A juxtaposition of two deaths in the Global North and South, and what that means for spirituality.
(This reflection was originally written for and published by the SPEAK blog
I recently flew home from my life in El Salvador to attend my maternal grandfather’s funeral in Des Moines, Iowa. My family has almost always lived in Des Moines. It is where my grandfather, Elmore Weldon “Bud” Steffen, grew up, raised my mom and her siblings after shipping home from World War II, graduated from college and worked through two sales jobs that together constituted his entire career. It’s where he retired to babysit his grandchildren and his Collie dog, and peacefully spent the last years of his life in a grassy Catholic assisted-living facility. Monthly Social Security and Medicare payments aided him financially in his transition from a boisterous middle age to older years of advancing Emphysema, so he never had to lean financially on his children, who were tied up raising kids of their own. Of course, Grandpa had some personal anomalies peppered throughout this otherwise seamless portrait of the life of a World War II veteran. (According to the stories at his funeral, these generally involved scotch and fancy rental cars.) But to put it in a generalized swath, Grandpa Bud was in life the man who the presiding funeral priest described after his death: “A man of peaceful piety.” He was a thoughtful, hard-working, confident and loving man who was devoted to his spirituality, his country, and his family. As might be expected, his funeral was a cherished time of equal parts laughter and tears.
Two months prior to Grandpa Bud’s funeral was the last time I was involved with a burial. Without meaning any disrespect to my family, I couldn’t keep from comparing Grandpa’s life and death to this previous event, which involved a man who I never even met. Perhaps it was impossible for me to refrain from juxtaposing the two because of the extreme differences between them. Perhaps it was because my years in El Salvador are teaching me just what a blessed and truly uncommon life my grandfather led. In any event, the mental and emotional juggle led me deeper into the lifelong search for answers to some of the most basic questions about life, suffering, and spirituality.
We were in a public cemetery near downtown San Salvador: a patchwork group of some 40 members of the press, government authorities and the activist community, along with half a dozen family members of the deceased. We had gathered to witness the unearthing of the body of a 30 year old college student who had been executed on a community basketball court while on his way to class. Juan Francisco Duran Ayala was the latest victim in a string of assassinations to hit the anti-mining activist community in El Salvador, and he had been buried in an anonymous plot when the police found no identification on the body. His family was charged with formally identifying his body on this day. Cemetery workers covered in white astronaut-like suits shoveled at the public pit, and even at our 40-some feet of respectful distance, the overpowering smell of decomposition announced that they had found him.
Juan Francisco was pulled out of the ground by four men with two ropes, one cradling him around the back of his neck, and the other behind his bent knees. As careful as the men were trying to be — Juan Francisco’s mother was a few feet away, monitoring the process through her tears — they had also been hardened by repetition, and Juan Francisco’s heavy head snapped half-hazard back and forth a few times. His young body was in a half-fetal position inside a black plastic bag. As the crowd stepped back and covered our burning eyes and noses against the putrid odor, Juan Francisco’s family stepped forward, toward the bag, steeling themselves to view their beloved one last time. They knew him only when the late morning sunlight exposed the tattoo on his abdomen.
My grandfather was eighty-five when he was laid to rest in a favorite tan suit of his, which his 98-year young girlfriend had carefully chosen. The blue oxford beneath had always perfectly matched his sky eyes. His hair was neatly arranged, and his face bore a peaceful and natural half-smile. The chapel that housed the ceremony was on the campus of his assisted living facility, and it featured wood paneled ceilings and lovely acoustics to highlight the talented cantor who led our sixty-some friends and family in song. We passed around a microphone and shared our favorite memories of Grandpa Bud. Finally, summer sunlight danced across his flag-draped coffin to the tune of “Taps” as two United States Marines Corps officers saluted him in a final parting.
Juan Francisco is one of seven million Salvadorans, all of whom live in a “middle income country,” or a place that has average financial holdings when compared to the rest of the countries across the globe. These seven million are in turn part of the estimated three-quarters of human beings across the world who live in countries that political scientists call “the Global South.” These are countries whose inhabitants struggle to make ends meet, are more likely to face high levels of violence and crime on their streets, live where wars tend to be fought, have extremely limited opportunities in life and often meet an early death. What this means in Juan Francisco’s case is that his experience was not unique. In fact, the overwhelming majority of the world lives a life and finds an end that is far more similar to Juan Francisco’s than to my grandfather’s.
I am as disturbed by my memories of Juan Francisco as I am deeply grateful for the life that my grandfather was able to live. My gut feeling is this: Juan Francisco’s experience was not right, and my grandfather’s was. I believe that everyone deserves the chance to live and die like my grandfather did. I believe this is true because we are all equal at a fundamental level: we share in a life force which some describe as sacred, some call God, and others seek in nature or science. From this source we seem to derive our sense of self and other as valuable, purposeful beings. The way I see it, the diverse spiritual and religious practices in which we constantly engage across our planet are a genuine open-armed attempt to connect with this omnipresent life source that we have sensed since the beginning of time.
As we were sitting in my father’s SUV in the funeral procession, we began discussing heaven and the Roman Catholic idea of the ultimate resurrection of the spirit. At this stage of my life, the concept of a place where the “good souls” are sent doesn’t add up (and neither does its opposite). It presents a good vs. evil dichotomy and suggests a powerful deity-judge, neither of which make sense to me in a world of such unequal distribution of joy and tragedy. After all, desperation drives us to edges of which we’d never have thought ourselves capable, and privilege can make it easier to be a decent person. The conversation, then, was an invitation for me to answer in silence my internal question: “Where are you, Grandpa Bud?”
I gazed out the window and centered on the lingering feeling I had since my quiet moments alone with his body at the wake the night before: he is still here. Suddenly I realized what that meant to me. I could feel him woven between the grass strands and amidst the sunshine. I sensed the world around me infused with a new burst of peaceful, pious energy. I felt — and feel – buoyed up amidst the chaos of early adulthood, silently accompanied by the steady wisdom that comes of eighty-five years of life. It seems to me that if I open myself to that core space within me, it’s obvious that Grandpa has returned to our source, the energy that is both the recipient of those who we call “dead,” and the daily nutrient of the living.
A spiritual practice, then, is a series of actions that connects me with this spirit — with Grandpa, with Juan Francisco, with all beings -- and in turn with my own essential source. But Juan Francisco’s experience demands more than quiet contemplation from me. The more I connect with this unifying spirit of all life — the thing that makes us equal — the more tragic and unacceptable the lived experience of the majority becomes. The act of witnessing Juan Francisco’s exhumation and accompanying his family that day was, for me, a spiritual act. The act of writing and talking about it since has also been.
Elmore Weldon “Bud” Steffen: February 7, 1926 -- August 18, 2011. Juan Francisco Duran Ayala: 1981 – June 3, 2011. Grandpa Bud, Juan Francisco: may we celebrate you by acting to create a world where all can live fully and die tired, surrounded by love.