Dead Bodies and Lamentations

What do you do with a dead body in the room?

My first dead patient arrived that way. He was half naked, pupils blown, head bashed in from a car accident in which he was thrown through the windshield. It was my first week on the wards as a medical student and though I had been through enough trauma alerts with the surgical team to know the drill, the brutality of it all still took me by surprise. The trauma bay was chaotic for all of twenty minutes as the team performed what they already knew would be an exercise in futility: chest compressions, central lines, bags of saline, etc. Someone had asked me to get warm blankets so I scurried around retrieving them but primarily tried to stay out of the way. Once the twenty minutes of resuscitation were over, the chief resident called the time of death and everyone simply stopped what they were doing and awkwardly shuffled out of the room. I remember standing there under the bright spotlights alone with the dead body, blankets still warm in my hands, watching as blood suddenly decided to gush out of the man’s skull and onto the tiled floor. I remember staring at the growing puddle and feeling like the most helpless and useless person in the world.

In the years since, I have been in the room with a dead body more times than I can count. I have been the one to warn the family of what was coming, whether they were prepared or willing to hear it or not. I have begged them for permission to stop CPR, to acknowledge the death as final and irreversible. I have had to make the pronouncement of death. I have watched family weep with silent tears and have had them scream at me from down the hall. I have done CPR on babies and adults. I have helped zip up the body bag. Even as I write this, my memory relives the hearing of those noises, faces, voices, lamentations.

Whether I want to or not, whether it is fair or reasonable or not, my job puts me in a position to listen to a wide range of hurt and anger and grief. It has become reflexive to absorb these narratives, in part because it makes me better at my job but also because the plainness of the suffering voice is compelling. That said, some days I come home both thoughtful and irritable, resentful of my role as a dustbin for the sorrows and troubles of others. I grouse and pour myself some seltzer over ice and sort through the emotions of others that have been laid on me.

But in some odd way, I have also come to appreciate such experiences even if I cannot bring myself to be thankful for them. In thinking about that helpless experience of watching blood spill out of a man’s head, of pushing a baby’s chest in perfunctory CPR, of shocking a dead body into convulsions over and over again, I am forced to acknowledge the brutality of death and visualize how easily the sacred becomes desecrated.

I recently heard seminary professor Dr. Soong Chan Rah talk about the Book of Lamentations, how it begins with a funeral dirge for a nation humiliated, raped, and obliterated into exile. He talks about how the book speaks about the dead body in the room, the death of the nation of Israel. It is composed in broken meter, styled to imitate a limp, written from the voices of the beaten and wounded.

How lonely sits the city
that was full of people!
How like a widow has she become,
she who was great among the nations!
She who was a princess among the provinces
has become a slave…

My eyes are spent with weeping;

my stomach churns;
my bile is poured out to the ground
because of the destruction of the daughter of my people,
because infants and babies faint
in the streets of the city.

They cry to their mothers,
“Where is bread and wine?”
as they faint like a wounded man
in the streets of the city,
as their life is poured out
on their mothers’ bosom.

- Lamentations 1:1; 2:11–12

There has been a lot of talk in the post-election season about “understanding one another” and “coming together” and “moving on.” There has been a lot of wondering about “why can’t we all just get along?”, a question that would seem honest and harmless if not for its implicit favoritism towards the dominant culture.

There are many things to lament, as there are many things that are broken, and this is legitimately true in most shades of American politics. But racism is a particular sort of devastation in our history that merits its own dirge, one that the American church has been too reluctant to sing. Think for a moment about the white nationalist conference in DC and resurgences of the KKK, then think about these words from the book, “The Cross and the Lynching Tree”:

No historical situation was more challenging than the lynching era, when God the liberator seemed nowhere to be found. “De courts er dis land is not for niggers,” a black man from South Carolina reflected cynically. “It seems to me that when it comes to trouble, de law an’ a nigger is de white man’s sport, an’ justice is a stranger in them precincts, an’ mercy is unknown. An’ de Bible say we must pray for we enemy. Drop down on you’ knee, brothers, an’ pray to God for all de crackers, an’ judges, an’ de courts, an’ solicitors, sheriffs, an’ police in de land.” Whether one was lynched on a tree or in court, the results were the same. “Lord, how come me here,” they sang, “I wish I never was born!” (page 27)

The language of lament has helped me understand what has been so bothersome about the “evangelical” Christian voice in the national politic. We talk about how the church is the cure to American culture without acknowledging its complicity in a long history of corruption and tainted ambition. We talk about our entitlements to freedom without mentioning the offal nature of slavery and oppression. We demand forgiveness and reconciliation without recalling our viciousness of speech and deed. We talk about God’s sovereignty as resurrection without mourning the abused and defiled body of Christ. We have skipped ahead to resurrection songs when the bleeding body is still naked on the stretcher.

What do you do with a dead body in the room?

What can I say for you, to what compare you,
O daughter of Jerusalem?
What can I liken to you, that I may comfort you,
O virgin daughter of Zion?
For your ruin is vast as the sea;
who can heal you?

Your prophets have seen for you
false and deceptive visions;
they have not exposed your iniquity
to restore your fortunes,
but have seen for you oracles
that are false and misleading.

All who pass along the way
clap their hands at you;
they hiss and wag their heads
at the daughter of Jerusalem:
“Is this the city that was called
the perfection of beauty,
the joy of all the earth?”

- Lamentations 2:13–15

Dead Bodies and Lamentations