Sometimes something happens in my ministry life that feels so profound and so formative that I want to share it, particularly with newer ministers and seminarians. But I have found it useful (and essential) to ask myself "whose story is this?". In other words, can I tell this story without exploiting the event for its drama? Can I express my part in the story without revealing identities or disregarding the privacy of the participants? If the participants read what I've written, would they be okay with its being out there?
It can be a gamble and I'm going to try to do it right now, because what happened recently was one of those moments in time: profound, meaningful, scary, formative. I will tell my part of the story and if I'm not satisfied that it meets my criteria for publication, I will not publish it. If you are reading it, I decided it was okay. If you feel it reveals too much, you are welcome to tell me and I may take down the post, if I am convinced. For better or for worse, here it is.
I had just gotten back from my weekly grocery store run, had put away the goods, and was checking my email and voice messages. Surprisingly, though it was still early in the day, a voice mail had come through from a person whom I know best by his activities in support of local veterans. "Kit, will you call me as soon as you get in?" was the message.
I called and learned that their son, an Afghanistan vet suffering from PTSD and a host of physical trauma left over from injuries sustained in war, had died in the night, from a self-inflicted gunshot wound, possibly accidentally because he had been coping pretty successfully with his challenges. Yet he was dead and his family and friends were left behind wondering. "Can you come over?" was their question.
I was there within a few minutes and stayed for over two hours. During that time, I learned that the young man's body was at the county morgue and that the family was making arrangements to go up, view his body even though it was still bloody and messy, wash him, anoint him, and say goodbye in a way that felt better than his being whisked off to a mortuary and out of sight.
"Would you be able...?" was the beginning of the question and I erroneously assumed it was asking if I would be willing to perform the memorial service so I immediately said "yes" and then realized that the question was actually asking me to go with them to the morgue.
That I wasn't so sure of. I have seen many dead bodies in my years in ministry; they are empty of life, sometimes lovely in death, sometimes not. But I have not seen many victims of violent death, and never people whose families I know. In my mind, I backpedaled, thinking of all the possible excuses I might use to avoid this experience.
But as I thought about the great honor that was the invitation, I realized that I could not say no. The family did not know they were honoring me, they did not know they were offering me a sacred experience, they did not know anything but that they needed me to be with them. And I quickly abandoned my excuse-finding mode and put my fears away, believing that I would find the strength to be present for them, no matter what we found when we arrived at the morgue.
The trip to the morgue was scheduled for late in the day and in the middle of a blinding wind and rain storm, we drove the 30 miles to the tiny hallway that serves as the county morgue at a small funeral home. The personnel who met us were apologetic about the space and the lack of amenities and listened to the family's requests with compassion and realism. They explained what we would see, they advised us to be aware of our reactions and to leave the space if necessary. They offered to help us in whatever ways they could and allowed the family to be with this beloved young man as long as they wished.
His body was covered in a sheet, lying on a gurney in a narrow hallway. The staff first uncovered the long, slender, icy feet. We all were able to touch them, the parents and his fiancee washing and anointing them with cedar oil. Then the hands were revealed and, finally, the bloody, maimed head was uncovered and it was clear then that this was just a body. A beloved, beautiful body, but only a body, that the spirit of this man had left that body. It was bad but not horrifying, except in the realization of the loss of life and potential for healing.
Gently washing the blood away from his cheeks and temples, viewing the bullet hole, cleansing the ugliness away as best they could, family members prepared his body for the next step in its journey, the autopsy that is required by the law in cases of gun-related deaths. They left sweet herbs on his body and a small amount of tobacco.
We said goodbye to the morgue staff and left for home, profoundly calmed by the experience, the worst having been revealed, the understanding that the spirit was gone, and the realization that for this young man the pain of his earthly life was behind him. And I felt, during the ride home, that the pain for all of us had shifted, that the loss was still acute but that something had happened there which had begun our healing.
With Memorial Day events coming soon, including one in which this family is deeply involved, the significance of this death cannot be understated. The desperate straits in which so many of our vets find themselves, from PTSD, from self-medication, from homelessness, from addictions, cannot be set aside. Veterans die every day, often from self-inflicted injury or other efforts to stop their pain. They have let themselves be sacrificed on the altar of American ambition and desire. In many cases, this has been their only alternative. Is there any way to change the American dream from one which requires this kind of sacrifice to one which rewards integrity and hard work, rather than greed and wealth? I just don't know any more.
But I do know that this was an experience that will never again scare me or cause me to look for excuses not to accompany a bereaved family. I feel blessed by it and honored by the family for turning to me in their need.