No-Shows at a Proper Christian Burial - Josh Mcdonald
It is further decided that all fetuses who do not reach full term receive a proper Christian burial in a Roman Catholic Cemetery—Policy 121.34
Rain had drenched the ground for three days, so much so that 8 inches of standing water stood at the bottom of every grave.
The morning is typical. Multidisciplinary rounds with one of many cups of coffee in hand; making jokes with hung-over nurses. Referrals come in as usual: 292 wants his Rabbi called; 391 wants to talk football and family dysfunction. In the ICU a bored fundamentalist has his theological blades sharpened and ready—disappointed when I don’t parlay. In geriatrics a lady with late stage dementia thinks I’m her youngest son just returning from Vietnam. She gives me a tearful blessing I have no choice but to receive. People’s reactions to my greeting as the hospital chaplain aren’t always positive, but they’re never predictable.
By lunch time—a Tupperware of leftovers with the wife—I’m preparing my programs. The infant memorial service is a duty we pass to each other in rotation—once every six weeks as per policy of our Catholic health system. By “infant” here we mean a miscarriage that happens in less than six weeks for everyone from the devastated mom in her thirties to the relieved college sophomore, quivering boyfriend at her side. These tiny souls are gathered into a donated copper vault—a 2 by 2 foot treasure chest we bury instead of retrieve.
The funeral program is a dog-eared computer file containing a few words and the standard scriptures, both Psalm and Revelation. I go through the file, replacing names and dates, and put myself into the oft-changed slot of “officiant.” A misplaced name or pronoun, while a very easy mistake to make, can disrupt the already awkward flow of the service. Though we invite all involved to the service, we haven’t received word this time whether mom and husband/boyfriend/gaggle of roommates/uncomfortable grandparents will be there at all. Thus, instead of a speculative name for the baby never born, I insert the cumbersome moniker “beloved little one.” I pack up my programs, brief case, tolerable hospital coffee, and head south.
As I drive through Kenosha, Wisconsin, I’m reminded of a conversation with an elderly patient about its history. Finding out I’d lived here only a year, she sighed “Well, we used to be quite a city.” Lake Michigan to my left and on my right boarded-up factories and decaying saloons where the just-out-of-high school and just-back-from-Korea boys breathed asbestos and crafted flywheels. Ground Zero is the aching empty lot where American Motors Chrysler sparked and throbbed for decades. Almost of half of my elderly patients are on AMC pensions and remember a time when these weed-choked alleys and hollow buildings were “quite a city.”
I turn right at the Drive Inn movie theater which is rumored to be closing after this season. A traffic jam of Harleys, station wagons, work trucks, and kids on foot used to clot this side street every Friday night. Some sneaked into the bushes to watch a silent—but free—show; some lost their retainers and virginities in the backseats of Chryslers manufactured a half mile away. I work with these people, I work with their kids. This Friday they’re showing thinly plotted explosion/stunt container and a steamy predictable romance promising nudity. People will come, but not enough to “pay the rent” as they say.
When I arrive at the cemetery, the oncoming spring is trying its best to rub the chill out of the air. Maybe it’s just the setting, but the goosebumps still come and I roll my sleeves down as I check in at the front desk. “Hey guys!”
“Hey Chaplain John.”
“Right. We got one or two today?”
“One, I think. Not sure if they’re gonna show.”
“…fair enough. He’s out there and we’ve got the hole ready. Gonna seal up the vault in a minute.”
“Rock and roll. You guys got any coffee?”
Far from the gothic, Edgar Allan Poe on Vicodin stereotype, the cemetery crew are amiable bunch. Blue collar guys who in the distant past saved up allowance to see The Shining at the Drive Inn and used to work in the languishing factories I passed on the way here. We usually swap stale small talk about sports and weather to prepare for our strange task.
There is a lunch bag on the managers desk, but it does not contain lunch. “Ah, there it is.” He says and handles it with efficient tenderness as he heads back to the shop where the open vault waits.
I refill my used coffee cup and head into the Mausoleum. The silence here is—if not sacred—at least pristine. Floor to 20-foot ceiling in polished granite crypts is the history of this rugged little city. I walk cautiously, as though moving over a fragile membrane, through the labyrinth of final rest.
Familiar names are everywhere, even though I’ve only been in ministry here a year. Polysyllabic legacies brought over on the boat from Florence; the ubiquitous suffix “-ski” on every wall. There’s more than one story that the Chicago “Outfit” had a hand in bringing some of the clientele to these walls in the last century. I carefully abstain from such inquiries although we do occasionally have visitors at the hospital who look like extras from The Sopranos.
But here everyone is equal, everyone is resting. Despite my psychosomatic goosebumps, the graveyard is a very humanly peaceful place. The inimitable Basil Fawlty in the BBC sitcom Fawlty Towers once has a guest die in the hotel, and hides the body in a laundry basket. When the guest’s friends arrive, Basil thinks they’re undertakers. They ask what on earth their friend is doing in a clothes hamper and Basil gives the confused response, “Well, not much really.”
