The Ministers’ Morgue

2

Originally posted in 20087 at RealLivePreacher.com. This story may only be online for a limited time, since it will be in the new edition of Turtles All the Way Down.

I got the news that a minister friend had died in Waco. He dropped dead right on the sidewalk. There was no warning. A witness said he looked surprised for a moment, and then fell in a heap. I hadn’t heard from Doug in years, so I was surprised to find that my name was in his wallet, listed as the person to contact in an emergency. He had a wife, but she left him years ago. I heard he was working at a church in Waco. I wondered why they didn’t call someone in the congregation.

The police told me I needed to go to Waco to identify the body. I had never done that before, so I was a little nervous. But what choice did I have? Doug was a friend, even if we hadn’t seen each other recently. He needed this last thing done for him, and apparently I was the only one to do it.

It’s about a three hour drive to Waco, so I had time to think. Doug was one of the good guys. He was serious about his Christianity. He wanted to do the right thing. He’d always been honest from the pulpit and in person. I found myself wishing I hadn’t lost touch with him.

The Waco city morgue looked like the basement of a hospital in the 1940s. Badly colored tile floors and shiny metal surfaces everywhere. I found the guy in charge, but he said that no one named Doug had been brought there.

“Are you sure?” I said. “The Waco police called and said his body had been taken to the morgue. He was about my age. I think he was a minister in a church here in town.”

“Oh, he’ll be at the Minister’s Morgue. You need to go there.”

“The Minister’s Morgue? Never heard of it.”

“Yeah, it’s a special morgue at that old chapel in Waco Park. The Church maintains it, and all ministers who die suddenly are taken there.”

“What do you mean, ‘The Church maintains it?’ What church? Is it some denominational thing?”

“Look buddy, I don’t know anything about that. I just know the guys who run it wear crosses on chains around their necks. They’re like spooky priests or something; I don’t know. When a ministers dies kind of sudden-like – unexpected – they show up take him away. I don’t know anything else about it.”

I went to college in Waco, but that was many years ago. I had a vague memory of a little chapel near the back of the park, down close to the river. I wandered through the park, keeping the river in sight on my right. I found a little stone church right by the park’s back fence. It wasn’t much larger than a small cottage. Behind the fence was a wall of tangled and wild-looking forest. There didn’t seem to be any way a building like this could be a morgue. I cautiously stuck my head in the door and called out.

“Hello. I’m looking for the Minis…some kind of morgue or something? I might be in the wrong place. Is there anyone here who can help me?”

No one answered, so I stepped inside. The chapel was beautiful. It seemed ancient, with stone walls and a stone floor. There were dark, wooden pews and a single aisle that led to a simple pulpit, also of dark wood. On the wall behind the pulpit was a stand with a few votive candles burning in it. The windows were stained glass, which let in just the right amount of light and colored it nicely. It was one of the most beautiful places I’d ever seen. If I hadn’t been there to identify a body, I would have loved to have spent an hour or so in meditation and prayer.

I wandered down the aisle and inspected the candles. When I turned around I noticed a wooden door at the back of the church. There was a bronze plaque on it that said, “The Morgue.”

“Holy shit!,” I said out loud. “There really is a morgue here.”

I slowly opened the door, a little nervous about what I might find behind it. There were stairs leading to a basement. There was light coming through the window in a door at the bottom of the stairs. It looked like fluorescent light. The light flickered a bit, so I knew someone was moving around in the room behind the door.

I descended the stairs, but before I could open the door, a man wearing surgical scrubs saw me through the window and hurried over. He came out and quickly closed the door. He put his hands behind him and leaned back against it.

“Can I help you?”

“I’m here to identify a body.”

“No one is allowed in here except clergy. Are you a minister? Do you have a clergy card or some credentials?”

“Well, I’m a Baptist minister, and we don’t go in much for cards and credentials. So I guess not.”

“You’ll have to take the test then. I’ll ask you three questions, just to make sure you’re a minister.”

Now everything that was happening was strange. Completely insane even. But this little man at the door with his three questions seemed outrageous even in the context of everything else that was going on.

“This is like some kind of crazy Monty Python sketch,” I said while trying to look into the room behind him. The man kept sliding to the side to block my view.

