Monday, January 18, 2010

Death and (In-)Dignity

I went to Barney’s funeral on Saturday. I did not know Barney, but his widow is the president of my writers’ club and I wanted to express my sympathy to her.

It was a very dignified affair. The evening before, at “visitation”, members of the U.S. Marine Corps had come to pay their respects (Barney had fought in World War II in Europe, a member of “The Greatest Generation”, in Tom Brokaw’s words), and on Saturday, the Marine Corps emblem inside the coffin’s lid, the pin on the deceased’s lapel and the American flag draped over the coffin’s bottom half all contributed to the sense of gratitude and joy Barney’s family must have felt for a long, well-lived life. It was a funeral cloaked in dignity.

Yesterday evening, on TV, there was the stark indignity of images from Haiti, with earth-moving equipment removing scattered bodies from the streets of Port-au-Prince. Limbs hanging out of large steel scoops before being dumped into trucks that would proceed to mass-grave, no-name burials.

It’s understandable that this has to be done, but does it have to be shown on television?

The United States is this hemisphere’s richest country and Haiti its poorest. Should a devastating earthquake, God forbid, strike an American city of equal size and population, is this what we would see on the evening news? Has our society become so insensitive that disaster victims are nothing more than this week’s trash? Or does being poor, black and dead bring with it an automatic deprivation of dignity? I wonder.

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