My pal Arbender Robinson who sings and acts and dances on Broadway and who has given a wonderful concert here texted me the other day to tell me that he was on a train, on his way to rehearsals for his new show, “Les Mis,” when at a stop he heard a horrible explosion. In the next seconds, within his range of vision, there was smoke. Now, most of us know that what he was close to on that train was the tragic East Harlem explosion, which as of last night had left eight people dead and seventy injured. Those who died as a result of unattended to natural gas leaks are: George Amadeo, Griselde Camacho, Rosaura Hernandez and her mother Rosaura Vazquez, Andreas Panagopoulos, Alexis Salas, Carmen Tanco, and one more victim who has yet to be identified as best I can research.
I hope the shrinking of the world in terms of how quickly we can know of an experience had by someone thousands of miles from us, good experiences and bad ones, is making us more sensitive rather than more callous to the challenges of our sisters and brothers in the human family. I fear that for many people, however, callousness is in the lead. I say this not because it’s so easy to take a broad swipe at human frailty and fault, which is how some preachers and religious groups keep themselves on the map, but because after so much negative anything emotional survival–most often subconsciously–presses us to become callous to protect ourselves.
When the bodies of the first casualties began to be sent home from the military engagements in Iraq, some reporters with photographers accompanying them showed up at Dover Air Force Base, for example, to take pictures of flag-draped caskets, end to end in the entrails of cargo planes. When these pictures hit the print and online news sources there was immediate objection–not at first from the rank and file news consumer, but from the Department of Defense, if not the White House.
The cabinet secretary for that department scolded the reporters and photographers who dared to show us and our fellow citizens what was really happening as a result of noble-sounding Operation Iraqi Freedom. Rumsfeld and the military industrial complex, to use President Eisenhower’s designation, tried to crush, without shame, freedom of the press. Indeed, photographing and publishing pictures of the bodies themselves would have been both invasive and grotesque. But the only objection the political power people could offer in their defense, no pun intended, was–when deciphered–fear that making the loss of life too real would cause the American public to oppose the nicely-named war.
The pictures continued to be published, and the only way not to know what was really happening was to play ostrich. Simultaneous to the pictures, news sources in localities from which the deceased military personnel had hailed began to print and speak the names of the dead–yet another way to keep those in denial about the true cost of the drive to eradicate weapons of mass destruction that didn’t exist focused on reality.
Holocaust survivor, psychiatrist Viktor Frankl, recalled in his riveting retrospective on how he survived emotionally as a prisoner of the Nazis, titled Man’s Search for Meaning, his arrival at the first of four concentration camps in which he was tortured prior to liberation. What happened immediately upon entry into the camp was that males were sent in one direction and females in another. Then, everything he brought with him that could be taken away was–his clothing, a manuscript containing the results of his life’s work to that point, his hair (since they shaved all of it all off), and finally his name, which was replaced by a number tattooed onto his body. And all people to whom he was accountable for the next three years made a point never to use his name. Like Jean Valjean in Hugo’s Les Miserables, Frankl was truly only a number. There was nothing accidental about that part of protocol for the treatment of Jewish and other concentration camp prisoners.
If we visit a Holocaust Memorial today we will see disturbing photographs and read or hear stories that make us wonder how far the definition for “human” can be stretched. Those parts of the exhibits may change from time to time, but insofar as space permits what will not change is the display of the names of those who died at the hands of Hitler’s minions. The Nazis would have had all of those executed remain anonymous in death and mass grave burial as in concentration camp life (“life” being too optimistic a word for existence in concentration camps). The survivors wouldn’t have it. Same with Vietnam vets and Vietnam Memorials, for example.
In the magnificently symbolic book of Revelation, set against the backdrop of Domitian’s unspeakable persecution of Christians right at the very end of the first Christian century, some anonymous martyrs show up in one of the writer’s, John’s, visions:
I saw under the altar [in heaven] the souls of those who had been slaughtered for the word of God and for the testimony they had given; they cried out with a loud voice, “Sovereign Lord, holy and true, how long will it be before you judge and avenge our blood on the inhabitants of the earth?” They were each given a white robe and told to rest a little longer, until the number [of martyrs] would be complete….
