Naming the Dead

On Friday, I attended a conversation hosted by the BTS Center called It’s Okay to Grieve. Allen Ewing-Merrill, the new Executive Director of this organization, is also a friend, He and his wife and sweet girls arrived in Maine while I was pastoring there to plant a new church within an old downtown congregation. I’ve said it before. My colleagues are doing the most amazing ministry with such care, compassion and creativity. I am in awe and I was excited to listen in on a conversation particularly for clergy.

Later that day, I watched the press conference that Andrew Cuomo hosted earlier that day. It’s the same one where he bashes the president. I might have watched it for that reason. Maybe.

I was struck by the slide with the death tally. The total deaths reached as high as 15,683 but it wasn’t the total that appeared on this slide. Instead, it was dates and numbers.

April 13: 778

April 14: 752

April 15: 606

The number of lives lost on these days and the three days that followed. I found a still here. Though the dates were, the death tally wasn’t cumulative. I found this confusing. Or maybe I was just tired because I was watching it way past my bedtime, but I expected the number to go up to reach that overwhelming statistic that has probably increased not only in New York state but in many other places around the world. 

It hit me then that those people had names. It should be obvious just as each and every one of those nursing home and hospitals have a name. They have boards making hard choices about how to manage care. They have doctors, nurses, cafeteria workers and janitorial staff that are all essential workers. Every single one of them has a name that was given to them on the day of their birth. A name that originated from their father’s lineage or sprouted from the wonder-filled bliss of two new parents. We shall call this child beloved.

Names are important especially for people of faith. We recall with wonder and confusion that Adam and Eve were given the daunting task of naming God’s creations. It was one of the many ways that they partnered with God to care for these new precious beings.

I felt the rush of sorrow for each and every one of those beloved children.

All 15,683 in New York.

All 23,660 in Italy.

All 4,632 in China.

All 339 in King County surrounding Seattle.

All 743 in Westchester County where my parents still live.

All 477 in Texas.

I remembered in seminary when we had committed to praying over the names of those that died in the war in Afghanistan. I remember when that number reached so high it seemed impossible that we had lost so many young lives as much as I remember the knot in my stomach that the only names we had were for the American soldiers who had died. There had been other lives lost — women, children, innocent bystanders, and even enemy soldiers — but we didn’t know their names. We didn’t pray for them.

There is power in who we choose to name in our prayers just as there continues to matter that we remember Tamir Rice, Tanisha Anderson, Mya Hall, Walter Scott and Sandra Bland. It matters that we say their names as much as it matters that we remember their stories. In the midst of this pandemic, when families aren’t able to gather and memorialize the dead, there are too many dying alone. It feels all the more important that we remember their names and their stories.

I had seen this video on Twitter of someone flipping through the pages of the obituary section in the Italian paper before any of this really felt real. I feel the enormity of that loss. There are so many but each of those names has a story. Each of those names deserves to be honored and cherished. A colleague of mine exclaimed earlier this week that worship shouldn’t feel like a funeral right now. We are already feeling that weight. Worship needs to offer something else, she insisted, perhaps because it was Easter just the week before. I’m not so sure. I wonder if our worship shouldn’t reflect our collective loss right now.

I wonder if there shouldn’t be a time when we pause to name the dead.

There are lists that record the celebrities who have died of COVID-19. In fact, I found several lists of famous people. There’s a list of healthcare workers that have died. It is a HIPAA violation to share those names. I know. I’ve spent enough time in hospitals in my ministry but I still wonder how we name the dead.

And I wonder if it can really wait with all the grief we are already carrying.

 

 

 

 

 

3 thoughts on “Naming the Dead

  1. Thanks for this reflection, Elsa. I saw the name on the list of attendees at TheBTSCenter gathering and wondered if it was you. I am writing, copying and sending each week via snailmail daily reflections(and a Sunday worship bulletin for our Conference call wroship) for my parishioners who are for the most part a very lowtech crew. Your reflection will inspire me as I continue to write more reflections about grief and dealing with grief. Blessings.

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    1. Bruce! I actually clicked into the chat to say hi to you but we weren’t allowed to message anyone but staff. Bless you and your faithful ministry in Maine. Be well.

      Like

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