It’s 2am: I’m tired, my left hamstring hurts, I’m hardly put together, and I’m unzipping the body-bag of a 55-year-old-man who was brought into the emergency room an hour earlier for a major heart-attack he suffered at home in the shower. I’m here, groggy and confused, because I’m one of six chaplain interns for the summer in a clinical pastoral education class at a local Los Angeles hospital.
The summer chaplaincy interns spend approximately one night a week on-call in the hospital for events such as this. If someone dies, the family present can choose to view the body of their deceased relative for about an hour or so, say their goodbyes, and have some sort of “closure” before the body of their loved one is taken to the hospital morgue, prior to being sent on to the funeral home. A chaplain or intern handles the viewing so they can be available to offer solace to the family, if necessary.
So, just like I’ve been instructed during orientation, I set up the room, unzip the bag, draw it back behind the man’s head, check to see if there are any traces of blood that might need to be wiped away (it’s possible that the sight of blood might somehow worsen the situation for the remaining family members), and draw the curtain. Since this is the first time I have ever done this, during the time I spend waiting for the family to arrive I find myself inquisitively looking at the body of this anonymous man.
I realize that this is the first time that I’ve seen a dead body. Despite all the violence and death I’ve been inundated with in the media, this is actually the first real dead body I’ve ever been in contact with, in person. There we are face to face. He’s silent and I’m silent. He’s lying down, and I’m standing over him. His eyes are closed, his mouth slightly open and still. I’m wide-eyed, mouth closed, breathing regular and still.
It’s a bizarre moment, standing there beside a body that isn’t alive. The juxtaposition, in a number of different ways, is stark. At that moment, the true depth of that starkness is brought home to me by the memory of a loved one of my own.
I recall walking through the hallways at City of Hope hospital in Duarte, California, where one of my best friends was receiving treatment for leukemia. As you walk past, if you turn your head, and look into the other patients’ rooms, you might catch a glimpse of them, while the doors are left open during nurse or family visits, if their curtains are mistakenly drawn back.
Cancer– like most serious illnesses, it seems– puts its victims in a strange space between life and death. A space in which they are alive, and yet their living distinctly resembles death. From an outsider’s perspective, it’s this space that serves to actualize the sheer terror of the patients, and the destruction it works in the lives of their relatives. It would be easy, while glancing at some of these patients, to think that you’re just walking through a morgue with lots of nurses and doctors. But that’s how misleading the glance is: you think they’re dead– lying still in the bed, mouth slightly ajar, just barely breathing sometimes– and in fact they’re not. There’s a real subtlety in those moments, but the difference is actual– and immense.
Just before the family members of the heart-attack victim come in, I come out of my reverie, standing over his body. That’s when I tie it together: I come to a realization that I never expected to make, which, I think, can only come when in this specific position of life and death. The soul exists, it must.
I suddenly think of parked cars. All lined up, in order, in a garage, a kind of temporary morgue for cars before they are taken to their next destination. Much like the dead body, each of the cars just sits there, lifeless, without expression, with an identifying marker of some kind; sometimes with a covering. Maybe brightly painted, with some details or decals, clean or dirty; but ultimately, lifeless and still. Until the key is placed into the ignition and turned, there is no fire inside, the car is inanimate, unmoved. It just lies there, an empty shell, on the ground, waiting to be taken somewhere…anywhere.
The same is true of the human body in front of me. The vessel of the soul, which is usually animated, moving about from place to place, now simply lies on a gurney, an object for people to view. The body, like the car, might have some coloring to it, details or decals, or maybe just its natural color straight from the factory. But, also like the car, it is in this case, empty– its driver gone. There’s no activity, just passivity. Maybe it’s waiting for someone to turn the key and fire up the ignition.
The existence of the soul is what I have come to believe from this encounter, and for me, that is monumental. But there’s something more, something even more important to me, that follows. The first realization, of the existence of the soul, is just a step on the way to this: it’s about life and death.
During that intimate 15 minute period, while I wait with this man’s body, while I’m thinking of my friend Joel Shickman– who has since passed away from his leukemia treatment– and of cars, and the soul, I suddenly recognize that the opposite of death, is, in fact, not life. The opposite of death is forward movement, progress– this I believe.
This I believe, because of the sheer lifelessness that a body possesses after death. Life is simply a default position. Everyone lives, but I would argue that not everyone is alive. The quality of one’s life differs from person to person, but the extent to which we are alive remains the same for all! I mentioned this idea to a friend of mine, who quoted back to me a line of dialogue from one of the main characters of the film, The Shawshank Redemption. Red, when faced with the risk of succumbing to institutionalization, reflects to himself: “Get busy living, or get busy dying….”
A life truly alive is a life of progress, of dynamism, of emotion, of animation and of expression, that I believe is really the opposite of death. Because a person living without any of these essential qualities might as well just be another empty car in the parking lot.
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