So it is here. There are no eerie cold winds, there are no restless whispers echoing down halls at midnight. There are only people who happen to be not living. The broken heart, the aching dream, the inadequacies, achievements, and dirty little secrets have all stopped here. If they aren’t at rest, they’re at least relieved.
I weave my way—still walking like I’m traversing a soap bubble—back to the lectern. Next to this is an oak table bearing unlit candles and a gold bound scripture, open to Psalm 23. This along with a dozen pews and an art-deco crucifix from the seventies makes up the religious service area. I mumble over the service, which I haven’t given quite enough to memorize. Finding no accidentally left in names or dates, I take the pastor’s seat, say a prayer, and wait.
…one cup of coffee, two rounds of Bejewled on my phone, and another prayer later it becomes apparent that I’m not only the officiant but also the congregation for today’s service. Such is the life of a chaplain. There are dramatic moments of blood and tears and love. There are long periods of waiting, tossing playing cards in a hat—the traveling salesman in a Rockwell painting. I walk through the quiet halls again, return to my post, and again I’m alone.
The manager appears without a sound, like Christ among the disciples. “No- shows today, huh Chaplain Josh?” The Kenosha accent is a pleasant blend of Chicago and Minneapolis. The O’s are softened and stretched and might be followed by “you betcha”; my name rhymes with crash or mous-tache.
“Not a soul.” I look over the pews again, cast in the blues and reds of stained glass, as if to conjure someone. “Gonna say a prayer and then I’ll meet ya out there.”
“You betcha.” He taps his pack of Camels on the heel of his hand and heads toward the door.
I sit back in the funny pastor’s throne—a claw-foot piece covered in felt that smells of incense and aftershave. I look up to the art deco face of the Savior and resist the urge to salute. A clatter at the door, then the insistent tick of a portable oxygen machine, tells me I’m not alone.
He shuffles into view down the hallway, rose in hand. He moves with reverence and familiarity as though he comes here often. The rose is placed in the holder next to the glistening name and date and he eases into a chair in the corner. The wife who, forty years ago, went out for groceries and didn’t see the dump truck coming in the rain? The son described as a “late bloomer” who, because the voices told him to in the night, got into the gun cabinet? The oxygen ticks, sustaining this man’s life in the well-kept silence.
Said silence is demolished as I spill coffee on my knee and announce my presence with vocabulary unbefitting a chaplain. “Ya okay?” He asks, resting an elbow on his cane.
“Yeah.” I rise for some reason and walk toward him. The happenstance camaraderie of the two awake people on an airplane at night.
He invites me with a smile. His oxygen tank strap wrinkles his tie and I realize he’s in a complete suit. Tuesday afternoon and he’s put on a three-piece that is several decades old but well-pressed, the color of the inside of an olive. He’s taken all morning to prepare to be right here, and I can tell by the pain when he moves that a permanent stay isn’t far from his mind. “…ya work here?”
“Nah—oh, no—that’s my hospital ID, I’m a chaplain at Kenosha Memorial.”
“That’s good.” I’m socially nervous and usually distracted by the buzzing cares of my young adult existence. It’s refreshing to share space with someone who has long outlived awkwardness and self-absorption. “…I’m visiting my sister.” He points a shaky hand to an Italian name that’s well-known in town next to a 2012 date.
“I’m sorry.” I say with a nod I hope looks respectful, not quite sure what I mean exactly.
“Yeah, eight kids in the family and I’m the last. Never got married, no kids of my own.” He grits his dentures for just a moment.
As a relatively new chaplain, I’m still surprised when people suddenly talk to me like I’m a minister. My chaplain training awkwardly fumbles into action, “Wow—really—huh, big Catholic Italian family?” I wince as if the conversation will shatter.
“The biggest.” He smiles sadly and shrugs, “Baptized at St. Marks, school at St. Joes…buried at All Saints.”
He listens to the Packer games alone eating Meals-on-Wheels. He meets the guys for AARP discount coffee at Burger King on Tuesdays. He gets a perfunctory visit from niece/nephew on his birthday. The pristine silence fills the air again for a moment, then he takes a long, labored breath from the machine, “I don’t know why the hell I’m still alive.”
I’ve heard that statement more times than I’d like to count. Delivered from every creature on the Ark: Phds and dropouts, Pentecostals and progressive agnostics, prescription drug addicts and aging fundamentalists. I don’t know why the hell I’m still alive. Life has been good enough, I’m square with it, but now my friends are dead and my systems are shutting down, and I just keep waking up every morning.
My pastoral instincts scramble, tossing a whole deck of cards at the traveling salesman’s hat in hopes to land one. Then the images comes—the last man standing, the guardian who pulls up the drawbridge. “Maybe you’re meant to be the last one. Maybe your job is to make the rounds, close up the doors—you’re the guardian of the family.” I especially like that last image: armor glinting in the moonlight, one last candle gently blown out.
Mr. Three-Piece breaks down suddenly. He throws his arms around my neck and we weep together at the grace-filled sad beauty of it all. He thanks me for my time and insight and I return to the hospital, cape billowing behind me.
