CORPUS CHRISTI — Robert Eugene Nelson, 62, was found last week in an open-air shed, dehydrated, starving, dying, alone.
He was noted as the first heat-related death in Nueces County during the relentlessly hot summer.
While the official cause of death was hyperthermia and environmental exposure, the two men in Corpus Christi who may have known him best — the only two mourners at his funeral Monday — say Nelson had simply given up on life.
Nelson was buried in a pauper’s grave, in a short, quiet service paid for by the Nueces County indigent burial fund.
Pauper, indigent: These are words Andy Norton, co-owner of the Duncan Cemetery in Flour Bluff, doesn’t like.
They come from Latin words that mean “poor” and “in need.” Norton said the words seem too cold, too simple to describe a human being.
“Why do we call them that?” Norton wondered.
Sometimes, there is little else to go on.
Duncan Cemetery is where the county buys plots for people whose families cannot afford funeral expenses, or, like Nelson, people whose families can’t be found.
In the economic recession, the number of people buried at the county’s expense reached a nine-year high in 2009-10, when the county paid for 316 burials. County officials do not track the number of those whose next of kin can’t be found.
Melissa Settle, the cemetery director, attends all of the county-funded burials at Duncan Cemetery. If next-of-kin haven’t been found, a neighbor or two might attend. But often she is the only visitor.
The ceremony may only take five minutes. Often, no headstone is placed.
“Just buried and then forgotten,” she said.
“It’s so heartbreaking to go out there and be the only one (at the service). They didn’t know who I was and I didn’t know who they were, but at least someone’s there.”
The county pays $200 for a casket. It’s up to the funeral home to decide what kind of casket to buy with that money. In Nelson’s case, Corpus Christi Funeral Home used a wooden casket with a list price of $495.
Nelson was definitely poor, but if he was in need, he didn’t go around looking for help — at least not at the end of his life, according to Mark McDaniel and Scott Westbrook, the two mourners.
They said they tried to help Nelson, get him to eat, drink water, stop drinking alcohol. But they said Nelson stopped caring, didn’t want help. He refused earlier offers by paramedics to take him to the hospital.
When he finally was found unresponsive, he weighed 82 pounds. He slept on a mattress on top of a raft.
McDaniel said neighbors criticized him for not taking better care of Nelson, because the shed was near McDaniel’s home in the trailer park. But McDaniel said there was only so much you could do for a person who didn’t have the will to go on.
“You don’t see them lining up to pay their respects,” he said.
He and Westbrook knew Nelson for the last 15 years. They say he was a Vietnam veteran who drifted to the Texas coast from Pennsylvania, where a sister lived. They said the sister and other family members grew apart from Nelson as he fell deeper into alcoholism. A phone number they had for the sister, years ago, was disconnected.
Area shelters, ministries and the county’s veterans’ services department had no record of Nelson.
Westbrook and McDaniel said Nelson was a trustworthy, hard worker when he picked up the occasional odd job, such as painting, though he was unfit to work for the last seven or eight years. He had almost no criminal record in Texas — a search yielded only a misdemeanor trespassing charge.
McDaniel and Nelson served as impromptu pallbearers Monday. A funeral home employee recited the Lord’s Prayer, and the gravedigger operated the device that lowered Nelson’s casket into the earth.
“I think he’ll like that spot next to the water,” Westbrook whispered.
The grave overlooks an inlet from the Laguna Madre and, in the distance, the arch of the JFK Causeway. McDaniel said it was Nelson’s favorite fishing spot, when he still cared about fishing.
The grave, at least for now, will be nameless. The county doesn’t pay for grave markers. Settle and Norton, who took ownership of the century-old cemetery about three months ago, say they’re considering organizing a fundraiser to pay for markers for indigents, paupers — or just people — buried here.