Not fully fleshing out death

grim reaperI have a confession to make.

I dislike criticizing newspapers stories that are well reported, not to mention detailed and interesting.

As a former daily reporter, I know the difficulty of finding a story and sources, getting time from your editor to report the story out, and confirming details while you’re writing. And in this era of massive cutbacks on the print side, criticizing well-reported stories seems unfair, even petty. Yet many stories require the reporter to show readers not only the small picture, but also the big picture, and if the reporter doesn’t show both, the story will disappoint in some way.

The preamble above summarizes my thoughts about Erika Hayasaki’s story in The Los Angeles Times about a professional woman who specializes in acquainting the living with the dead. Before you reflect on the nature of this woman’s work, read and appreciate Hayasaki’s lede:

The dead man lies naked on a metal table, a small cloth covering his groin, mouth open, arms rigid and cocked.

A blue-gloved autopsy technician thrusts a hefty razor into his chest, unzipping his brown skin to reveal a thick layer of yolk-colored fat. He pulls marbled meat from the bone.

The man was 30, an only son, married, a father of three. Around 9:40 p.m. the night before, someone shot him in the head. Now, a technician at the New Jersey Medical Examiner’s Office in Newark is holding his lungs, tar-speckled as if covered with spores of mold.

Rebecca Schmidt, 21, a ponytailed biology major, stands over the body, alongside a dozen of her Kean University classmates midway through the eight-week summer course Death in Perspective.

“They’re looking for the bullet; come see,” says Professor Norma Bowe, 49.

Schmidt leans in, captivated by the disfigured ball of metal lodged above his left ear. She breathes through her mask sprayed with perfume, which does little to block the smell of death: feces and rotten eggs.

This is so cool, she thinks. Schmidt has seen death plenty of times, but never the inside of a corpse.

For the last decade, Bowe has led her classes of 30 students into the refrigerated tombs of bodies stacked bunk-bed-style in the morgue and into hospice bedrooms, glowing from television screens, occupied by the sickly and soon-to-die. She guides them through the barbed-wire fences of Northern New Jersey State Penitentiary, past the outdoor recreation kennels where gang members sweat and swear, to a law library where they sit down with murderers.

Hayasaki’s description was replete with details — yolk-colored fat, marbled meat, the gang members sweating and swearing. As someone who has seen the body of a person who has died from violence, I think it captured the grisliness and funeral elements of death.

Yet detailed, it seems fair to say, does not describe Hayasaki’s treatment of Norma Bowe’s philosophy. Hayasaki gives plenty of hints that Bowe might be religious or that she has thought about religion. For example, at the end of the story Bowe tells a student the following:

Bowe keeps Schmidt in mind on the last day of class when she reads them a commencement speech written by Anna Quindlen: The knowledge of our own mortality is the greatest gift God ever gives us. It’s so easy to waste our lives, our days, our hours, our minutes.

Interesting, but the passage is never elaborated upon. Why did Bowe mention God? Do students talk about God and religion’s consideration and treatment of death? Hayasaki should have asked Bowe a religion-related question, for it might have shed light on the lessons that Bowe seeks to impart to her students. Are students to understand death in purely personal terms or in philosophical or religious ones?

Religion was something of a ghost in this story. It was airy and ethereal, not fleshed out. If only Hayasaki had given readers a few details about Bowe’s examination of the meaning of death, one that she applied skillfully to the topic of the biological processes of death.

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  • Jerry

    Mark, the story is compelling but I think you did not do it justice with your selection of an excerpt. The title itself College students study death to learn the meaning of life spoke to the purpose of the piece.

    But something more powerful also draws them here: a need to know how we die, and why. What happens to our bodies, and is there such a thing as the soul?

    That’s no ghost to me – it’s asking the fundamental question about the meaning and purpose of life. There was no formal theology in the piece and I think that was appropriate. Instead, faith was interwoven in several places including:

    “That prison was horrible, and I am sure it is the closest thing we will compare to hell on earth,” she wrote in her reaction paper. “I went home and said a prayer.”

    (and)

    The knowledge of our own mortality is the greatest gift God ever gives us. It’s so easy to waste our lives, our days, our hours, our minutes.

    There is, to me, the missing bigger picture part was how the class changes the lives of those that take it especially after a few years.

  • http://www.getreligion.org Mark Stricherz

    Jerry makes good points. The LAT story had what you might call a theological ghost.

  • http://knapsack.blogspot.com Jeff

    Good analysis, but still a good piece that deserved a closer analysis — how much theology to pick, and how, in such a secularized society? Mark’s concern would carry even more weight in Kansas City or Louisville, let alone Houston . . . in LA, was this as theological as a reporter can justifiably get? How can you do interfaith theology in socially broad stories?

    [I look forward to further comments on this question, which i don't pretend to have any definitive answer for.]


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