In the summer of 1990 the ringing phone drew me out of sleep. I was working as a parish associate at St. John the Baptist in Longmont, Colorado for Father Fox. It was my first "official" job as a seminarian, me having joined the seminary only a year and half prior in January of 1989. I was entering my junior year of college, and the work I was going to be doing was ministerial, tending to the elderly, giving guest sermons and actually doing "good" in the community. I had known Father Fox off and on for some years and knew him to be a good man, dedicated, thoughtful, kind. He was a bit of an odd bird too - he had two Doberman Pinchers and a large parrot. He welcomed me to his parish and taught me much about how a local neighborhood pastor serves his parish and the parish family.
Back to the night of summer in 1990 - Father Fox was off that night, probably visiting friends in the mountains. As a result the emergency phone line was sent to my room at the rectory. It was late when the phone rang, and I knew that it was the emergency phone ringing next to my nightstand.
"Hello?" I mumbled into the receiver. "Hi yes sir this is your emergency phone service, I have the Longmont police standing by on the other line, a detective wishes to speak to you." I sat upright in my bed. "Go on."
"May I patch the detective through sir?"
"Yes of course." The line clicked for a moment then I knew another voice was on the receiver.
"Hi is this the Catholic Church?" A gruff voice intoned.
"Yes, hi this is Thomas Burkett at St. John's, how can I help you."
"Father" I didn't correct him - I wasn't a father yet but this was so intriguing, "We need you to come as one of your parishioners needs last rites."
My mind raced, I knew the lasts rites from the book of prayers for the dying, but I also knew I wasn't authorized to extend them. "Sir, my name is Thomas Burkett, I'm only the seminarian here, Father Fox has left the parish for the evening."
There was a pause on the other end for a moment, "Well that should be fine, to be honest I don't think last rites would work anyway."
I held the phone away from my face for a moment, eye brows up, "I'm sorry?"
"Look, the guy doesn't need last rites because he's dead. His niece is here at his house insisting that we call a Catholic Priest to come and give him last rites so he won't go to hell or something." He sounded nervous. "I'm not catholic but I'm pretty sure that last rites is for someone alive, this guy hasn't been alive for awhile."
Now at this point I could have refused and said I'm sorry there was no priest available at this time, but something in the cops voice told me he really wasn't sure what to do. "I can come." I said without much further adieu. The cop gave me the directions to the house where they were waiting. I jumped out of bed, pulled on my clothes and ran to the sacristy of the church. I grabbed the prayers for the rites of dead, a jar of holy water, and a small Pyx with the consecrated host. I threw on my long black cassock over my clothes and jumped into my car.
The night was quiet as I sped down the streets of Longmont. The town of Longmont was a city on the edge - it was a growing metropolis resting on the edge of beet farms and a large turkey rendering factory. The mix of the rural and the growing city of Denver created a mix of culture that was often at odds. As I drove to the house with the deceased I grew further from the upscale part of town where our parish was, and into a part of town with small post World War II ranch style homes. I looked at the scribbled notes I had as to how to find the house. It was easy once in the area, the police lights swirling on top of patrol cars were like beacons.
I pulled onto the street and exited my car. I was immediately stopped by an officer; I explained to him who I was. He turned and called for the detective I had spoken to on the phone. It was still early enough in the summer that the evening was quite cool, and the black cassock bellowed out around my legs in grand fashion. Standing there in all black, clutching against my chest the red prayer book and gold pyx I must have looked quite a site. I was only 20 years old, and no doubt the cops were thinking I was a child.
The cop greeted me somberly, "Hi Thomas. Look his niece is standing up on the front porch, she's pretty upset so I think anything you can do will help." I looked at the house again. In the pale light of the street lamps it was yellow. The short chain link fence that around the front yard was slumping in several places, broken in others. The house clearly was in disrepair - the shingle roof missing several shingles. I walked up the front path to the porch. I stepped onto the wooden steps of the porch they squeaked in protest to my weight. The yellow bulb of the porch light illuminated us in unflattering light. A small woman stood with her arms wrapped around herself a tissue hanging from her fingers.
I extended my hand, "Hi, I'm Thomas Burkett from St. John's Catholic Church, I understand you've sent for someone to do last rites?" She wiped her nose with her tissue, dried tears visible on her face. "Hi," she quickly took my hand and then as quickly pulled back from me. I looked through the door of the house and saw old wore furniture peaking out from behind the front screen. "I used to come to see him all the time, but lately I've been so busy, I haven't had the chance to come in some weeks. His neighbor called me yesterday to tell me she hadn't seen him in a long time." She look at the ground, "I should have come more often, now he's all alone." She looked up at me, her eyes wet with new tears, "Please tell me that he won't go to hell?"