These martyrs were nameless, anonymous. The fear of the anonymity of their loved ones who’d died at the hand of megalomaniac Domitian disturbed the loved ones they left behind almost as much as the deaths themselves. They couldn’t bear the thought that the wicked Emperor would succeed not only in stealing the lives of their loved ones, but also doing his best to keep their names from being known by anyone who didn’t already know them. The writer of the book of Revelation is trying to show those worried about this matter that in heaven their dear ones commune with God, are attended to by God, and are known by God. God knows the name of each one. Domitian may have treated them as if they were nameless nobodies, but their loved ones would not forget them on earth–that is basic to honoring those who have died; and in heaven God Godself knew each one by name and knew as well the horrors each one had suffered in an attempt to be faithful to God under the rule of a madman.
The Jews and their half-siblings, the Arabs, in their heritage identify with the land and value passionately, to say the least, the land that is theirs. If this were not the case, I believe there would be little reason for the Israelis and the Palestinians to keep their wars with each other going today. I am not snubbing the Palestinians in any way, but for today am only focussing on the Jews.
The Jews from the earliest recorded encounters of ancient Hebrews with God took note of the exact place at which someone believed she or he had had a direct encounter with the God of Abraham, Ishmael, and Isaac; the God of Sarah, Aisha and Fatima, Leah and Rachel. In fact, yet today, the two most holy places by Jews who practice the Jewish religion are are land-based. The first is the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, where their first and second great Temples stood prior to destruction–the first, by the Babylonians; and the second, by the Romans. A third Temple has never been erected. Christian fundamentalists believe the reason is that the third Temple cannot be built until God is ready to signal to humankind that human history is about to come to a close. Ugh!
According to journalist Rachael Avraham, “The Jewish people have a historical, religious, spiritual, and national connection to the Temple Mount area dating back to antiquity.” It is taken to have been the location of the creation of Adam and maybe Eve and the site of the planned but thankfully failed sacrifice of Abraham’s son, Isaac, by Abraham himself. In the time of Jesus when the second Temple was still standing, Jews were expected to come to the great Temple in Jerusalem at least three times per year to offer sacrifices. Generally, following the patterns established by their foreparents, all who could did so.
The second most holy site on the face of the earth for Jews who practice the Jewish religion is a cave, the Cave of Machpelah, also known as the Cave of the Patriarchs and Matriarchs. The cave and the adjoining field were purchased by Abraham about 3700 years ago as a place to bury his wife, Sarah, on the occasion of her death; a place for him to be buried when the time came; and a place to bury their family members who would die after them. Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebecca, Jacob and Leah are all buried in the Cave of Machpelah. These are considered the patriarchs and matriarchs of the Jewish people. Jacob’s other wife, Rachel, was not buried in the Cave but rather near Bethlehem where she died giving birth to their son, Benjamin.
We have heard read a snippet from a more detailed account of the process by which Abraham acquired the Cave and the land nearby. However compact the snippet may have been I hope you heard something of the deep love Abraham had for his wife, Sarah.
The land was owned by the Hittites, not the Hebrews; yet, when Abraham explained to the Hittites why he wanted to purchase the cave and surrounding land, the compassionate Hittite spokespersons offered to give him what he was trying to buy. Abraham, determined to honor his beloved Sarah in every way possible, thanked the Hittites, but explained to them that he was an ingrate in any sense he could not bury his beloved in a place given to him, in a place in which he did not invest. He believed he could only bury Sarah in a place that he owned. Otherwise, in his mind he would not be honoring her.
Either way, it would have been the same cave where Sarah’s body would be taken as its final resting place whether it had been given to Abraham or whether he had the bill of sale. Some people might not have seen any difference and therefore might have thought that Abraham should have graciously accepted the generous, thoughtful offer gotten on with his grieving.
