We are not a society who displays the dead. Indeed, we try very hard to keep the dead hidden – and, much of the time, even keep hidden those who are dying. Norwegian author Karl Ove Knausgaard begins his inimitable autobiography My Struggle with reflections on death, which include the following observations on “the efforts we make to keep corpses out of sight”:
In larger hospitals [the dead] are not only hidden away in discrete, inaccessible rooms, even the pathways there are concealed, with their own elevators and basement corridors, and should you stumble upon one of them, the dead bodies being wheeled by are always covered. When they have to be transported from the hospital it is through a dedicated exit, into vehicles with tinted glass…during the funeral ceremony they lie in closed coffins until they are lowered into the earth or cremated in the oven. It is hard to imagine what practical purpose this procedure might serve.
As he observes, these extreme measures cannot be understood to fulfill any practical purpose. Later he imagines a world in which the dead were not so quickly carted off and hidden away: a world in which a father who had a heart attack might be left to lie where he was for a bit; a daughter who had an accident might be seen by her parents as is, lying broken; a person who freezes in the cold would be preserved until spring. But this is unimaginable for us. A town who would do such things would be “not a town but a hell.” Nevermind that “this hell reflects our life experience in a more realistic and essentially truer way.”
We modern folks in the so-called “West” do not always avoid and hide death, however. Only certain kinds of death. Only death, it seems, that is closest to us. There is no shortage of death in the news and in our many modes of entertainment – video games, movies, TV shows. These kinds of death do not seem to bother us. When we see “yet another picture of death or dying”:
These images have no weight, no depth, no time, and no place, nor do they have any connections to the bodies that spawned them…. Most of them just pass through us and are gone; for diverse reasons some linger and live on in the dark recesses of the brain.
The preponderance of death-images like these in our environment is one reason many opposed the sharing of a particular picture of death in the past two weeks: Óscar Martínez, a young Salvadoran father, lying face down in the Rio Grande, with his 23 month old daughter Valeria lying next to him, tucked inside his black shirt, her arm still draped around his neck. Many explicitly stated their preference for sharing this photo instead:
…or a similar photo of the two with Tania Avalos, Óscar’s wife and Valeria’s mother. These photos are seen to be more humanizing, as they show the family in the full color of their lives – smiles on their faces, light in their eyes. We feel a more human connection with photos like these, so the thinking goes, and so we are more likely to think of Óscar and Valeria as if they could be our own brother/niece or son/granddaughter. And this is the point – to see these two lives in all their humanity, for they have come to represent the collateral damage of the decidedly inhumane policies and practices of the U.S. government.
The family photos of Óscar and Valeria certainly do add important texture and fullness to their identities and to the connection we – we strangers, we outsiders – feel towards them. They mitigate that lack of “connection to the bodies that spawned” the death-image that was being circulated. These photos in life, perhaps, allow that death-image not to simply “pass through us” but rather to “linger and live on in the dark recesses of the brain.” But…what about that image of Óscar and Valeria in death? Is there any value in viewing it? Sharing it? Displaying it?
Those who did share that image often accompanied it with something like the phrase, “Don’t look away.” Don’t look away. Perhaps we do look away because we feel the photo (and its distribution) is dehumanizing. But some of us may look away for other reasons. We may look away because that is our gut-level reaction in the face of death. We may look away because we are not socialized to linger looking at the dead. We may look away because we do not want to see the consequences of policies we support. We may look away because we feel helpless in the face of such tragedy and evil.
Yes, evil. Ultimately, evil is what is on exhibit in the display of Óscar’s and Valeria’s dead bodies.
Christians have long connected death to sin and evil. It has become slightly passé to do so in a post-Darwinian world; more common is the embrace of death as a part of the natural rhythms and cycles of life. While there is value in this latter view, Christian theology’s linking of death (and other suffering) to sin and evil also has much to offer pastorally and socially. In an address he gave at the University of Louvain in 1980, Mons. Óscar Romero of El Salvador spoke of this connection and its significance for the Salvadoran church at that time – as it confronted violent repression from the government and paramilitary groups funded by the country’s oligarchy. Romero claimed that as the Salvadoran Catholic church had “organized and united herself around the hopes and anxieties of the poor,” it had also experienced “the same fate as that of Jesus and the poor: persecution.” As the church lived this “real incarnation in the socio-political world,” it gained a greater knowledge and understanding of sin:
We know that such sin really is mortal, not only in the sense of the interior death of the person who commits the sin, but also because of the real, objective death that sin produces. Let us remind ourselves of a fundamental fact of our Christian faith: sin killed the Son of God, and sin is what continues to kill the children of God.
Confronted with the daily deaths of his people, both by overt violence and by what the Latin American church had come to identify as “structural” or “institutionalized” violence – poverty, malnutrition, disease, etc. – Romero could not avoid drawing these connections between sin and death, connections he saw revealed most clearly in the death of Jesus. Throughout his ministry, Romero denounced the structural sin in his country, and a key component of that denunciation was putting death on display. Romero made a point during his Sunday sermons of announcing the names of victims assassinated in the previous week. He would speak graphically of the dead, naming the damage done to the body: e.g, the “crushed face” or “bullet-ridden body” of a priests who had been assassinated.
Romero understood something we in the West have lost sight of: the dead speak. In the lives they lived and in the deaths they die, the dead bear witness. They may bear witness to beauty and goodness in the world. But they often also bear witness to sin and evil. The marginalized of our world, in particular, bear witness in this way. The dead display in their bodies the sin present in our societies; they often display the particular sins inherent in particular societies.
And so Óscar and Valeria bear witness. In their lives, yes. In the hopes they had as they left El Salvador. In the time they spent languishing in Mexico, waiting and hoping for an opportunity to enter the U.S. through official processes. But also in their deaths. That image of them lying dead, embracing one another, reveals the sinful structures of U.S. society in a unique way, in a way their happy family photos do not. That death-image is a “hell [that] reflects our life experience in a more realistic and essentially truer way.” And we dare not look away.
Knausgaard, Karl Ove. My Struggle: Book 1. Trans. by Don Bartlett. New York: Archipelago Books, 2012.
Romero, Óscar. “The Political Dimension of Faith from the Perspective of the Option for the Poor.” University of Louvain, Belgium. Feb 2, 1980.
Header image is the icon Refugees: La Sagrada Familia created by Kelly Latimore and shared widely on social media. See Latimore’s gallery here: https://kellylatimoreicons.com/