On Building a Morgue

 (from Eric)

One of my more juvenile (though, I suspect, not unusual) memories is being in a group of teenage guys talking about various pranks that we thought would be funny.  In the macabre manner of a 16 year-old kid, one guy talked about placing a speaker behind a coffin at a funeral to say something ridiculous and freak people out.  Sadly for the prankster, even a bunch of immature teenage boys didn't think they would do that to anyone after they had passed away.  Another guy generously spoke up:  "You can do that at my funeral!  What do I care?  I'll be long gone!"

This is a stupid story, right?  But the reason it came to my mind the other day is that the second guy's statement that he didn't care if you pranked his coffin because he would be "long gone" was, at the time, seen as vaguely Christian.  We were a bunch of church kids, and it felt like some kind of expression of faith to say that we were focused on the eternal to such an extent that we weren't bothered by anything material after death.


Starting from before our team's arrival in 2013, we have been involved in massive amounts of construction.  We have built homes and classrooms and dorms and hospital buildings and workshops and a multigrain flour factory and a basketball court.  We have often sat down with Burundian leaders to talk about construction priorities, and perhaps the most consistently voiced priority in those discussions has been...

The morgue.

A morgue that was modern and had refrigeration.  A significant capacity of refrigeration to make sure that it was always available.  A "nice" morgue.  I even took a tour a few years ago of four different hospitals' morgues to generate planning ideas for our own.

The whole concept of prioritizing the morgue has been difficult for me.  I'm not 16 anymore, and I have grown to recognize the necessity of some of these things, but the high prioritization was tough.  Really?  In the face of all the different things that we need to fund and build, why give any more attention to the morgue than we need to?  Isn't this distracting us from focusing on keeping people from needing the morgue in the first place?  But again and again, our Burundian partners draw our attention to its importance.


As I contrast Burundian culture's approach to my own (either in the form of my immature teenage self or my more nuanced 40-year old self), I have been reflecting on the Bible's approach.  

I think of Jacob's dying request to Joseph, which was in fact to make sure that his dead boy was laid to rest next to his family's, not in Egypt but rather back in Canaan.  That meant a long journey, and it meant a lot of work to prepare the body to last that long, in that case by embalming.  When Abraham died, the only piece of the promised land that he actually owned was this same cave that he bought to bury Sarah, and became the family burial chamber for multiple generations.  This was very important to them.  When Jesus died, he was laid in a new tomb, and in their grief, the first thing that the women most faithful to him did as soon as the Sabbath allowed it was the preparing of his body.

Sometimes my theology suffers not so much from wrong premises but from wrong extrapolations.  I start with a true idea (my existence will outlive my earthly body's demise) and extrapolate to what seems a logical conclusion (thus the manner of dealing with a deceased body is relatively unimportant).  And as in this case, it can be easy to ignore the fact that my extrapolation is in conflict with the Bible, which actually talks about the question directly, thus making the extrapolation superfluous.  

What is the Christian picture of a "good death" or a "good funeral"?  According to the Bible, it at least contains respect, importance, and grieving.  Will there be a place for the funeral home in the completed New Creation that God promises?  No.  And the same can be said for medicine, but we will do it now as best as we can.

view from the back of the morgue - expansion on the downhill side

So we're building a better morgue.  With financial assistance from the Isaiah Mission Foundation and others, we hope that it will serve the communities around us well.  We hope that the refrigeration units will allow family members that live far away to come and participate in the funeral with their loved ones.  George has listened well to our local partners who told him about the importance of having an anteroom where the family members can wash the body and place it in the coffin privately prior to the procession to the gravesite or the church.

"Whatever you do, do it to the glory of God."  My favorite definition of the kingdom of God is "all of creation under the gracious rule of God the King".  This, too, may it be done well and according to your will.  And may we also be led to a truer and better understanding in the process.

Front entrance of the new morgue (still under construction)


Jimmy Page said...

Great thoughts and much to chew on, as usual. You articulate the error of extrapolation well...I do that often with the Word.

Sarah said...

Thanks for the lovely piece. I've often thought of something in one of your earlier writings, about an African man accepting his terminal diagnosis with calm resignation, rather than the typical American reaction of shock and devastation. We do tend to avoid death and think we'll live forever.