For Abraham, however, much more was at stake. The gift of a tract of land for gardening or grazing was one thing, something presumably to which he would have been open. His wife, to whom he had been married 113 or 114 years, deserved the best in death as in life, as he saw it. Don’t get stuck on the number of years they were married; after 80 years together, smooth sailing is guaranteed. So, Abraham, insisted on the best he could provide for his wife, even in death. The dynamic was hardly the same as having the funeral director imply in the midst of your heavy grief that if you really loved your departed dear one you would purchase the most expensive casket and all the highest priced funeral service options. A borrowed tomb or a freebie just didn’t suit. He couldn’t see the honor in that. Thus, we have a detailed account of how much was charged and how much was paid without attempts to bargain for a lower price. He paid full market price, and that was quite a story of love and devotion.
There are many eccentricities about life and death in New Orleans. I loved that place during my family’s nearly five years there and except for the ways my now ex-wife’s health was challenged by climate I might never have left.
One of the city’s traits that immediately stood out to me was the way someone’s, almost anyone’s, departure from this world was dealt with. Some might call the customs ostentatious, but only someone who didn’t understand a typical New Orleanian’s zest for life could think that.
A new-comer probably first became aware of the local ways of honoring the dead by an encounter with one of the treasured sites of entombment that long ago got the designation “cities of the dead.” Since underground burial of caskets or urns is not possible in a city built below “sea” level, only above ground options for interment are possible. Enter any of the cities of the dead, and you will see rusty decorative wrought iron. If it’s a sunny day, you are likely to be nearly blinded by the white-white sun-bleached tombs. Crosses and statues, in that heavily Roman Catholic city, cast contorted shadows. Those entering the cities of the dead on holidays will see votive candles in all kinds of wind-proof holders calling attention to certain tombs and reminding observers that those buried in those particular tombs have living relatives who are physically able to continue to show their concern through the lighting of those candles.
In those cities of the dead, both the largely unknown and the celebrities are buried–pirates, politicians, and voodoo queens not infrequently next to each other. For those with limited funds, economical vaults are used and stacked on top of of each other. Wealthier families can afford larger, elaborate tombs with crypts. Many whole-family tombs look like miniature houses, enclosed with iron fences. The walkways in front of the rows of tombs resemble streets. Little houses, fences, and streets–no wonder these final resting places became known as cities of the dead.
At one time, as I understand it, almost everyone’s casket or cremains was carried or drawn to a cemetery in a parade. In time, the more well-to-do citizens’ caskets or cremains would be driven to a tomb or mausoleum amid an impressive motorcade in which the preacher or priest or rabbi rode in the limousine provided solely for her or him. This country boy thought I’d wandered into the high cotton for sure the first time a limo driver arrived at my church office to collect me and then drive me in a stretch limo about a mile down St. Charles Avenue to the funeral home where only the most prominent citizens were mourned and celebrated.
The less prominent citizen would not be overlooked at the time of death, though. It was a way of life to be stopped in your vehicle now and then, for up to half an hour, while a funeral parade made its way from a church or home to a cemetery. Even if the band were only a squeaky clarinet, a trumpet, a trombone, and a banjo–players decked out in tuxes and top hats–there it was; someone for whom the bell had tolled was on her or his way to a modest site for earthly rest, and busy people like me just had to wait through several rounds of “Just a Closer Walk with Thee” interwoven with “When the Saints Go Marching In.” The family was honoring its dead loved one, and for the moment nothing else in all of New Orleans was more important.
The finest way to honor those whom we love is to cherish them moment by moment as they live and then when they have “graduated” to the realm of higher consciousness–as thanatologist Elizabeth Kubler-Ross put it–celebrate them. A tangible expression of that celebration of life may be a lasting visual of some sort–interment in a named family plot, placement of a grave stone or a memorial plaque, and so on–but none of that name remembrance will have much meaning unless done out of love and not mere duty.
Images: the flagged-draped caskets, New Orleans’ Cities of the Dead (2 images), Dr. Viktor Frankl, the Temple Mount, the Cave of Machpelah (2 images)
Posted in Loving Memory of Maggie Mahood who, unbeknost to her faith community, died suddeny but quietly at home near the time this sermon was being preached