A Prayer for Everyone

Author: Luke Brennan ’18

3 Final Illustration by Oivind Hovland

It’s bad to be late for a funeral, and even worse if you’re part of the presiding party. We left on time, but we missed a turn because we were chatting — my co-worker Jeff, two seminarians visiting from Colorado and me.

The four of us were volunteering for a soup kitchen in Phoenix called Andre House. Going to White Tanks, the cemetery for the homeless, was a feared chore among the Andre House staff. “We need two people for White Tanks this Thursday” was often met by silence, and “I won’t go this time” was an acceptable answer.

White Tanks is a cemetery for the unclaimed: If you die, and nobody knows you, or nobody’s willing to foot the bill, then you’re buried at White Tanks.

The people doing the burying were inmates dressed in bright orange. They were accompanied by two prison officers. The inmates pulled coffin after coffin out of two white vans: plain, pure rectangles of light-colored wood. The holes were dug, and the inmates used orange straps to maneuver the coffins down to their final resting place.

For each coffin, we read prayers from a little black binder. Sometimes the name was given, and for others we simply used a filler: “the deceased one.” The inmates were old hands at the process. They had done burials like this many times, and we looked to them for direction. At the end of each ceremony, we sprinkled ashes on the tomb and moved on to the next one.

We had trouble with the last person, who was unnamed, who, more specifically, was a baby. We didn’t know which way the head was, and we handled it awkwardly — looking at the small box and making suggestions.

“This side has a cross,” someone said eventually.

One inmate took the job of lowering the baby-box slowly into the ground as Father Eric read from a prayer book. He kept having to stop reading, though, because of the fighter jets that were taking off from the Air Force base nearby.

These planes weren’t just loud, they made your body shake. I flinched every time a plane screamed overhead. At first, I was embarrassed for being so jittery, but then Jeff reminded me these planes were designed to kill people: “Typically, when people hear those planes, that’s it. That’s the last sound.” Which was true, of course, and helped explain why I wanted to duck for cover each time.

After the funeral, we all went to Denny’s, which, looking back, didn’t make much sense. No one was hungry. When the waitress came around, we ordered waters and coffees and looked back down at the menu, flipping the big plastic pages.

We tried to talk about it. One of the seminarians connected the fighter jets to a Bible verse. Something about seven chariots in the sky, sending the baby upward to the heavens. It was poetic; I remember feeling moved. Then I remembered that these chariots were death machines, designed by a government that was an implicit bystander to the baby who just died. I wrapped my fingers around my coffee and didn’t say anything.

Scrubbing was a sort of therapy at Andre House. It felt good to clean. It was something you could do, something tangible that would make a difference, even if it were small. 

When I got back from White Tanks, I went after the port-a-potties. I could feel my body taking over as I cleaned, my forearms becoming tense and wiry as I pressed my paper towel into the plastic toilet seat. I breathed heavily, sprayed Simple Green, and scrubbed.

“Can I give you a hand?” It was Tim, a long, thin man with no hair on his head. Tim was a regular at Andre House. He believed black cars were following him, trying to get his information. He was paranoid, maybe schizophrenic.

“Gotta get the floor,” he said as he snagged some Clorox wipes. “It’s nice to be able to put your stuff down when you’re taking a dump.” I shrugged. It was a good point. The floors were the grossest part. The Clorox wipe went gray-brown almost immediately when you scrubbed the floor.

Summer is the dying season at Andre House. Phoenix scalds in summer. Stuck out in the sun, people experiencing homelessness get dehydrated quickly. I left Andre House before bodies started showing up en masse, before finding people who had died on the street became a weekly occurrence. I left Phoenix for Chicago to work as a technology consultant, far from the world of port-a-potties and fighter-jet burials.  

So it was a strange conversation with Jeff — who stayed through the summer — when he told me that Tim had died on the street, that he was buried at White Tanks. He said it in passing because he thought I already knew.

I felt my stomach drop as I realized we hadn’t had this conversation. The “who died?” conversation. Suddenly I felt the fragility of not knowing. I was standing on ice, about to take the plunge, about to learn a list of names of people — friends who had made me laugh, who helped me clean port-a-potties, who I ate dinner with, shared sunflower seeds with, who I’d passed the time with — who had died on the street.

“Who else?” and he gave me the list.

Forgetting is important, I think. It’s a nice tool, and it helps us retain our sanity. We need these kinds of tools to put our minds at ease. Rather than go crazy, we can lie; we can rearrange facts to make them make more sense. Or we can lean on our spirituality — allow our religion to tie some sort of meaning into tragedy. We can surrender to our bodies; we can let ourselves be angry at the stain on the floor — the first enemy above all enemies! — and we can lose ourselves in the battle to destroy that little dirty spot. These tools are all helpful and good. We might go insane without them.

But if it doesn’t make us go crazy — if we can bear it — it’s good to remember. To observe grief in our own lives and in the lives of those around us. To tend to that grief and share it. In doing so, we may move towards a solution, but if nothing else, at least we can share in the fact that we are all holding on to grief of some kind. That we are not alone in grieving, or worrying, or suffering. That we are all messy, and that being messy is a part of being human.

Luke Brennan is a software developer and freelance writer who lives in Chicago.