above the dirt hole.
Most of the people present lined up to the east of the grave, holding saluted hands to their heads. Bill Languemi, a pastor and veteran, approached graveside and gave a brief service that he said wasn’t really a service. He gave a few words and read a psalm of David.
You prepare a table before me
in the presence of my enemies
You anoint my head with oil;
“I just said two words, because we know nothing about him except he was a veteran, and he deserves that,” Languemi said. “He deserves a lot more.”
Languemi’s words ended and Gary Rye pushed the opening notes of taps through his bugle, blowing the rising notes through brass, ringing out above the quiet cemetery and saluting bystanders who still did not know who it was they were there to see through to the end.
A cemetery attendant lowered the box into the ground, setting the ratchets and levers in motion, which slowly whirred as the cardboard fell out of sight.
“This is only the second time in my memory that we put somebody in the ground in a cardboard casket,” veteran Joe Schlautmann said. “It’s sad but it happens. No family, no friends left.”
Rye, bugle to his side, watched the casket descend to the bottom. He too learned about the service that same morning.
Many of the veterans there were drill team members with the American Legion. Given more of a heads up, they may have worn more formal uniform and fired rifles in salute.
They attend a lot of funerals, just not like this.
As drill team members, Barry said, they’re usually a bit farther removed from the graveside. The family stands up close, the team stands behind.
“But here, to me, I mean we’re right here — we’re his family,” he said. “That’s how I look at it. We’re replicating his family.”
“Tugged at my heart,” Languemi added. “No doubt. Real gut check that we are his family.”
“It’s sad whether it’s a veteran, or anyone, that they don’t have family,” Barry continued. “And someone should be there for everyone, to be honest. Of course, being a veteran, it’s even more important for us to recognize a veteran.”
Of all the things they didn’t know about the man they had just buried, they knew Babbs must have had family at some point.
They left that morning with questions.
Patricia Murray had answers for the veterans who buried her brother.
Murray learned in a roundabout way that her brother had died alone in Gillette.
Until Murray got the call from Babbs’s ex-wife in Oklahoma City, who was notified after the next of kin search expanded outside of Wyoming, she hadn’t known that her brother was living in Gillette.
She took the call while working a security shift at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, and continued through her eight-hour shift alone.
“It was very devastating for me. I haven’t talked to my brother or seen my brother in a long time,” she said. “I tried contacting him, but Grant, he had a lot of problems.”
Not long after she learned her brother had died, she learned he wouldn’t be buried alone.
“I am very thankful for them respecting my brother and doing what they did because I couldn’t come out there,” she said. “I really appreciate the vets who honor people who don’t have family to go to their funerals.”
Babbs was flawed, to put it kindly. He was reclusive, and seemed to alienate even the few family members who tried connecting with him.
His military career began when he joined the U.S. Army and served in Frankfurt, Germany, for a stint sometime about 1980.
“He really didn’t talk about it,” Murray said. “He was kind of like my father, my father fought in World War II and my dad didn’t talk about World War II.”
She said her brother drank heavily and isolated himself from family, which escalated after he lost a son to a car accident years ago. Babbs had two other children who have also separated from him and the family, she said.
“He drank a lot, and it’s very sad,” she said. “I tried to help him a few times and it just didn’t work.”
She said her four daughters unsuccessfully tried connecting with their uncle. He had health issues on top of his regular drinking and eventually moved to Wyoming from Oklahoma City, Murray said, seeking Veterans Affairs services.
She lost track of him after that. He didn’t make it easy on his family.
The veterans who buried him knew almost nothing about him. In some ways, that may have been for the best.
They’re burying a person as much as they’re rekindling an idea. It’s an idea of brotherhood, camaraderie — together we stand, divided we fall.
“I just didn’t want him to ever die alone,” she said. “That’s horrible, what happened.”
Before Babbs was buried, his sister was in touch with Barry, who told her he’d be there for her brother’s burial.
Even without knowing Babbs, for better or worse, Barry and some of the other veterans saw a part of themselves in that cardboard casket that they, both brothers and strangers, mourned together.
“We all had our different lives. If one thing or another — it could be just one change and we could end up like this,” Barry said.
“That could happen to any one of us,” he added.
It’s unclear how often a veteran dies alone, or receives an indigent service in Gillette. But as the community is reminded every so often, it does happen.
“It happens more often than we’d like to see,” said veteran Lee Yake.
Babbs didn’t serve in Vietnam, but his story and death resembles what the veterans who paid him last respects said is a concerning shift. With Vietnam veterans in line as the generation reaches its twilight years, there’s concern that burials like Babbs’s may happen more often.
“It’s there already,” Yake said of lonely veteran deaths. “It’s here already.”
It’s one thing to die alone. In a sense, we all die alone. It’s another thing to die forgotten.
Through no effort of his own, Babbs was spared the indignity of dying alone and being forgotten. He was remembered by a group who never knew him. But at the very end, he was not alone, and he was not forgotten.
Brothers he never knew made it so.
There may be more deaths like Babbs’s as more generations of veterans come and go. If so, there will be more veterans like those in Gillette making sure they aren’t sent off alone.