“Did Larry put you up to this?” I shouted at the door, “Larry, are you in there?”

“You did say you were here to identify a body, right?”

“Yes.”

“He was a minister? Died suddenly? Collapsed, did he?”

“Yes.”

“Well, those are the rules. Only clergy may enter. You’ll have to take the test or leave.”

“Okay, whatever. Just ask me the questions.”

“Name any one person mentioned in the book of Hezekiah.”

“There is no book of Hezekiah in the Bible.”

The man seemed pleased. “Correct! That one catches most of the impostors.”

“Oh, come on! Who would ever pretend to be a minister? Why would anyone do that? It’s like, I don’t know, pretending to be an asshole. It’s not like people admire us anymore. People aren’t lined up hoping to be let into some exclusive clergy club. I can’t believe anyone would pose as a minister.”

“People do. Do you want the next question or not?”

“Fine.”

“What’s a Tertium Quid?”

My mouth fell open. I was stunned. Like he hit me with a two-by-four. My mind rebooted, and for a few moments I couldn’t have told him what my name was. I shook my head, as if that might clear my thinking.

“What? Who knows that anymore? I vaguely remember that from seminary, but… you… no one knows that. Are you kidding me?”

The man closed his eyes and spoke slowly. “What is…a Tertium…Quid?”

I closed my eyes and tried to remember. I was sitting in class. That phrase was on an exam. Something to do with some ancient creede or something.

“You know, it’s… it’s from Church history. But I can’t remember. Some kind of logical problem or something? Like when a thing is something it can’t be. Maybe it has something to do with the Trinity? Or else the nature of Christ? Hell, I don’t know.”

“That’s fine. Just having heard of it is enough.”

“Oh, that’s nice. That’s good. You’re real funny. You’re a riot. You are aware that I have a dead friend in there. Tertium Quid!”

“Calm down. The last question is more of a favor. Would you marry my daughter next weekend? We can’t find a minister who will do it.”

My head dropped so that I was suddenly looking at my shoes. A wave of despair flooded over me. “Oh God, not another wedding!”

“Okay, you’re a minister. Come on in.”

He opened the door and waved me inside. The room looked just like every morgue I’d ever seen on television. Sterile. A vaguely greenish light coming from somewhere. Metal sinks on one wall. Big drawers for bodies on another. In the center of the room were three shiny metal tables. The first two had bodies on them covered with sheets. The third table was empty.

The man walked over to one of the bodies and pulled back the sheet. It was Doug. He had that stiff, pale, soapy look like dead bodies do. His face, however, had a big smile on it. A perfect smile.

“Yeah, that’s Doug,” I said. “Wow, he’s still smiling.”

“Yeah, most ministers put on their smile just before they kick it. I don’t know why.”

Suddenly I felt very sad for Doug. It didn’t seem right that I was the one who was there. He must have been very lonely to have listed me on his emergency call list. Some distant friend from the past when we were all in seminary together. We were so young and hopeful. And so naive about what church work would really be like.

“I can’t believe I was the name in his wallet. I haven’t seen Doug in years. It’s sad to think there was no one else to call, someone closer to him or something.”

“Oh, there were hundreds of names he could have listed. And any one of them would have come, I’m sure. I guess he didn’t want the church people seeing him dead. They weren’t that kind of friends for him, you know?”

“So, what did he die of? What killed him?”

“That’s what we’re about to find out.”

I jerked my head hard to the right so that I was looking at him with only my left eye.

“Uh, what do you mean?”

“I’m going to do the autopsy. And you have to witness it.”

“Oh, no way man. That is not happening. If I so much as see a scalpel in your hand, I’m out of here.”

The man looked at me sympathetically. “I’m sorry, but those are the rules. A minister dies and another minister is summoned. And he or she has to watch the autopsy. Orders from above. No getting around it. You can leave, but then Doug will have to wait here until some other minister comes. That’s why that other guy is still here. No one’s come to watch his autopsy yet.”

“Jesus! Are you kidding me?”

“No. Hey, it won’t be that bad. And you need to see this. It’s something you’re supposed to see.”

I winced and looked at the guy like he’d just farted.

