Homeless vet goes home the right way

by | May 15, 2011 | Comment, Detroit Free Press | 0 comments

John Hannah slept many nights on a floor of a homeless shelter. Now, for his final sleep, he lay inside a metal casket, his thin body draped in a blue suit, his graying hair, once scraggly and long, now groomed and combed back.

“At peace,” someone observed.

At last.

Until seven days ago, Hannah had been a man unclaimed, a body dead from cancer in a Detroit hospital, no next of kin listed, no one to collect his remains. His corpse was in danger of callous disposal, until a man named Joseph Norris stepped in and said, “I will take him.” Norris owns the Gates of Heaven Funeral Home on Livernois in Detroit. It’s not the best neighborhood. He must keep his doors locked. But Norris maintains a pleasant, welcoming operation, and he welcomed the body of a stranger.

His reward was the expense of keeping that body – potentially for weeks. If he cremated the remains before family came forth, a lawsuit would be likely.

So Norris waited. And others tried to help. Last week, in this space, a call was sounded for anyone who knew Hannah, or wanted to say good-bye. All we had was a birthday, four digits from a Social Security number and his final ranking in the Navy.

It proved to be enough. Early Sunday morning, when the column appeared, the phone began ringing at the funeral home. And here, four days later, a family gathered in the chapel to pay respects – two brothers, two sisters-in-law, a nephew and a daughter of Hannah, 55.

After 15 years of searching, they finally had found him, even as they lost him.

A man who didn’t talk about his past

“It’s a mixture of emotions,” said Ernie Hannah, one of five siblings. “When I saw him, of course, I was upset because he died. There’s a lot of baggage there. But this does give us closure.”

John Hannah, it turns out, spent 20 years in the Navy. He was honorably discharged. He had a pension. He had health insurance.

You’d never have known it. In his final year, he was a coughing, sickly, homeless man who arrived at Detroit’s I Am My Brother’s Keeper Ministries and announced he had come to die.

Night after night he slept on a vinyl mat under a gray blanket. Nobody knew the memories he kept tucked there as well. Memories of a wife who left him when the kids were young. Memories of his battles with alcohol. Memories of the last time he saw his daughters – two children he never spoke about.

“It was a father-daughter Girl Scout dance,” Ernie recalled. “We weren’t sure if he was going to show up, because he’d been disappearing off and on. I was ready to take Erin” – his younger daughter, who was 10 at the time – “just in case. But a half-hour before it started, John showed up, all dressed and ready.”

He took his little girl to the dance.

That was the last time they saw him.

A man helped in life and death by strangers

Who knows what goes on inside a man? Who knows why John Hannah hit the skids, why he never again – in 15 years – tried to contact his family? Hannah was well-liked by the other homeless men he shared space with. They described him as an intelligent man, who walked to a Wayne State University library every day.

“It turns out he was blogging,” said Valerie Hannah, Ernie’s wife. “He’d been posting things for years. He had all kinds of people who knew him. Pages and pages.”

Yet not an e-mail or letter to his loved ones. Perhaps he was ashamed. Perhaps he was heartbroken. Whatever the reason, John Hannah disengaged from what life had given him, even its benefits. He died alone.

I wrote last week that Hannah was about to die a second death, the death of being forgotten. But it turns out he was not forgotten, he was simply not found.

Thanks to the kindness of strangers – Norris at the funeral home, Annette Covington from the church, Tyrone Chatman from the Michigan Veterans Foundation and countless readers who offered money, support, even burial plots – Hannah was sent off properly, with singing, prayers and a family crying around his casket.

No man should live alone. No man should die alone. Hannah’s ashes will be buried at sea, a request he once made to his brothers. “Closure” is what they call that, but this says it better: at peace, at last.

Contact Mitch Albom: 313-223-4581 or



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Mitch Albom writes about running an orphanage in impoverished Port-au-Prince, Haiti, his kids, their hardships, laughs and challenges, and the life lessons he’s learned there every day.

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