By Donna Schaper
For years, when I was a young chaplain, I brought groups of students to New York City on what we called the “urban plunges.” Today they would be called urban discoveries or immersions, or something less active and more contemplative. “Plunging” was often a required experience for students, particularly those from rural areas. We knew what they didn’t know about cities.
We would plunge for a week. We would stay on the floors of churches, eat in soup kitchens, sometimes live in shelters. We always went to the Bowery, which had a thriving ministry for homeless men at the time. We would watch them accept religious conversion in exchange for soup and a bed. We would wake up at 5:00 a.m. and watch them all march out of the shelter because “it was good for them to wake up early and get going.”
We would visit the city morgue at Bellevue Hospital. They could not believe how many shelves of dead bodies there were—often 100 or so stacked row by row—mostly black men. What really got to the students was the fact that there were so few names. Mostly there were numbers. Number 83. Number 100. Etc.
Today, with the coronavirus, that pattern is increasing; although as most funeral directors will tell you, there is more of a problem burying the many who are dead WITH names than those without. Body bags are also in short supply. The numbers shift so I won’t report them here. In fact, I could find out. But I would prefer my readers to think about the people more than the number. There is something painfully distancing about “650 died today” news reports. 681 yesterday. 690 tomorrow. The numbers promote numbing. Going numb about the numbers is perfectly understandable. It just doesn’t help Joe Johnson. Or Mary Smith. Or your mother. Or your boss. Or your housekeeper.
It doesn’t help a congregation like Judson (90 percent white membership) understand what it means that our African American members are attending five zoom funerals a week and our white members tend to know only one or two people who have died or survived the disease. By the way, we have had 14 cases in and among us—and all 14 have been mild cases. We count, but not enumerate. We count our blessings when one of our 76-year-old members comes out of the hospital, post-Covid. We count our blessings each time a fever or rash disappears, a sense of taste returns, a breath gets longer. These responses are the un-numbing that joins the “unmute yourself,” response to unfathomable grief. Feel it, breathe it, understand it, ritualize it. You will be healthier longer if you do and sicker longer if you don’t.
We have called together a group of women pastors to help each other help each other comprehend grief. We are thinking there has to be a way to let death be less unattended. We would boat and car to Potters Field to do real services but for the ethic of putting on your own seat belt first, a complex and correct ethic for people in the helping fields. We would hold blessings outside of refrigerated trucks of bodies in storage for burial and cremation, but we can’t. This novel virus is requiring of us novel behaviors. We can’t stand that we can’t stand at people’s bedsides and help them depart. We also can’t stand that we can’t do gravesides the way we used to. Yes, some can be done with social distancing. Most cannot for a wide variety of reasons.
Like for those women who showed up at the tomb to deal with the body—and their grief. What is happening in NYC right now is astonishing. Full morgues, refrigeration, delays in grieving and then grief about delaying grief. Unfathomable, even though we try hard to fathom. We live in the world Lucy Sexton calls “unimaginable.”
We have very few fathoms and imaginings. Perhaps there should be a website that marks the names and numbers of people who die unattended, those whose relatives or friends can’t be found? Make The Road New York, a community organization, is doing this for its members. Smart fathoming. Some of us suggest using bell jars to imagine ashes for those without a proper urn or burial. Just one would be enough to remember one person. I am hosting webinars on telefunerals, available from Hartford Seminary. Another in our group is dealing with those already in jeopardy from opioids or drugs and already isolated. She is doing harm reduction with and for such immune compromised people. Many of them also die alone and unnamed. A third is pastoring all those who are pastoring addicted people, especially sponsors in AA and other anonymous groups. A fourth has written a manual on how to conduct a zoom funeral for the rest of us to use. A fifth is working with the mayor on the funding of funerals. Yes, there is $900 per person available through the city. It is not enough, and yet it is also something. It means the city has a heart.
I’m not a student anymore, nor am I a chaplain at a rural college. I live here. I am not alone in wanting to attend death, to make sure bodies are properly prepared at grave and properly buried or cremated. When death gets so far ahead of us that we can’t remark on it, we are likely less alive than we think we are.
Bishop Mary Glasspool has sent along an electronic copy of a 115-page paper written by the archivist of the Episcopal Diocese of New York, Mr. Wayne Kempton. He has worked closely with New York artist Melissa, founder of the Hunt Island Project. Apologetically speaking here, the paper is written through the lens of the Episcopal Church and its history of ministry on Hart Island. But it includes pictures of death certificates, baptismal certificates, a photo of a chapel that existed on Hart Island, and tells the general history of the island.
You might also want to check out the wonderful artist Elizabeth Velazquez who conducted a ceremony at Reimagine Death’s meeting in Washington Square Park last year:
She has provided a set of instructions on how to do this ritual in the latest issue of the Rubin Museum’s magazine: Spiral. https://rubinmuseum.org/spiral/a-manual-for-the-momentary-diy-rituals-from-reimagine-end-of-life
And finally, if you need something a little more upbeat after all this talk of death, listen to this powerful praise prayer for the pandemic:
Dolly Mama is an ordained Baptist/UCC pastor who has been leading congregations for 42 years. She is intrigued by the Buddhism of the Dalai Lama and the music of Dolly Parton. She is married to a practicing Jew. Her spirituality is blended and blending. The most recent of her 37 published books is I Heart You Francis: Love Letters from a Reluctant Admirer. Queen Corona has asked her to say something, and she has agreed. The recipe is one-part detachment, one-part engagement, all unbearably light.