“I’m serious. Trust me. This is Doug’s last gift to the world. His last gift to one of his fellow ministers.”

“You say it won’t be that bad?”

“Actually, it will be. Horrible. But it’s got to be done, and we might as well get it over with. The two of us.”

So there I was. Just another unpleasant clergy thing. Just another something that had to be done, and I was the only one who could do it. I have learned that when these situations come up, you just take a deep breath and jump right in. I stepped toward Doug’s table.

“Okay.”

The man pulled the sheet off of Doug, leaving him completely naked on the metal table. He glanced over, noticed me wincing, and got a cloth to cover Doug’s midsection.

“That’s better,” I said.

He put on some latex gloves and selected a scalpel from a tray full of shiny instruments. He placed the blade near the top of Doug’s shoulder, then looked at me and said, “There won’t be any blood when I cut. It’s not flowing anymore. Thought that might help you.”

“Yeah, thanks.”

“You ready?”

“No. But go ahead.”

He nodded and turned his full attention to Doug. He made an incision from each collarbone to a center point below the breastplate. Then he made a single incision down the center of Doug’s abdomen, ending up with a y-shaped cut. He folded the skin flaps back, got a small saw, and began opening the ribcage. I turned away and made sounds to cover the noise.

“Ya, ya, ya, ya, ya, ya, ya, ya, ya.”

The sound stopped. I looked back. The man had stopped sawing and was staring at me. I shrugged and he turned back to his work. After Doug’s ribs were spread open, he looked inside for a few seconds and then motioned me over. He inclined his head toward Doug’s body.

“Take a look at that.”

I looked into Doug and drew back in horror. Everything was a mess. His internal organs were jumbled together with a lot of blood and goo all over the place. I don’t know the details about how everything is supposed to fit together in a human body, but I have seen enough medical shows on television to have a rough idea. Even I could tell something was terribly wrong.

“My God, what happened?”

“You ask me, I’d say he exploded inside. Looks like shrapnel wounds. What a mess.”

He put one gloved hand down into Doug and then the other. He began lifting things out and putting them into stainless steel trays. I watched the first few handfuls, then turned away.

“I can’t look. I’m sorry. Does it count as a witness if I’m in the room but looking away?”

“Yeah, that’s fine.”

He worked without speaking. I leaned against the wall and tried to look anywhere but at Doug. I didn’t like the sounds of things being pulled out and dropped into trays. After a few moments the noises stopped. There was a pause, and then he said,

“Will ya look at that.”

“What?”

“Come take a look at this.”

I walked over and looked inside Doug. It wasn’t so bad now that most of the stuff was out of him.

“My God, what is that?” I said.

The man stared into Doug’s body and said nothing for a few moments.

“I’m not sure what to call it. I guess I’d say it’s a comminuted fracture of the spine. Ever heard of that before?”

“No. But there’s a lot I haven’t heard of that’s on the inside…of us. So that doesn’t… Comminuted? Isn’t that where there’s some kind of… He has that of the spine?”

“It’s kind of a splintered fracture. And that’s unusual for the spine. Look, the spine is just a series of bones stacked on top of each other – vertebrae, right?”

I nodded because it seemed like the thing to do, and I had heard of vertebrae.

“So you can break your back – your spine – but the pieces just break apart, really. An individual vertebra can receive a comminuted fracture of course, but this is something completely different. Look here.”

He pointed up and down Doug’s spine. “See all that calcification?”

“I guess his spine does look a little thicker than pictures I’ve seen of spines.”

“Yes, it’s quite different. Look how the vertebrae have been fused together with this extra bone matter. His spine has become a solid, immovable unit. Very brittle. There was some kind of sudden pressure, I would guess, and it just splintered right here in the middle. See? Bone shards went everywhere. Like I said, shrapnel.”

We stood silently for a few seconds. I looked up and the man was staring at me. I got the feeling he expected me to say something, but I had nothing to say. I looked back at Doug, and suddenly my head felt heavy. I saw some black dots at the edges of my peripheral vision. I felt shaky. I put one hand on the table to steady myself.

