Tuesday, November 30, 2010


Last night, poet Angela Alaimo O'Donnell posted a link to her facebook page to her essay about her mother's body and how important it was to Angela. The essay is posted online here, but a paid subscription is needed to see the whole thing. So if you subscribe to Commonweal, head on over there and take a look at it. It's good stuff.

It made me think of my own recent ruminations about death and the bodies it leaves inanimate. I don't think I'm ready to write a whole essay on this---although it has crossed my mind to do so---but in this season of preparation leading to the feast of the Incarnation, I think it's appropriate to stop and think about our bodies---animate and not.

It's been my custom for several years now, if I am able, to touch the body of someone who has passed away. I did it just recently, at the funeral of a church member, someone I didn't know all that well, but saw nearly every week. I was there to assist at his funeral service, but I paused by the open casket before the service and put my hand on his shoulder.

There have been people I've loved for whom I was not able to do that. I regret it. Their death remains somewhat unreal. It's as if they simply disappeared, moved without telling me where they were going. There is absence, but no confirmation of where they went.

But if I touch them, I can feel they are dead. It is real. The person is real, the death is real. None of it is imagined, none of it is mysterious. The absence makes sense.

I've learned that I'm unusual in this regard. Many people I run into do not want their bodies on view at all, much less touched. It seems many people I know are appalled at the idea of just seeing a body on display---however cleaned up by the funeral home---and would rather everyone were simply cremated. That way, all we'd have to look at is an urn or box of ashes.

I don't know what this says about our relationship to death. Maybe it simply says some neither need nor want to have the kind of physical closure I speak of above. I want to say there's a disconnect between us and the reality of death. I think there is evidence to confirm this idea.

I believe in the resurrection of the body. Even as I type the words, I don't know if I mean that literally or metaphorically, but I believe in the resurrection of the body. An inanimate body, without its spirit/breath, is real, the person is really dead. It's just a stage. I believe in the resurrection of the body.

So when I die, as I will, I hope some people will look at me, inanimate, without breath. I hope they will touch me. I hope they will realize, "This is Neil. He is real. He is really dead."

I hope they will believe in the resurrection of the body, in whatever way it makes sense of them, and that my death will make the hope of the resurrection just as real.


  1. This is a beautiful piece, Neil. Your practice of touching the bodies of the dead is such a powerful gesture of faith, hope, and love. We can't know a thing--or a person--without physical contact. (The Biblical euphemism of "knowing" as ...a shorthand for physical intimacy comes to mind.) Touch implies familiarity, identification, compassion. I also think of the powerful lines poet Josephine Jacobsen discovered in a graveyard and quoted often in the course of her long life: "It is a fearful thing/ to love/what death can touch." Fearful, yes--and absolutely necessary. Thank you!

  2. Interesting, and as usual, beautifully said. While I have no aversion to dead bodies, per se, I don't especially like viewings, or touching them. For me, I would far rather the image in my mind be of them alive (especially since they are alive). Then again, I don't need this sort of closure. And that's OK; if we were all the same, life would be far duller.

    I've found that I often end up at the casket, anyway; there's always someone who needs me to hold onto when they go see the body. And that's OK, too.

    If I do anything on my own, it's likely a gesture someone would find as odd as your wanting to touch them. When a close friend's son (a musician) died, I slipped a guitar pick into his fingers at the viewing. Jeremy would have liked it, and his mom sure did.