I glanced away from her, back into the house, "I'm sure he won't go to hell." I shuffled the holy book to my other arm, "I'm here to pray from him and for you if you want."
She sniffled again, "I can't go back in the house, it's too awful. Please promise me that you'll do last rites for him so he is sure to go to heaven." The new tears dripped down her chin. "I can't go back in, it's too awful." Repeating the sentence again she seemed even smaller.
I looked into her lonely eyes and promised. Of course I couldn't do last rites, even if I had been a priest as last rites are reserved for the living. I didn't tell her that though. I felt the cop standing behind me. He pulled my arm and lead me into the house.
Immediately the putrid smell struck my nostrils. I had smelled death before, but never like this. The small house reeked of it and my eyes immediately teared up. The cop shook his head. "I guess the neighbor called the the niece when they couldn't see him moving around anymore. I'm sure they noticed the smell too. Sad thing is that they haven' checked on him in a long time." The cop lead me further into the house. "He's laying in the bedroom, it's a pretty troubling scene, are you sure you can do this?"
I wasn't sure, but here I was for the first time in my newly started life as a minister ready to try. I had never been in this type of position where everyone was expecting me to do something - help - pray - make a difference. This was a thrill for me. I nodded my head, comfort being found in the prayer book in my hand. "Okay then Thomas, he's back this way." The cop lead me down the very narrow hall, the smell growing worse as we went. "Have you ever seen a dead body?" I had, at funerals. I nodded. The cop grimaced, "Not like this you haven't."
We arrived at the bedroom door, another cop was just exiting. They exchanged confirmations that the investigation was complete and I could go in. The detective who called me stepped back and I saw into an unadorned room with a body laying on a twin bed. The smell was strong enough to water my eyes. The room was illuminated by a single bulb hanging from the ceiling, casting horrible light throughout the tiny room. The bed was unmade, the sheet pulled back around the body.
I stepped in trepidatiously and walked to the side of the bed. There laying before me was an old man, his arms were crossed on his chest. The flesh was tight across his cheeks, grey whiskers indicated he hadn't shaved in some time. He was very small, he looked very dry. His eyes slightly open were milky white, no color could be seen there. I looked at this old man, in his bed, forgotten for a couple of weeks, dead for days. I didn't know what to do, and for a few long moments I just stared at death.
This man, whose name today I cannot remember had died alone, forgotten, in his small run down house. He died on a single bed, surrounded by people who didn't know he had gone until they thought they noticed a smell, until they noticed that mail and papers were piling up. This old man who had no family other than a niece who was too busy to call and check. This old man who didn't know a soul except his own. I remember looking around the room he had died in, there were no images of family scattered about, the room looked more like a hotel room. There was a simple cross on the night stand, a small 13 inch tv at the bed's foot. This man died and there was no weeping or wailing. I offered the prayer of committal:
May choirs of angels welcome you
and lead you to the bosom of Abraham;
and where Lazarus is poor no longer
may you find eternal rest.
The niece crying on the front porch was crying because she hadn't been a good family member. Her concern wasn't for the living, it was for the dead. The life of the man in this small room was gone and there waiting outside for a young seminarian to cast some sort of magical prayer to promise eternity to a dead man stood a woman who didn't know the meaning of her own faith or that of her uncle. For a minute in that small room looking down at the drying husk of a man that I would never know I was profoundly alone. All the prayers in the little book I held next to me didn't carry me away, they didn't offer comfort to the dying. The niece who maybe could have been ministered to was so guilt ridden she could not be comforted by someone like me.
In someway I could hear death whispering into my ear - reminding me that he was coming for me too, not there maybe, but for sure somewhere else. This event has shaped much of life since. A reminder of the gift we have today to live in the moment. I looked down at the dead man alone and knew that I would want to ensure when I died someone would weep for me.
I wrote the below poem several years later.
Something reached around my neck,
it was Death's Sweet embrace.
Icy Fingers touching, holding,
smoothing my face.
I turned my head away -
held my arm out
as if to say
No not you!
I have nothing to give of
not my life for sure
just simply my love.
his black cape to hide,
he would stop and wait
he could bide