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A horse, a hearse and a sense of duty

Lorraine Melgosa of Manzanola, Colo., volunteers her 19th century horse-drawn carriage for funerals of troops killed in Iraq and Afghanistan. She says it's the least she can do.

January 29, 2009|Nicholas Riccardi

SCOTTSBLUFF, NEB. — 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."

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."

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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."

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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.

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