Advertisement
Share

A final tribute fit for a warrior

Lorraine Melgosa hasn’t developed the thick skin of someone who works with the bereaved. She almost always cries at funerals.

On a crisp morning in this northwestern Nebraska town, her tears began when pallbearers slid the flag-draped coffin of Marine Cpl. Adrian Robles into Melgosa’s 19th century horse-drawn hearse.

She helped Robles’ parents into the seat at the front of the carriage and stepped to the head of the mare harnessed to it. Taking the horse’s reins, Melgosa urged her forward and into the graveyard. Mourners walked slowly behind in a parade of black, lending a timeless dignity to an already solemn affair, the funeral procession of a 21-year-old Marine.

Melgosa has brought that quality to at least 20 military funerals across three states. Her black wooden horse-drawn carriage, with glass siding to display the coffin, offers a fitting tribute to fallen troops, said one officer who has worked with Melgosa.

“Presidents who have passed away have been taken to cemeteries in horse-drawn carriages,” said Navy Chief Petty Officer Kip Poggemeyer. “It’s the way all military funerals should be. If I were ever to be killed in combat, that’s what I’d want.”

Advertisement

Melgosa sees it as her duty to honor those who have died in Iraq and Afghanistan.

“Whatever gift you can give to these soldiers and their families, you should give,” Melgosa said. “It’s the least you can do to try to honor them.”

--

Solemn and subdued at burials, Melgosa, 44, is otherwise chatty and exuberant, with short dark hair and piercing blue eyes.

Born in Denver, she moved with her family to the hamlet of Manzanola, Colo., when she was a child. She still lives in the town (population 525), and is an outspoken advocate of the benefits of rural life.

“I’m never bored; there’s plenty of excitement in my life,” she said in a strong, booming voice. “A cow gets out or a hog and I chase them.”

Melgosa inadvertently entered the funeral business in 1991, when her father died two months after being diagnosed with cancer. She and her siblings wanted to celebrate his life with something special and hit upon the idea of using a horse-drawn hearse to carry his body to the cemetery. But they couldn’t find one.

After her father’s funeral, Melgosa and one of her brothers tracked down an $8,400 wooden funeral coach, made in 1867, at an antiques auction in Pennsylvania. They bought a draft horse and a trailer to haul the horse and carriage and decided to go into business.

But there was scant interest, and Melgosa’s brother quickly gave up. Melgosa kept going.

She’s never made a profit. Though she has participated in more than 600 funerals and can charge $600 for a funeral in a location as far away as Denver, Melgosa often donates her services. She offers free funerals for children and law enforcement officers, as well as for members of the military. She pays her bills by running a local Verizon shop and selling antiques online.

She dabbled in weddings, but after battling “bridezillas,” she is a funeral-only operation. “Weddings are too depressing,” said Melgosa, whose marriage ended in divorce more than a decade ago.

Her first funeral for a soldier who died in Iraq or Afghanistan was in 2005. Army Staff Sgt. Justin Vasquez of Manzanola was killed by a roadside bomb in Baghdad, and Melgosa, who had watched Vasquez grow up, offered her services. More than 1,000 people -- twice the town’s population -- turned out for the funeral.

Two weeks later, a Denver funeral home called and asked if Melgosa would transport the body of a Marine killed in Iraq. She agreed. After the burial, as she drove her hefty trailer out of the cemetery gate onto a traffic-choked street, drivers honked and cursed.

Melgosa was shaken. “I thought, ‘This stranger died for me,’ ” she said. “I cried all the way home. I thought of all those people honking. After that, you have to do it.”

She started scouring newspapers for reports of slain troops. Using contacts in the funeral industry and military, she tracked down their families and offered her services.

“When people die, you say [to their families], ‘If I can do anything, just let me know,’ ” she said. “In general you can’t do anything. But I can help.”

--

Melgosa is a supporter of the Iraq war but mostly shies away from politics. “I’m a hick from Manzanola, and there are people in higher places that know better than me,” she said. “If they say we have to go to war, we have to go to war.”

Melgosa tries to keep her burials to locations within 350 miles of home. “I wish I could do them all, but I’m not independently wealthy,” she said.

Sometimes she breaks her rule.

She trekked 450 miles to Roswell, N.M., for an Army sergeant who died pulling troops from burning Humvees in Iraq. She drove 380 miles to Bayard, Neb., to help bury Army Capt. Scott Shimp, 28, who died in a helicopter crash in Alabama shortly after returning from Iraq.

In October, Robles’ death brought Melgosa back to the wind-swept farming towns of northwestern Nebraska. He was killed when his Humvee struck a roadside bomb in Afghanistan.

Robles, family members said, was a boisterous but methodical young man determined to join the military after listening to his grandfather’s stories of fighting in World War II. On his 18th birthday, he came home from high school and announced he was enlisting. He reveled in helping others and had the words “Your Freedom, My Life, Without Complaint” tattooed on his left arm.

Melgosa knew none of this -- all she had was a name and hometown from the sketchy Marine Corps public announcement. She made contact with the corporal’s casualty officer and offered her services.

On Halloween, she coaxed her horse, Lady, into the 15,000-pound trailer her son built to carry the animal and funeral rig; popped a Peter, Paul and Mary cassette into her tape deck; and drove north.

When Melgosa arrived in Bayard, the tiny Nebraska town where she would spend the night, she had plenty of people to visit. She is that sort of person. She dropped Lady off at a farm whose owner she knew, stopped in to see distant relatives and went to have hamburgers at the Shimp house, a rare opportunity to visit the family whose son she had helped bury.

The next morning, Melgosa rose before dawn to scrub Lady. It was just above freezing, but the weather could have been worse. In the past, Melgosa has had to don several layers of long underwear to get her through some winter burials.

The day warmed up by the time Melgosa met the funeral procession in Scottsbluff five hours later. She didn’t hear the service, held at a church several miles away. Nor did she see the town’s main street lined with about 1,000 people holding American flags distributed by the City Council. She waited at a parking lot about a quarter of a mile from the cemetery. She would take over the casket there.

The sun seeped through the high clouds as Melgosa tearfully helped Robles’ parents onto the carriage. As she led the crowd into the graveyard, people quietly sang “God Bless America.”

Once a casket is removed from her coach, Melgosa tries to stay out of the way -- her motto is “blend in, and don’t be a nuisance.” On this day, she stood far back from the burial site, holding Lady’s reins tightly when the Marine honor guard fired a 21-gun salute. A bugler played taps.

As the crowd began to disperse, the Robleses stayed under the burial tent receiving well-wishers. They asked Melgosa to come over. Sobbing, Cesar and Yolanda Robles shook her hands and kept repeating the words “thank you.”

Melgosa returned to Lady and stood silently. A couple of children shyly approached the horse.

“Go ahead,” Melgosa told them. “You can touch her.”

Soon a gathering had formed around the horse. Young parents held up their babies, who stared at Lady with awe. Melgosa lifted toddlers to stroke her neck. Children posed for photos as the sun burned through the clouds.

Melgosa took in the scene at the grave site, volunteers encircling the cemetery with American flags and excited children gathered around her horse.

“I’ll remember this day for a long time,” she said.

“How,” she asked, “could you not do this?”

--

nicholas.riccardi@latimes.com


Advertisement