The man began to speak quickly – very business-like. “Well, that’s done. Cause of death was a comminuted fracture of the spine due to unknown stress agents. The spine itself had been fused together over time by further unknown stress agents, leading to a lack of flexibility. The fracture caused massive internal injuries and bleeding, leading to the patient’s demise.”

He nodded at me. “You can take a seat over there by the wall. You’re looking a little shaky, which is understandable. I’ll close him up. We’re done. You’ve seen what you were brought here to see.”

I sat in a metal folding chair against the wall while the man pulled Doug’s skin back together and stitched him up. I was bouncing my heel up and down at a furious pace. My stomach was churning. Not with nausea, but with stress. I felt afraid. I felt like I had done something wrong and was caught. It was like sitting outside the principal’s office. I took a deep breath, and when I exhaled, it sounded shaky. I leaned forward and put my head in my hands. After a few moments I heard the man washing his hands. He walked toward me as he dried them.

“Come into my office.” He pointed to a door I hadn’t noticed. I followed him inside. He sat behind the desk, and I sat in a chair facing him.

The man looked at me for a moment or two. He spun his chair around, grabbed a cup, and poured himself some coffee from a Mr. Coffee machine on the credenza behind him.

“Cup of coffee?” he asked without turning around.

“Oh, no. Thanks though.”

He spun back around and opened a desk drawer. He took out a small, flask-shaped bottle of whiskey and poured a shot into his coffee. He looked at me and raised the bottle a few inches. “You sure?”

I snickered and shook my head.

“What’s funny?”

“Oh, just the flask and pouring a shot of whiskey into your coffee. It’s in every movie. Only I’ve never really actually seen anyone do it. It’s like we’re in a film or a story or something.”

The man said nothing. He raised the cup to his lips and sipped from it.

“I find that kind of thing funny is all. That’s funny to me.”

“How’d you know it was whiskey?”

“Oh, I just assumed.”

He made no response to this. He leaned back in his chair and drank his coffee. I thought about asking if there was a Coke machine, but that request seemed so wildly out of place that I abandoned the thought as soon as it occurred to me.

“So what did you think about that?” he asked.

“The autopsy? I don’t know what to think about that. I don’t know how to think about…even thinking about that. What was that? How does that happen to anyone? Fused spine? Exploding stuff? Bone shrapnel?”

“I see this sort of thing fairly often. As I said before, it’s rare among the general population, but surprisingly common among clergy of a certain type. I have a pretty good idea of what happened to Doug.”

“Yeah? What happened to him?”

He set his coffee cup down and leaned forward, resting his elbows on his desk.

“Do you know what a tell is?”

“A tell? Yeah, that’s like in poker where your face or something gives you away. You know, like shows that you’re bluffing or something.”

“Right. Some people say that everyone has a tell. That’s correct, but it’s a vast understatement. The truth is, the entire human body is a tell. Your body always tells the truth about you. Eventually. Oh, the body will let you get away with stuff for awhile. You can overeat, smoke, lie, try to love everyone in the world, embezzle, try to act like Jesus, tell white lies for all the best reasons, cheat on your wife. Whatever. You can do these things, but the body will always tell on you in the end. The truth always comes out in the body.”

Suddenly I had a very strange feeling about this guy. “Who are you? You’re not just an autopsy…guy who does the autopsies, are you?”

He smiled and leaned back in his chair. “Heh heh heh. Ahhhh… You!”

I had no idea what he meant by that but decided once again not to press the question.

“What happened to our friend Doug is simply stated. He was trying to be what he could not be.”

“I don’t understand.”

“Well, let me lay it out for you. There is the reality of who you are. It is the sum total of all that you think and feel and do. It is an undeniable reality. And there is the reality of who you hope to be, what you hope to do, the kind of person you hope to become. And hoping to become something that is better than what you are is a good and worthy thing. But it doesn’t change the fact of who you are at this time. Doug was trying to be something that he was not.”

“You mean he was a hypocrite?”

“Good Lord, no! Doug was perhaps the finest minister I’ve ever known. And I’ve known quite a few. His integrity was above reproach. Ironically, that was his downfall.”

“I’m really having a hard time following you here.”

