Why are people scared of death? Are they afraid of the potential pain it may bring? Do they think they will miss their family and friends? Do they have more they want to accomplish, and fear leaving their lives “unfinished”? Do they tremble at the thought of what lies beyond the grave? Or perhaps they believe that nothing lies waiting for them after death?
Whatever the reason, death makes most people uncomfortable, to the point where people would rather have “celebrations of life” without a physical body even present, as opposed to funerals, which force them to confront mortality. It’s a source of anxiety for nearly everyone, and it’s understandable that most of us try to avoid it whenever we can.
Most of us…I have always been an opportunist, and try to say yes to as many new experiences as possible. So when the opportunity to work with a medical examiner and assist with autopsies arose during my senior year of college, I took it. And I wasn’t prepared for it.
I truly saw the worst our fallen world has to offer.
During my tenure with the medical examiner, I participated in approximately 600 autopsies. I read through each person’s final moments. I saw each lifeless body. I knew every detail. It was part of my job. With each case, I bore witness to each individuals struggles. I observed depression, anxiety, abuse, suicide, murder, and the most untimely deaths.
It was difficult. There were a lot of emotions I needed to process, but I bottled them up. I concealed it all with humor and lied to myself about how beneficial the experience would be for my education. It was the easiest way to cope. But as time passed, I felt more empty and anxious than anything.
I accumulated irrational fears. Telling someone goodbye before getting in my car felt like the last time I would see them. A hint of anger from anyone mutated into violence within my minds eye. Each missed telephone call meant someone was gone. They remained dead in my mind until they proved otherwise.
It was at this point I reached out to a spiritual father. I needed to feel something other than a distrust for everything around me. In talking with him, we came up with a few solutions. He first asked me to pray for all those who came into the morgue, along with their grieving families. I was surprised that I hadn’t been doing so sooner. Second, he asked me if I was okay with weeping openly at my job. While I wouldn’t be in any other circumstance, I was garbed up in the morgue. Goggles and a mask obscured my face to the point where no one would be able to tell. When I told him this, he strongly encouraged me to cry if I felt the need to.
And it helped a great deal. Prayer and an outpouring of compassion in the form of weeping did wonders for my soul and spiritual life. It allowed me to feel closer to those who suffered in death and those who were suffering through the loss of their loved one. We are not often able to show such love to strangers, but my time in the morgue gave me that opportunity.
It also allowed me to reflect on mortality, death and the resurrection.
Death is simplification. It renders most things null and void. The greatest of these is fear. As Orthodox Christians, only two things matter upon our death: #1. Our relationship with God and #2. the good works done in our love for Him (which is related to #1). A healthy remembrance of death is helpful. It brings to the forefront of our minds every church service we have missed out of laziness or apathy, every day we have spent unrepentant, every bit of anger we have clung to, and every missed opportunity we have had to show forth the grace of God and bring His light into the world.
St. Ambrose of Optina says, “You must not be greatly troubled about many things, but you should care for the main thing — preparing yourself for death.”1 How are we to prepare for death if we neither cast aside our earthly cares nor remember death? Death forces us to constantly strive towards strengthening our relationship with God. In that sense, to ignore death is to ignore our life in Christ. At this point in our fallen world, we cannot hope to be in glory with Christ if we refuse to acknowledge our own death in sin.
The same goes for the Church herself. Protopresbyter Alexander Schmemann writes, “By her very nature, the Church belongs to the end: to the ultimate reality of the ‘world to come’, the Kingdom of God… It is precisely her knowledge and constant partaking of the ‘end’ that relates the world, creates that correlation between the now and the not yet which is the very essence of her message to the world…”2 Walking into any Orthodox church should remind us of what awaits us at the end of our days: unending communion with God. This is what we must remember to strive towards every single day.
It is often in darkness that the light is most helpful and, not that I encourage people to seek out terrible experiences, I benefitted spiritually from my time in the morgue. While working the morgue, I was: anxious, physically and emotionally exhausted, and even depressed at times. But I also: prayed more, openly wept for those who had passed, prayed for the comforting of their families, had more sympathy for everyone I encountered, and stopped taking for granted all the blessings the Lord had provided me with. I’ve been able to work through a multitude of anxieties and place them all on God, as skill that is incredibly necessary in this day and age.
More often than not, our suffering can drive a wedge between us and the rest of the world. But we must remember that the beauty of our suffering lies in its universality. In suffering, we learn to appreciate life more, and we draw ourselves closer to each other and to Christ, who suffered for us all.
Working in the morgue left a lasting impression on me. While some days it does feel that the experience was entirely negative, I am grateful for it. It caused a wonderful spiritual shift within me that I am still trying to recapture to this day.
1. St. Ambrose of Optina. Living Without Hypocrisy: Spiritual Counsels of the Holy Elders of Optina
2. Protopresbyter Alexander Schmemann. Church, World and Mission. B#72B pp. 10, 14