AUSTIN, Texas — Everyone dies alone. Joseph Jackson Gwatney died more alone than anyone should. Especially a Marine.
He might have been an imperfect man, granted, with a few smoldering wrecks littered behind him on the winding highway of his life. Two estranged adult children. Few friends.
It didn’t matter Thursday. At the Cook-Walden Davis Funeral Home in Georgetown, he might have had more friends than he ever had in life.
Gwatney, who lived in Harker Heights, died June 8 at Seton Medical Center Williamson after suffering multiple strokes and being cared for at an adult rehab facility in Georgetown. He was 71. He’d wished to be cremated, but without available next of kin that proved to be a problem. His body lay unclaimed.
Tara Strain, the hospital’s patient representative, never knew Gwatney because he came to the hospital unresponsive. Nonetheless, she spent four days on the phone trying to take care of him. The children didn’t care to be involved. His cremation wish hadn’t been formally stated. Justice of the Peace Bill Gravell Jr., whose office is involved in many death investigations, stepped in. So did Kevin Hull, the vice president and location manager at the funeral home. The Seton Williamson Foundation made a donation to cover some costs. They started spreading the word: We are having a service for this man we did not know.
And Thursday afternoon, Gwatney, the almost-unknown soldier, received full military honors at his memorial service. An urn containing his ashes was front and center, his final wish fulfilled. The room was packed and no more than two people — if that — who knew him were on hand. There were veterans, including Vietnam vets in their biker leathers, elected officials, members of law enforcement, people who wanted to honor his service and respect and celebrate his life. A pianist played “American the Beautiful” and “God Bless the U.S.A.” A Marine blew “Taps.” Two others folded Gwatney’s American flag with great solemnity and silence at the service’s end, then presented it to his friend, Gary Hatcher, also of Harker Heights.
Hatcher said that Gwatney was born in Arkansas and was a truck driver for 40 years. For a while they drove together, until Gwatney’s health began to slide. Hatcher said Gwatney’s tenure in the Marines was brief, that he was outgoing and enjoyed fishing and karaoke. He didn’t want to have much to do with the government, to the extent that he didn’t start drawing Social Security until he was 67.
Hatcher expected just a handful of people to turn out for the memorial, so the full house was a surprise. Even Hull, a professional in the business of death and grieving, choked up a bit when he blessed and recessed the crowd.
You will die. Alone. You might not have the pleasure of drifting into the big sleep while your loved ones give you comforting pats and eyes full of bittersweet tears and tell you it’s all right, at last, to let go. You will still be alone. You may die like this man did, God rest his guts. Alone and forgotten.
But on Thursday, Joseph Jackson Gwatney was anything but.