Dear Brother Turkey Vulture,
First, let me apologize for calling you a buzzard. I know that’s not your correct name, and I’m sorry I used it in my blog post of June 2, 2016 titled “Unclean Love.” I used you as an example of touching the dead and I called you repulsive and disgusting. That was very unfair of me. I’m sorry. I also ask your forgiveness for saying that you’re ugly. I’m sure that to bird lovers and other vultures you’re very attractive. Your friend “Anonymous” wrote to tell me not to be too hard on you. I won’t be. You see, I think we might just have a lot in common.
I, too, live off of the recently deceased just as you do (although I don’t eat them). In my time as an urban pastor I have been called on to officiate over 400 funerals—most of which have been for people I’ve never met. Local funeral directors call me and pay me a fee to do these memorial services. I’m very thankful for this as my parochial income isn’t gigantic, so a few extra bucks here and there really helps me out.
Here’s the weird thing: Just like you, I don’t seem to suffer any real ill effects from dealing with the dead. I’ve buried auto accident victims, drug overdoses, suicides, and even a murder victim. Yes, it’s a little hard to do at times—especially if someone dies way too young. Once I had to bury the infant son of a couple whose wedding I’d performed. That was tough. Even harder was the time I presided at the service of an eleven-year-old boy who died suddenly of a brain aneurism. From all accounts, he was a vibrant, polite, smart, and just plain nice kid. I think the worst thing ever is for a parent to have to bury their child. You don’t ever get over that.
When I was in seminary I had to do this thing called CPE. The letters stand for Clinical Pastoral Education, but we used to joke and call it “Cruel Perverted Experience.” I spent three months—over 500 working hours—as chaplain on the cancer wards at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania. Sometimes I’d have to do “on call” hours. My last on call was a Sunday morning. I remember it was raining enough to make you think of building an ark. I mean really coming down. As I was preparing for the Sunday chapel service, I got paged to the trauma bay. It seems this guy had gotten himself knifed in the groin on a street corner in West Philly. It was, we thought, probably a drug deal gone bad, but I don’t think I ever found out the real story.
The policewoman who accompanied the victim to the Emergency Department described the scene on the street as an ocean of blood with the victim’s blood turning the rain puddles scarlet. She asked me to bless her, which I did. The trauma team was hard at work when I got to the bay, but there was blood everywhere. The guy’s femoral artery had been cut, and blood poured out of him as fast as the IV bags could pump it in.
A real trauma bay is nothing like it is on TV. It’s actually much quieter and calmer. The trauma team wear protective gear that makes them look like they’re ready for deep sea diving, and the attending physician stands quietly behind the precaution tape on the floor in white lab coat with goggles around his neck like a WWII general. He serenely directed the proceedings, calmly rotating the residents, giving each an opportunity to save this life. The paddles were brought out and the patient was repeatedly shocked to restart his heart.
I looked down for a moment to make some notes for the Trauma Chaplain who would follow up with this patient and his family. When I looked up, I saw that the team had opened and cracked the patient’s chest cavity. A resident’s hand was manually massaging his heart in an attempt to get it to pump. For a moment, the scene became surreal. The hand in the chest looked for all the world like someone stuffing a Thanksgiving turkey (no offense to you, I hope). It had lost its humanity, and it was an effort for me to remember that this strange thing was an actual human being. But I came back to myself and began to pray for this man’s life.
This was the only time I was ever paged to the trauma bay at HUP when a patient did not survive. The attending quietly said, “I’m going to call it,” and announced the time of death. The team covered the body quietly and professionally.
Soon afterwards the victim’s family arrived, and, after the attending delivered the sad news, I asked them all into the small consult room for prayer. When I left to preside at the chapel service that morning it occurred to me that I had not fainted or vomited at the sight of the wounded man whose body had been torn apart in an effort to save his life. I was much more wounded by the grief of his family. But I knew at that moment that I could do the job of ministry.
And I keep doing this. I believe, you see, that grief can be a holy thing. We cannot mourn without first being able to love. Maybe that is why we Christians worship before the image of a dying man. We know how beautiful life and love are when we acknowledge how painful it is to lose them. I also believe that every human life—even that of the dullest person you’ve ever met—is in some way epic. We are all part of God, all connected by the Holy Spirit, and we all have the potential to know tremendous moments of joy and horrible moments of loss and despair. We are all connected, and every loss has the potential to make us either more or less human, depending on how we are willing to embrace it.
I also believe that in the odyssey of every human life Christ is in some way revealed—in love, in sacrifice, in faith or (but not often) in the lack thereof. So I will continue my association with the dead if only to fulfill the purpose of pointing to Jesus Christ.
So thank you, dear Turkey Vulture, for taking care of the dead in your way. I find it an honor to take care of them in mine.