On May 10, 1873, Father Damien de Veuster, a Belgian missionary, landed on the Hawaiian island of Molokai and began his ministry with those suffering from Hansen’s disease – commonly called leprosy.
He found a place where hygiene was almost non-existent, where dogs ate the dead, and where the people lived in situations that could hardly be called human. He also found a situation where it was difficult for people to be good.
He founded a cemetery and even buried the dead himself. He treated the people not as outcasts but as “we lepers.” He finally contracted the disease, but not before winning the hearts of the people and the adulation of many from afar.
St. Damien de Veuster is an example of the many who have done something we often think as extraordinary – but was it?
Burying the dead is, after all, one of the traditional works of mercy.
But only yesterday did the dead perpetrator of the attack on the Boston Marathon find someone willing to provide a place of burial.
Burying the dead became controversial. And, sadly, it appears that few people of faith dare to do what is a simple act of human mercy.
Burying the dead can be dangerous. Studying the role of the church in Suchitoto, El Salvador, I noted that one role that the priest and the US sisters working with him in the late 1980s and early 1990s performed was burying the dead, especially the dead guerrillas. Family members were reluctant to show up because of the possibility of being captured by the Salvadoran army.
However, I also admire the simple courage of Niña Flor, an elderly Suchitoto woman involved in the church who was probably fairly conservative politically. In the early 1980s she would go out and bury the dead – no matter who they were. It was dangerous and she risked being imprisoned by the military. But her sense of being a Christian moved her.
St. Damien of Molokai buried the dead, Niña Flor risked her life to bury the dead. Someone gave a burial plot to Tamerlan Tsarnaev.
It’s about being really human – and being really followers of Christ.
As the Worcester police said, “… a courageous and compassionate individual came forward to provide the assistance needed to properly bury the deceased.”
That individual, in my mind, is following in the footsteps of people like St. Damien of Molokai.
What about us?