What follows may not be for everyone. It is not gruesome, but it talks about death, and for some, that is too hard a topic. I understand if you need to skip this one.Last week was a difficult week for the Students International family. One of our staff died unexpectedly last Saturday night. His name was Carlos, and he worked and lived at the Base for many years.
Death here in the DR (or at least, here in Jarabacoa and the surrounding communities) is much more intimate, and much more ordinary, than what I’ve experienced in my home culture.It is more intimate. Where I come from, all the details of death are handled by professionals. There are EMTs to take the body away, funeral home workers to clean and dress it, pastors and funeral home directors to make sure the service goes smoothly.
When Carlos died, our SI director and a couple of the Base workers had to wrap his body, place it in one of our vehicles, and drive it 45 minutes to the hospital in Santiago, then get him into the morgue for the autopsy. The next day, they had to pick him up, reversing the process.The service was at our Director and his wife’s home, and then members of our staff loaded the coffin into the back of the ministry pick up and drove him to the cemetery. There, they helped the cemetery workers to push Carlos’ coffin into the above ground crypt used here in the DR. Every step was ‘hands on’.
They don’t embalm here, and so the body is typically buried within 24-36 hours. With Carlos there was no makeup or attempt to make him look like himself. I realized how accustomed I am to bodies that look like they are just sleeping. We need to see death, no matter the cause, as something peaceful.
Of course, even the most peaceful, died-in-their-sleep deaths can be reminders that we, too, will die. And so, I need to push death away, observing it from arm’s length.In this way, it lacks intimacy because it’s not required. I don’t have to ‘cope’ with things because there are experts for that. And, to be honest, I’ve been glad that there are. Dealing with the mess of things isn’t something I like. But, as I watched the process, I realized that there is an intimacy in preparing the body of a loved one which I have never experienced.
I understand that this is how things are here, and folks aren’t intentionally choosing this. It’s just how it is. Which leads me to the other part.While death here is more intimate, it is also more ordinary. It is a part of everyday life. With the worst driving in the world, traffic fatalities are a daily occurrence.
There are plenty of violent deaths, too – at the hand of thieves, drug dealers, and many times, the police themselves. Then there are the deaths of the young, the old, the poor, that might be preventable where resources are better and more available.
What I’ve noticed is that after an initial out-pouring of grief, life seems to settle back into a routine quite quickly after someone dies. Do they love less than we do? No, not from what I’ve seen.
Death leaves gaping holes in lives, just like back home. But, it is also a part of the rhythm of living. Folks grieve, but then they have to keep going. For their own sanity, and for their own survival.As a North American, I have resources which help me feel I have some control. The truth is I have much less than I think. For all our money and power, death is not evaded back home, either. Which is healthier, acknowledging it and getting on with life, or fighting it and then feeling outraged that it occurred?
By ignoring it, by relegating it to experts, I think we are in danger of setting death up as a kind of idol. At the same time distant and foreign, we dance around it, unable to figure out how to handle it. So, we use hushed tones, selecting our words carefully. “Fell asleep”, “Passed on”, “Lost”. By not naming it, we actually give death a place of distinction.Death is both our common destiny and an abhorrence. It is inevitable and unnatural. There is no ‘right’ way to deal with it, because it is not ‘right’. The result of disobedience and sin, it steals our birthright. Unless Jesus returns first, we will die. That’s as intimate and ordinary as it gets.
So, how do I end this? With words of promise: I am convinced that neither life nor death nor any other thing or power can separate me from the love of God through Christ Jesus our Lord. God-with-us who experienced all we live. Who took the just punishment we deserved, breaking its hold. In Him, death itself will die. Until then, we do the best we can, knowing the victory is secure.