Leadership Scholars / racial justice

Proclaiming Mass Graves and the Empty Tomb

by Laura Ellis

Last year at the height of the COVID-19 outbreak in New York City, a drone accidentally discovered a mass grave outside the city on Hart Island. The grave was full of the bodies of people who died in a time when the city’s morgues were full. The bodies were unidentified and unclaimed, and most of them belonged to the lives of the poor. 

Though exacerbated by the sudden onset of the pandemic, NYC has been burying unclaimed and unknown bodies on Hart Island for years. An article from The New York Times broke the news of the drone’s discovery last year on Good Friday. As an entire religion remembered the life of one dead body belonging to a poor man named Jesus, thousands of unidentified bodies of poor people were buried in silence without recognition or grief.

Watching the video from that drone, I was haunted by the images. But more than that, I was haunted by the eerie silence of this mass funeral. Where there should have been mourning and prayers, silence hovered over the grave. Where were the loved ones and faith leaders? Where were the outcries in the face of injustice? These unclaimed bodies were ignored and devalued due to their social status. And perhaps what should be even more haunting for the Church is that social and religious silence frequently perpetuates the devaluation of certain bodies.  

This summer, many of our streets were flooded with people chanting “say his name” and “say her name” in response to the recent deaths of black and brown bodies. Though these bodies have been historically devalued, these marchers claimed that there is power in the naming and speaking aloud what has previously been hidden and silenced. Similarly, the #MeToo and #ChurchToo movements offered light, visibility, and voice to the silenced realities of sexual violence. 

Even though our churches and communities look different this year, we hold to the belief that there is something sacred in the act of speaking. As we gather for worship in-person or on screens, we sing, we speak, we recite prayers and scripture—believing that our voices have power, that they indicate the holy, that they connect us to God and each other. 

I hope we use our gift of voice to speak about the birth, life, death and resurrection of Christ. I also hope we use our voices to speak about people who have been silenced and unclaimed for far too long. Because we know that the people who are unseen, unclaimed, unknown, unvalued, ignored and silenced by society and by the Church are deeply loved by God. 

Genesis tells us that God spoke the world into being. With the sound of a voice, with the movement of lips and of tongues, with the power of words a world was created. Out of the chaos, the mere act of speech crafted a world of light, water, sky and life. 

Let us look to the creation story to remember that voices can transform chaos into beauty and peace. May we speak into the void with faith that voices have the ability to speak newness into creation. Let us use our words to mourn, to love, to speak up for the silenced, and to speak out against the powers that leave certain bodies unclaimed and unimportant. 

Rather than peering silently and voyeuristically into the mass graves, let us use our voices to proclaim the value of these bodies and all bodies who move through life unclaimed and devalued. May we proclaim not only the empty tomb of Christ but the value of those in forgotten tombs. From the vibration of throats and the movement of lips and tongues exhaled into sound, may we use our voices to proclaim that God loves and claims all bodies. And may we go and do likewise. 

 1Corey Kilgannon, “As Morgues Fill, N.Y.C. to Bury Some Virus Victims in Potter’s Field.” The New York Times, April 10, 2019. https://www.nytimes.com/2020/04/10/nyregion/coronavirus-deaths-hart-island-burial.html

Laura Ellis is a CBF Leadership Scholar in her third year of the MDiv program at Boston University School of Theology. She is originally from Abilene, Texas and was a past Student.Go fellow in Bali, Indonesia with Jonathan and Tina Bailey. 

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