None of that happens. Instead my words amble along the floor like an endearing mechanical puppy low on batteries. “Okay.” He states and looks back to his sister. I beg my mouth to stop moving.
“She was the smart one,” he continues after a very long pause. “I went to school a whole bunch and got degrees. She didn’t, but she was always smarter than me.”
I nod clumsily.
“She married some drunk from up north who treated her like garbage, but at least left her with three kids. They turned out okay. So are you Episcopal or sumthin’?”
“Me? No, I’m an Evangelical.” He gives me a look like I might as well have said I’m a pumpkin or an ostrich-racer. “…one of those born-agains.”
He gives a good-natured shrug, “That’s nice. I’m Catholic but I think people from all religions are fine. I’m open to whatever.”
We enjoy the shared silence for a minute longer. The insistent puff of the oxygen machine is like God—a puff of pleasant exchange, loving embrace, healthy childbirth, dignified death. A puff of grace that helps us survive in a world with a short supply of breathable air. “Thanks chaplain.” He gives me a benediction and extends a hand worn with hard-work and patience. I don’t work here, I don’t do this ministry, and the only words I offered crashed to the floor under the weight of their own melodrama. Yet still, for some reason, he thanks me. Puff, says the oxygen machine, and I head out to the gravesite.
The chill in the air has won out and I shove my hands in my pockets and quicken pace. “The Children’s Corner” is a section of the cemetery that holds countless copper vaults from countless memorial services past. The worker sits on the back of his four-wheeler sipping Gatorade. A hole has been excavated and a mound of dirt waits next to the 8x8 across the mud.
“All this rain; soaked the ground pretty good,” he ambles over next to me. There’s eight inches of standing water in the hole, up to the lid of the vault. The copper crucifix on top if it looks like a lone palm tree on a tiny desert island.
“Yeah, happens more than you’d think. We been lowering coffins into cold water all week.”
I want to make some kind of joke here, but nothing comes to mind. A hazard of healthcare or cemetery jobs—your sense of appropriate timing for humor is completely lost.
“So, no-shows huh?” “Nah, nobody came. It happens sometimes.”
“Yeah, I seen it before.”
For some reason it seems right for me to lean down close to the shiny vault. The workman is quiet for a while, staring of into the streaks of early spring clouds. “Yeah, I never had this kinda thing happen to me…”
“This kind—oh, miscarriage?”
“Nah, never had kids of my own, even my sisters ain’t had it happen.” He lights up a smoke out of reverence.
“Yeah, me neither. I’ve been there for a few of ‘em in the hospital though.” Holding a full-term, very dead fetus with amniotic fluid dripping from it; seeing the collapsed skull of a “twelve-weeker” delivered by machine.
“…it’s sad, ya know.”
“Yeah, not supposed to happen.” I look out over the cemetery to the cornfields abutting it. The puddles under our feet that decompose the departed feed the roots of the corn for the Fall. The circle of life, death and resurrection, reincarnation—every religion and philosophy tries to describe this phenomenon. I contemplate this in a blue cloud of second-hand smoke. Despite the gravitas of the moment, the mundane steps in and I make a mental note to go to a farmstand a little further from the cemetery.
“…all right, I’ll say a prayer here and we’ll call it good.” I squat down and lay a hand on the scored copper surface, “Lord Jesus…” The workman’s rugged hand suddenly appears next to mine as a sharp wind grabs my prayer and takes it where it’s needed. The description of McMurty’s hand in One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest comes to mind, “the palm was callused, and the calluses were cracked, and dirt was worked in the cracks.”
“...amen.” We complete the prayer like we’ve both been holding our breath. “That was nice; thanks chaplain.” I’m being thanked again, for some reason, and he puts out his gravediggers hand and dirt rubs off as we shake.
When I return to the mausoleum, I hear the oxygen puff and receive a benedictory wave as I toss the programs in recycling. Again I meet eyes with the Man on the cross—is He here? Is He keeping Mr. Three-Piece company? Is He smoking with the workers rolling soil back into the grave? Is He knee-deep in the water table, holding our “beloved little one” in the loamy darkness?
Some say yes, some say no. I judge neither—or at least try not too—as I have empathy with both spins on life, the universe, and everything. In all this emptiness—factories, graves, unattended services—I chose to hear an echo. I strain like hell, as it were, to hear a voice or a see a pattern.
But today, I need to go home and feed my 10-month-old son his bottle. I need to feel my wife’s warm body next to me if I wake in the night. I need to sit in my favorite chair, open the window to evening, and do nothing but be alive.
Josh Mcdonald has been writing since he could hold a pen. He’s worked as a professional copywriter and in various forms of ministry for most of two decades. He ghostwrote for Kiplinger’s, almost won a contest for Creative Nonfiction magazine and was a quarter finalist in the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award. He hopes to reach a critical mass of near misses. He ministers, writes and lives in Appleton, Wisconsin, home of Houdini and Willem Dafoe. He’s married to a woman squarely out of his league and has three spellbinding children.