A memorial for the dead who have no name

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At the end of the memorial service for 300 -- what do we call them? Babies? Fetuses? Remains? -- the organist at St. Paul's seminary cranked up Beethoven's "Ode to Joy." I sang along and noticed a cameraman had turned his lens my way, perchance thinking I was a mourner who chose to stand in the press area.

Afterward, I approached a teary woman and asked if she felt like talking to a nosy reporter.

"You're very inappropriate," she said and walked away.

Ordinarily, actions are inappropriate. Or a time is inappropriate. People can be cruel, even despicable, but for a human to become inappropriate takes some doing.

Thursday night's self-conscious task of bringing comfort without quite naming the thing we mourned, proved that appropriateness, be it in how to ask a question, or even when to show up on the planet, is the new measure of humanity. It can mean the difference between being mourned by name in a church or tucked away in a funeral director's garage for several years and then noted at a service attended by 63 people in a hall built for 500.

Some of these small beings were the aftermath of abortions done at Magee-Womens Hospital. Others were stillbirths. A few, it appears, arrived full-term, drew five breaths and thought the better of staying in a world that doesn't quite know when life begins and what to do with it afterward. All were sent by Magee to a funeral director in McKeesport who was to arrange their cremations and who, instead, stacked them in his garage.

Cyril Wecht, the Allegheny County coroner, thought something ought to be done to acknowledge that the remains represent some kind of loss. He arranged for a rabbi, a minister and an official from the Catholic diocese to organize a service. In that sense the coroner, whose task really consists of counting and sorting, took more ownership of this horror than did UPMC Health System, Magee's owner.

When the story broke, their spokeswoman, Jane Duffield, told this newspaper, "We're not a big part of this story at all, and we don't want to be." Yesterday, I phoned Michele Baum, a Magee spokeswoman, to ask if her hospital had sent a representative to the memorial service.

After a few hours, she phoned back with a statement worthy of a candidate for Congress: "I can tell you that, although no one from Magee or UPMC was required to go to that religious service, we have no idea how many people elected to go on their own." Translation: "We're not a big part of this story at all, and we don't want to be."

This abdication pretty well encapsulates the era of the disposable life. A sizable number of the remains found in that garage were past the 16-week gestation stage. Under Pennsylvania law, they required a death certificate but not a name. Nobody quite knew how to refer to them. At one point Wecht said "babies." Then he said "fetuses." Finally, he spoke of the need to "memorialize all of these tragic situations."

I do not fault Wecht for this awkwardness and cannot imagine doing any better myself. Calling them babies disturbs the sensibilities of those invested in legal abortion. Calling them fetuses misses the fact that they were a very specific kind of fetus unlikely to have grown into anything less than human. It is as if giving comfort would give offense and, in the end, perhaps these creatures, who were by turns human beings and medical waste, were, indeed less people in the eyes of the world, than passing misfortunes -- "tragic situations."

In the back of the auditorium, a young woman was shepherding a little girl who had become as impatient as I with the proceedings. The little girl skipped about and filled the hallway behind the auditorium with the noises a child ought to make. Her name is Lucy Ursin. She is two.

Eileen Ursin, her mother, drove in from Castle Shannon because Lucy saw the reports on the television.

"She wanted to pray for the babies," Eileen said. "She understands babies. She loves babies."

"Babies," Lucy said.

The crowd, such as it was, filtered out. I almost collided with a neighbor who had come with her husband and their son.

We greeted each other until it became clear each of us wondered why the other was there. She looked at me quizzically. I mumbled. We hugged and then she wept and rushed away.

Neither of us could measure the other's sense of loss. I'd already been mistaken for a mourner in the press section. Nobody's connection to this tragedy was clear and of those who came to mourn, we could not tell who was a victim, who was a comforter and who was simply curious.

We were all inappropriate to the occasion because the occasion fit no one, not even the 300 absent creations sitting now in a morgue, waiting to be counted, and who needed a two-year old to give them a name without taking it back.


Dennis Roddy can be reached at droddy@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1965.


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