Technically I was employed as a lab assistant at our community hospital. This position entailed multiple responsibilities, from receptionist to actual bench work within the laboratory. The task I dreaded most was my assistance at autopsies. Beyond a strong constitution, it required no measurable skill set. This job was not the high-tech, immaculate setting of any of the CSI programs of today; instead the morgue was a stark, condensed room with two pullout refrigerators for the deceased, a stainless steel table the autopsy was performed on, and the necessary instruments and accouterments, some suspended from what appeared thin air. These tools of the trade ranged from the expected scalpels and retractors to saws and garden-like shears.
Fast-forward fifteen years. It is the morning of July 11, 1991. Prisoner number 74799 has just been transferred from the Department of Corrections, Arizona State Prison in Florence to Tucson County General Hospital in critical condition. Eight months prior to his admittance to the prison hospital, Prisoner 74799 was diagnosed with metastatic lung cancer. While considered inoperable, he was administered the customary chemotherapy treatments until four months later when the cancer spread to his brain, taking most if not all of his cognitive abilities away. Within one hour of his transport, Prisoner 74799, my brother, Michael Paul, died at the age of thirty-nine.
Considered standard prison procedure, Michael was scheduled for an autopsy the following day. While my grief over Michael’s death was considerable, it was the pending autopsy that caused my immediate concern. As I pictured Michael on the cold table of steel, the crude instruments sawing and cutting into his already weathered body, I took it upon myself to somehow ease this last assault. I phoned the Tucson corner’s office, hoping to speak to the pathologist who would be performing Michael’s autopsy. With surprising bureaucratic ease, I was transferred to him. After introducing myself, I explained he would be receiving Prisoner 74799, my brother, from Tucson General, and that by all appearances this was just another disposable inmate whose criminal past simply caught up with him, sort of a karma-like ending. His thin, emaciated body, I warned, is covered in tattoos, which I feared might induce a harsher judgment upon this cast away soul. I asked the pathologist that when he begins the post, he please remember Prisoner 74799 was somebody’s son, somebody’s brother, father and friend and more importantly, that this man was loved. “Please” I pleaded, “try to see beyond the obvious signs of poor choices mapped onto his body, instead see he is more than his prison issued number and that Michael Paul, while far from saint, was a man who loved and was loved.”
In calling the coroner I was making a character assessment of how I perceived the understandable attitude and judgment of the attending pathologist would be with regards to my brother. I felt, or rather hoped, if he heard a piece of Michael’s story and connected with my voice echoing in his ear, he would come to see the man on the table was greater than the sum of his prison number and that a clinical and even mundane procedure might be performed with a bit more awareness leading to compassion. Initially the coroner was understandably defensive, as if I was accusing him of callousness or unethical behavior reserved for those who died while serving time in prison. More than ready to disengage from our conversation, he perfunctorily assured me he would perform the autopsy with the same skill given to those who did not arrive from the Arizona prison system.
As I sat alone in silence, unable to free myself from the visual torment being performed on Michael, I received an unexpected phone call. After completing Michael’s autopsy, the coroner called to let me know he had finished; reassuring me it was performed with the utmost professionalism. But more than this, he explained, it was carried out with unforeseen compassion and tenderness as he made the mental shift of viewing Prisoner 74799 as an inmate to a man named Michael Paul. He thanked me for reminding him regardless of some individual’s choices in life, in the end, all deserve to be met with dignity and respect—even those whose identity is replaced by a series of numbers.
This July 11 marked twenty-six years since the passing of my brother. In this span of time I have developed two things. One, a theological understanding that situates all human and non-human beings as imago Dei, as created in the loving image of a God we reflect, and two, a greater understanding of how poverty directs or even controls our life and the choices we make.
To be sure, I was a harsh judge of my immediate family—my mother and five brothers, who in my eyes were weak and unwilling to move beyond the poverty that held them captive to economic displacement, incarceration, addiction and alcoholism. Not until I began to develop my own theological understanding of inherent worth along side the complexity of grinding poverty could I begin to find compassion and value in my kin and others.
I was recently introduced to the writing of Joshua Wilkey, an academic/activist whose wheelhouse of research is informed by his roots in Appalachia and the ensuing poverty that came with such a demographic. In his article, “My Mother Wasn’t Trash,” Wilkey writes of his mother and her early death at the age of 55. After reading about her life choices—pregnant at 16, a total of 6 husbands, alcoholism, and a body broken from low paying jobs that could never lift her and her children out of poverty, I saw, in part, my own mother and brothers. While Wilkey is sympathetic to his mother and the challenges poverty placed upon her, I (and I suspect others who find their way out of poverty) was not as kind. As Wilkey states, “Many of us who have personal experience with poverty understand that addiction, mental illness, poor health, and lack of education are symptoms of poverty rather than causes.”
Regretfully it took me too long to figure out the calculus and consequences of my family’s poverty to appreciate and love them regardless of their life choices.
I understand now that in pressing the coroner to treat my brother with respect, I was engaging in my own learning curve of compassion and understanding. In his book Tattoos on the Heart, Greg Boyle completes the arc when he states, “Here is what we seek: a compassion that can stand in awe at what the poor have to carry rather than stand in judgment at how they carry it.”
I hope my own spiritual journey is marked by unforeseen compassion and tenderness as I too stand in awe at how the poor find courage saturated with dignity in the midst of uneven and unfair life choices.
Cynthie Garrity-Bond, feminist theologian and social ethicist, is completing her doctorate from Claremont Graduate University in women studies in religion, with a secondary focus in theology, ethics and culture. For the past two years Cynthie has been teaching in the department of theological studies at Loyola Marymount University where she completed both her BA and MA in Theology. Her research interest includes feminist sexual theology, historical theology with particular emphasis on religious movements of women, agency and resistance to ecclesial authority, embodiment, Mariology and transnational feminism. Having recently returned from Southern Africa, Cynthie is researching the decriminalization of prostitution from a theological perspective.