“Look, the hypocritical ministers never have this problem. The televangelists, the con-artists, the narcissists, the ambitious. They can say one thing, do another, claim to be something else altogether, and go home and sleep like a baby. They know who they are. They’ve made their peace with hypocrisy. They decided long ago that they would do whatever is necessary to get what they want in life. And they usually get exactly what they want.”

“Yeah, but they’re not happy, right? They get the money and power, but those turn out to be hollow and meaningless.”

“Oh no. They’re quite happy. Delirious with happiness. Tickled pink. Glowing. Laughing. Filled with joy. Having a ball.

“Well if that’s true, that just sucks!”

“Settle down now. The truth is, those people have a very shallow idea of happiness. Let them enjoy it. They live in their own world, and we’re talking about a different world. Doug’s problem was that he tried so very hard to be what he thought he should be. He tried be the kind of person he thought the church needed him to be. He tried to love people he could not love. And he denied loves he truly had but felt he shouldn’t. That one hurt him badly – every day. He did things he did not want to do – which is fine – but he tried to make-believe that he enjoyed doing them. Worst of all, he tried to make himself believe things that he did not believe. That’s the one that broke his back in the end. He tried so hard. He couldn’t bear hypocrisy. You can’t imagine the mind games he played trying to keep the faith. I told you that the body does not lie. The tension inside of Doug was immense. By the sheer force of his will, he developed a thick spine to try and hold it all together. But eventually the pressure was too much, and he blew. Boom.”

He paused and scratched the surface of the table with his fingernail.

“They always blow in the end. You should remember that. The body always wins.”

“But it seems like those things he was trying to do are all good things – most of them anyway. And it seems good to me that he wanted to be what he felt he should be.”

“It was good. And Doug was a good man. But it’s not a question of good or bad. It’s simple reality. You are what you are. What else could you be? Perhaps it’s even a good thing that Doug gave his life trying to be what he thought he should be. He helped a lot of people along the way. But just because it was a good thing doesn’t mean it didn’t cost him. Remember, when you break the bottle and pour nard on the feet of Jesus, that might be a good thing to do, but the bottle is still broken and the nard lost forever.”

I sat back in my chair, stunned. Moments passed. The man said nothing. He just sipped his coffee and watched me.

“I don’t know what to do with this new information. I never thought of ministry like this. What am I…what are we supposed to do?”

The man stood up and walked around to my chair. He laid his hand on my shoulder.

“You don’t have to do anything. You came to bear witness, and so you did. You saw what you needed to see. I dare say you won’t forget it either. That’s all you need to know for now.”

A small, red light on his desk started blinking. Both of our heads turned toward it.

“Well, that’s all the time we have. That would be Reverend Sparks. He’s here to identify the other body. Gordon, it’s nice to meet you. Be about the Lord’s work. And be well. See if you can find a way to be both.”

I gasped. “The Tertium Quid!”

He smiled.

I met Sparks at the top of the stairs. He was understandably surprised to see me.

“Gordon, what are you doing here?”

“Same thing you’re doing.”

I watched Sparks go down to the man waiting for him. The last thing I heard before the door closed behind me was, “No credentials? Well, you’ll have to take the test.”

rlp

For those not familiar with the New Testament. The nard reference can be found in John 12:1-8.

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  • Jon Erickson

    Just a thought. You never identified yourself by name. Yet he calls you Gordon??
    I know that experience, but I gave up ministry before much calcification took place. Oh, I had my moments, but for the most part, managed to survive until I quit. And I have been to see Carl. I will comment on that story after I have read it a few times more. Thank you Gordon. We have walked and still walk much the same path.

    I add you to my list of people that can make me laugh out loud: P.G. Wodehouse, Patrick McManus, David Sedarius, Bill Bryson.

    Blessings.
    Jon

  • Jon Erickson

    The three questions are PERFECT. I burst into laughter. I add you to my list of writers that can make me laugh out loud: P.G. Wodehouse, Patrick McManus, David Sedarius.
    I also was in ministry but not long enough to calcify my spine. I quit and have been on the path to find a new narrative as well. Those stories resonate so well with me. I hope sometime soon you put many of those together in the best order and publish the book.
    I had a number of your stories open and I think I commented in the wrong place so forgive me if this is said again.