Not Alone in Death

I prayed over a dead man today. His name was Jocelyn, and he had only one leg. His other leg had been amputated “not too long ago due to complications from sugar,” said the man in the adjacent bed. That man’s legs had both been amputated at the knees. I guessed Jocelyn had been in his 60’s, although it was hard to tell, given the way his pasty light brown skin clung so closely to the bone. He had no fat or muscle to spare. Jocelyn died just before noon. The timing of his death was perhaps the most surprising thing about it. He had been welcomed into this shelter for the indigent and dying run by the Missionaries of Charity weeks before this day because he had nowhere else to go.

Like all the residents in this shelter on Gold Street, he had gone there waiting to die. There were rumors of a common-law wife who could no longer care for him, but these rumors could not be confirmed by the neighboring man in the next bed. According to the sister, Jocelyn had seemed fine earlier in the morning. But his breath unexpectedly became labored, and he succumbed.

I was serving as one of two faculty chaperones to a group of 12 students from the College of the Holy Cross, in Worcester, Mass. The students in our group were spending two weeks in Kingston, Jamaica, as participants in one of three international immersion programs sponsored by the college’s campus ministry office. We refer to these trips as a “reverse mission” experience; our students go forth to encounter the glory of God already actively present in the world. They humbly place themselves in solidarity with men and women at the margins of society, an oftentimes uncomfortable dislocation for these students that invites reflection about their own relationship with God.

We lodged each night in the former Jesuit residence of St. George’s College, a grand old red-brick building of Spanish Colonial architecture that currently serves as the Jesuit Center, and we spent our days in ministry at sites with which we have developed relationships through the years. Some of our students tended the basic needs of hydroencephalitic children at a shelter across town. Some assisted teachers at a grammar school located in a squatters’ settlement built on an active city dump. Some played with toddlers and children infected with H.I.V., all of whom lived nearby. Some sat with the elderly at a former leper colony at the city’s edge. And some helped the Missionaries of Charity at their shelter.

I decided to spend my morning laughing and playing with Neko and BoomBoom, two among the houseful of boys and girls who will one day soon have AIDS. Since little children love to turn adults into jungle gyms, I was worn out by the time I returned to St. George’s for my lunchtime break. The group spending the day with the sisters on Gold Street returned a few minutes later. It was then that I was told about Jocelyn’s death and that I was asked to return to the shelter with the group after lunch.

By the time we walked back to the shelter, the sisters had already retired to their dwelling across the street and were enjoying their own noonday break. This is their daily routine. They prepare lunch for the residents, serve the food, then gather as a community for their own period of rest and prayer. Various permanent volunteers clean up from lunch while many of the indigent residents take an afternoon nap. These volunteers know well not to disturb the sisters at this time of day.

So the old man guarding the gate to the shelter’s compound rightfully eyed me with suspicion as I walked passed him to cross the street and bang on the metal door to the sisters’ home. He had met me the day before, but my behavior now departed from the routine. Several mongrel dogs lying in the gutters on the street stirred from their naps because of the noise I was making, and one started to bark weakly. I banged on the door again under the watchful gaze of the guard across the street.

Sister greeted me with the warm smile that I have come to expect from this dedicated community of women religious. Each of these sisters seems so happy in her ministry. Their collective joy despite such obvious distress inspires my own efforts at ministry. She thanked me for coming and bade me follow her across the road. As we passed by the guard at the door, his cautious expression relaxed. But I grew more anxious with each step.

I was anxious because I didn’t know what sight to expect upon entering Jocelyn’s room. I had spent the previous day at the shelter. In fact, I had helped a volunteer change the sheets on Jocelyn’s bed. I had stood by silently tugging at the soiled sheets while the volunteer lifted Jocelyn forward so as to shift his slight frame. Jocelyn mumbled while the three of us performed this daily task. But that was yesterday. Today Jocelyn was dead, and I didn’t know what he would look like.

And I was anxious because, although I have been a priest for six years now, I have never blessed a dead body. Sister was relying upon me, but what prayers would I say? What gestures would I make? What ritual was she expecting me to lead? Had we even prepared for such a moment in theology class?

How silly! Jocelyn was dead, and I worried about what opinion sister might have of me.

Sister kept a prayer book, a plastic bottle of holy water and a small purple stole with a yellowing white lace fringe safe in a tin canister for just such a sacred occasion. The circular can, which had once served as a Christmas cookie tin, was also packed with a small crucifix, a box of kitchen matches and the blackened, ashy nub of a melted white candle jammed into a plastic cup. These were to be our holy instruments.

I unfolded the stole, brought it to my lips and wrapped it around my neck. I grabbed the prayer book from the sister’s hands and quickly scanned both the index and table of contents. I was stalling for time. While she removed the other items from the tin, I creased the pages of the prayer book open and found the prayers for the dead. I silently asked the Holy Spirit to be with us and then blessed myself. Sister did the same.

Together we began to pray. We prayed the words of the ritual together, a quiet litany of prayerful call and response, solo voices alternating each line. “The Lord be with you,” I would say. “And also with you,” she would respond. “Saints of God, come to his aid...pray for him. Holy Mary, Mother of God...pray for him. St. Ignatius of Loyola...pray for him. Blessed Teresa of Calcutta...pray for him.

I completed our ritual prayers by marking Jocelyn’s stiff forehead with the sign of the cross, my thumb moistened with holy water from the small plastic bottle with the flip top. We paused for a moment and let the silence speak. With our prayers completed, I pulled open the fold of the brown cotton bedsheet that was covering Jocelyn’s torso and stretched it up over his face.

Sister gently collected all of our instruments and placed them in the circular cookie tin without sound. “The undertaker will be here soon to remove the body,” she whispered. “Thank you,” she added, as she quietly slipped from the room. I stood there comforted in knowing that Jocelyn had not been left alone in death and grateful that God had invited me to place myself humbly in solidarity with this terminally ill man.

I pulled up a metal frame chair that was near the foot of the bed and sat down, continuing to offer my own silent spontaneous prayers as I reached beneath the bed sheet and gently held Jocelyn’s hand. In the background, I could hear the melodic humming of the man with no legs in the next bed. Who will be with him at the hour of his death, I wondered.

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