All Souls’ Day
There are few more “catholic” feasts than the Feast of All
Souls. Everyone is included. This week I’d like to remember four souls who had a deep impact on my life,
four individuals whose deaths deeply touched me. All of
them were untimely. All of them were sad. But all of
them brought me closer to the Lord. Don’t worry: I purposely picked individuals NOT from our parish.
Kurt. Kurt’s story is difficult and problematic. Kurt was a
parishioner of mine from the mid 1990’s. One night, Kurt
and some of his friends were, as young people are wont
to do, messing around after midnight. (“Nothing good
ever happens after midnight,” I ominously always told my
students.) The precise nature of their actions is not important, all that is important is that (and this is safe to
say) he was doing things he should not have been doing
and he was in places where he should not have been.
The story gets a bit muddled here, but the outcome isn’t.
Kurt, running away from getting caught, leapt off a railroad viaduct. The force of the impact when he landed
killed him instantly. The one thing I remember the most
about Kurt’s wake was the intense anger of many of his
friends. “How could he have been so stupid?” “Why did
he do this?” Their anger was understandable. It was a
stupid act. However, Kurt’s death taught me two infinitely valuable lessons. First, if I am honest, I did stupid
things as well. I was no different than Kurt. I have done
reckless things. I was in places and situations where I
should not have been. The difference? I got away with it.
Kurt didn’t. That understanding helped me deal with
Kurt’s senseless death. Second, I learned that we
should be careful not judge the totality of someone’s life
by one singular act. Kurt was more than his mistake.
Kurt was more that that fatal jump. Kurt was more.
Mark. Mark was the brother of one of my friends. Because I was a friend of his sister, I was Mark’s friend as
well. Mark always was kind and genial to me. However,
there was much that I did not know about Mark. For instance, I did not know that he was gay and it was only
after he died that I learned about his awful grief over the
death of his friend and partner. His friend died of AIDS
and his death was ugly and difficult, a long and torturous
process. Ironically, it was also a process of spiritual regeneration, because before he succumbed to that terrible scourge, the friend had decided to convert to Catholicism and be received into the church. Sadly, about two
weeks after his companion’s death, Mark took an overdose of sleeping pills. Mark’s family, whom I love very
deeply, was devastated. They asked me to do his burial
service and I did so gladly. Later, Mark’s mother told me
how comforting it was for me, as a friend and a representative of the church to be there. Knowing Mark and
knowing his story, changed me. The bottom line is surprisingly simple: the church needs to be there for her
children, no matter what. Right now we as a church we
are struggling with this issue. Some may be horrified
that the subject is even brought up. Some are heartened
that we are finally reaching out to a community that has
felt long shunned and ignored. Working through this issue, I will always recall praying at Mark’s graveside and
realizing that it was exactly where I needed to be, for
Mark, for his family, and for myself.
Jane. Calls in the middle of the night are rarely happy,
and the call I received early one August morning from
Jane’s family was no exception. Jane was the mother of
three of my former students. They called me at 12:30
am to say that their mother had been in a car accident,
she was airlifted to a hospital’s intensive care unit, and
could I come and give her last rites. So I drove from
Washington into St. Louis at one o’clock in the morning
to be with the family for a long and painful vigil. Without
getting into all of the details of what happened, I will tell
you that indeed, it was an accident, but it was a preventable accident. Alcohol was involved. It was an accident
that the family may have been dreading might happen for
a long time. Around four in the morning, after sitting for a
few hours, the word came: Jane had passed away.
These moments are brutal. The family is exhausted. I’m
exhausted. And the longer you are there, your mind begins to wander. How will I operate at school with only
two hours of sleep? Selfish, I know, but you think those
things. But years later, I was profoundly glad that the
family had trusted me to come. As with Mark’s story, it
was important for me to be there. It was important for me
to share in their grief.
Dakota. The only murder victim whose burial service I
ever officiated was Dakota’s. He was two years old.
(You read that right, it is not a typo.) And that sad fact
only scratches the surface of the chaos surrounding that
poor child’s tragic death. Dakota was killed by his mother’s boyfriend. (His mother was a former student of mine,
whose life went a bit off the rails.) Dakota’s biological
father, I was reassured by the funeral director before the
wake, was not in the picture, so I would not have to deal
with that brokenness. Or so I thought. The instant I
walked into the funeral home, I heard the unmistakable
blood-curdling wailing of a young man, Dakota’s grieving
father. Dakota’s funeral service became exponentially
more complicated than I had figured. There are moments
when you just have to lift things up to the grace of God
and trust, and that is exactly what I did that sad day. It
was nerve-wracking and terrifying, no doubt, but we entrusted the soul of that poor child to Christ that day. And
that memory is forever etched on my soul.
Kurt. Mark. Jane. Dakota.
Eternal rest grant unto them O Lord. And let perpetual
light shine upon them.