News I saw overnight about the funeral in Porterville, Calif. for the late mass murderer Charles Manson reminded me of another occasion a reviled or controversial figure was put to rest. When presidential assassin Lee Harvey Oswald was killed in the tumultuous days following the murder of John F. Kennedy it was difficult to find a pastor willing to conduct a funeral. A North Carolina native stepped up in a story I first heard in the 1990s. I recounted it in 2013 when the Boston Marathon bomber was laid to rest.
So I figured I would recount it here again.
There are a lot of reasons to remember the Rev. Louis Saunders, a native of a small Eastern North Carolina town most couldn’t find on the map without a magnifying glass.
Forget that he studied theology at Duke University or received a divinity degree at Vanderbilt or completed chaplain’s school at Harvard.
And don’t even stop to consider that he joined World War II after Pearl Harbor, survived the Allied invasion of Normandy then wound up in the Pacific Theater. And then he up and remained in the Philippines after the war as a missionary and built the first high school in a remote province there.
Yes, all of that stuff is particularly noteworthy, but in this case, not really.
Because the Rev. Louis Saunders, a native of a town called Richlands who passed away at age 88 in 1998, was a key figure in one really big historic event. Most probably never heard of him.
He’s the man who buried Lee Harvey Oswald.
LEARNING ABOUT often astonishing tales is at least part of why the newspaper business is so addictive.
This Louis Saunders thing is like that.
I found out about him for the first time about 18 or so years ago when I worked for the Jacksonville Daily News. One of our reporters covered graduation night at Richlands High School. For those who don’t know, Richlands (pronounced like two distinct words rich lands), is a town steeped in a farming tradition and named for the quality soil found there. Up until a few years ago, travelers were greeted at the town limits by a sign that also hailed it as “The Town of Perfect Water.” Later testing proved this not to be exactly true, so Richlands leaders saw fit to take down this misleading piece of municipal advertising.
Anyway, our reporter came back that night talking about the graduation speaker, an alumnus who was the presiding pastor at the funeral for Lee Harvey Oswald, the man who killed President John F. Kennedy on Nov. 22, 1963 — if you believe the Warren Commission Report.
“You’re kidding,” I said.
“Nope,” came the reply.
In November of 1963, Saunders was executive director for the 20-church Fort Worth (Texas) Council of Churches and watching events unfold on TV like everyone else. He heard on the Monday after Kennedy’s assassination that Oswald — himself gunned down on live TV while in police custody — would be buried in Fort Worth.
“I felt some responsibility for the religious community,” he told Daily News reporter C. Mark Brinkley in 1997, just a few months before passing away.
That’s how Saunders came to take ownership of what became a job no one wanted — saying a few words at the gravesite of the most hated man in America.
After contacting the funeral home about arrangements, Saunders said he was assured that a member of the local clergy would be there to conduct the service. But he wanted to make sure everything happened as planned so he attended the service at Rose Hill Cemetery.
And of course, it didn’t. The pastors who agreed to officiate did not show up. Saunders had been afraid something like that might happen and tried to line up volunteers just in case.
He got no takers.
”I got more and more anxious,” Saunders said in 1997. “I think there were hundreds of photographers — all lined up, maybe three rows deep.”
That’s when he was approached by Oswald’s mother, Marguerite, and asked to perform the service, the New York Times reported.
He couldn’t turn down a mother, even the mother of America’s biggest villain. And it was the Christian thing to do.
”It’s easy to say something that can be misinterpreted,” Saunders said. “I didn’t want to do that.”
According to the New York Times, he read the 23rd Psalm and then offered one of the shortest eulogies ever.
“Mrs. Oswald tells me that her son, Lee Harvey, was a good boy and that she loved him. And today, Lord, we commit his spirit to your Divine care.”
THEY BURIED Tamerlan Tsarnaev on Thursday. It was at an undisclosed location. No media were there to document the funeral of one of the suspected Boston Marathon bombers, arguably America’s newest edition of most hated villains.
And it happened after a massive game of keep-away. No one wanted to bury Tamerlan Tsarnaev in their town. In all, officials in Massachusetts received 120 offers of graves from the U.S. and Canada. None worked out. Even a site at a state prison was rescinded.
People didn’t want the notoriety in their back yard.
“It’s not only Massachusetts that doesn’t want him,” a Worcester, Mass. funeral home director said. “Nobody wants him. And all these people who have donated graves, I’ve made some calls and said to somebody in the cities and towns where the graves were, ‘Hey, we would like to bury the guy there that was part of the marathon bombing.’”
The response? “You’re not gonna do that here.”
The problem prompted Worcester police Chief Gary Gemme to say, “We are not barbarians. We bury the dead.”
That’s when I thought of the Rev. Louis Saunders, who took on an unenviable and perhaps distasteful task in November 1963 because it was the Christian thing to do and the right thing to do.
He would’ve understood.