Lee Gabourel participates in “keeping the faith” at Marco Community Church by being a friend, in a time when families need it most.
Photo by HARMONY OSWALD // Buy this photo
“As soon as I walked in, I knew. I thought, I know I belong here,” Gabourel remembered of his first days at Marco Community Church. “I decided to volunteer, to help out and answer the phones. I told the pastor, I’m here to help you, whatever you need. And he said he needed some help in the cemetery.”
At that moment, Gabourel laughed, perhaps a little uneasily, to himself.
“A cemetery? They need help in the cemetery?” he thought.
But nevertheless, the 25-year food service industry veteran was committed to doing whatever he was called to do. If that meant helping the pastor out by filling in at the cemetery until the right person for the job came along, then that’s what he would do.
“Long story short, I never left. It’s interesting. I actually love it. The dynamics of different people. The history of different families. Meeting people at a time of need, this caters to my personality. I don’t know if I’d ever be a minister but I know I was called to be a counsel to people,” Gabourel explained. “I can be a friend without judgment. My friendship is free.”
The Marco Island cemetery dates back to the early 1900s. Many people are completely unaware of its existence and upon acknowledgement of it, may guess that with such a small appearance, it’s most likely filled. In all actuality, 75 percent of the cemetery, around five acres, is still available to the public. That means, anyone with any background is welcome to use the space. Thousands of lots are open and around 60 are designated to the Jewish Congregation of Marco Island. Since cremation is becoming more and more common, this leaves more ground untouched.
“To do this job, you just have to have the lots. The rest is one-on-one with people,” said Gabourel. “I like people. I know how I like to be treated and I like to treat people the same way. Many of the families I’ve met have become personal friends.”
After working as cemetery director at Marco Community Church for over seven months now, Gabourel has come to believe that the appropriate name for the cemetery grounds should be “The Marco Island Historical Church and Cemetery: Celebrating Life.” In coming months, his goal is to establish that recognition for the one place in paradise, held so sacred by so many. Gabourel speaks fondly about the stories and laughter expressed in an office no one looks forward to stepping into.
“One family that really affected me was the Stone family, when their daughter, Kristen, passed away. Being a dad — I have a 16-year old son — it just touched me beyond belief. When I met her mom, Diane, for the first time, and we were in the cemetery, I could only look at her and just cry and feel her pain. She was actually counseling me. That moved me beyond anything. And what a beautiful family,” he said. “I found it very important to be part of that sacred and special time. I found it an honor creating the stone with Diane, ordering it, placing it and making sure everything was nice.”
Gabourel recommends pre-planning if at all possible. He says traditionally, people chose a marker with a name, birth and death dates. Nowadays, there are so many other options, people sometimes unnecessarily over spend for a variety of reasons.
“I had a woman who lost her husband and she was dealing with five kids all around the country and she would sit in the office and cry, ‘I don’t know who to please right now.’ At a time where she was grieving for her husband, instead of focusing on a lasting memory, she was dealing with different opinions. I would suggest for people to come and talk about it ahead of time.” Gabourel advised. “There’s a lot to be considered and I love to be able to help people in that way.”
To nominate someone from your house of worship for “Keeping the Faith,” e-mail both of your names and a short summary describing that person to: firstname.lastname@example.org.