Thursday, December 10, 2009

We Know Their Spirits Through Their Bodies

Today, the Bangor Daily News published a story about Penobscot Indian veterans being honored by the Government. That story is reprinted here:

* * *

INDIAN ISLAND, Maine — Jean Francis Chavaree was 6 years old when her big brother, Donald, then 20, enlisted in the U.S. Army and went off to Fort Bragg, N.C. It was February 1942, just after the Japanese had bombed Pearl Harbor.

“Most guys got to go home before they were shipped overseas,” Chavaree said, “but we never saw him again.”

Donald Raymond Francis was reported killed in action in the Philippines on Feb. 5, 1945. His body was never recovered but is believed to have been buried near the battle site.

At an emotional ceremony Thursday on Indian Island, Jean Chavaree, now 73, accepted a folded Penobscot Nation flag from a senior Pentagon official in honor of her lost brother.

“We continue to engage in efforts to recover Donald’s body and bring him home to his people,” said Penobscot Indian Nation Chief Kirk Francis, as Danny Pummill, deputy assistant secretary of the Army for Manpower and Reserve Affairs, handed the folded flag to a teary Chavaree.

It was one of several moving moments during Thursday’s “Freedom Team Salute,” which also honored three Army veterans still living on the island reservation. The Freedom Team Salute program recognizes Army veterans and the families and communities that support them. The program was launched in May 2005 and is administered by the Office of the Secretary of the Army and the Army chief of staff. More than 2.2 million individuals have been recognized through the program since it began.

With commendation certificates and letters signed by Army Chief of Staff Gen. George W. Casey Jr. and by Secretary of the Army John McHugh, Pummill also honored these Penobscot Indian veterans: Master Sgt. Charles Shay, who served from 1943 to 1964 and saw combat in both World War II and Korea; Spc. Eugene Joseph “Chip” Loring, who served from 1966 to 1969 during the Vietnam War; and Pfc. Leslie Banks, who served from 1943 to 1945.

Banks’ son John Banks accepted the commendation materials for his father, who had stayed home because of the icy roads. Other Penobscot veterans stood to be recognized during the brief ceremony.

Chief Francis and the entire Penobscot Indian Nation were honored with a commendation for their support of Penobscot citizens who have served with the Army. Francis became the first American Indian tribal leader to receive this recognition of support from the program.

Pummill acknowledged the Penobscot Indian Nation’s historic support of the U.S. Army, from the Revolutionary War through the current wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

For Jean Chavaree, the event was bittersweet, bringing up painful memories and kindling new hope.

After the ceremony, she recalled the awful day when word came that her brother had been killed.

“My mother had to go into Old Town to get the telegram. Of course, we had no bridge at the time, so she walked across the ice with my sister. When she got to the Western Union office and opened the telegram, she just collapsed,” Chavaree said.

Her mother, Chavaree said, “lost it” for two years, and never really recovered from the loss of her only son. The family’s grief was compounded by not being able to bring Donald’s body back home to Indian Island.

For years, she said, they believed there was no body to recover, that Donald had been blown to bits when his tank hit a land mine. But within the past few years, she said, evidence has emerged that Donald was the only one of the five tank crew members to die in the blast and that he may have died from a broken neck. The son of one his buddies on the tank crew has been trying to find the site of the battle, she said, and, potentially, the site of Donald Francis’ grave.

Chavaree said Pummill asked her to contact him when he gets back to Washington, D.C., so he can expedite the search for the truth.

“Wouldn’t it be something if I could get my big brother back after all these years?” Chavaree asked. “It’s a dream.”

* * *

Few people really understand the force of emotion and connection that possesses those who have lost a loved one, and been unable to obtain their bodies after their deaths for a burial at home. Some people wonder at the wisdom of such a seeming attachment to a physical body- what would really change if Donald Francis' body was brought back to Maine? His spirit, surely, is long gone. What his family loved in him was something intangible, something that works together with earth and water to create a "person", right? Surely that "person" is gone now, yes?

I suppose there are a lot of Buddhists out there that would say the family of Donald Francis was just attached to his body. His sister seems to think that she'd be getting "her big brother back" if she could get his physical remains and bury them at home. But clearly, this man is not at all found in a pile of remains. The remains are remains. The man was something else.

But the story isn't finished there. What I said above is the prevailing view of many revealed religions, but it isn't a view that I prefer. For too long I've had my neck bent backwards by these transcendental religionists that want to draw harsh lines between matter and spirit. For me, this story and the emotions behind it are easily explicable. The spirit may be an intangible mystery, a seed of the Great Mystery which plays about every being- but we don't experience spirit in that way, when we join with our loved ones. Their spirits are with ours in every moment we are together, but we don't get just spirits, we get spirits and bodies.

The spirit of Donald Francis was born in Maine, among his people, because love bound it there. It belonged there, because that was the land of his people. The earth of his body, the water in his body, was the earth and water of Maine, of Indian Island. The spirit craved that earth and water. His spirit showed love and experienced love through that body, which was compounded from sacred forces of earth and water.

To return his body would be to return more than just "remains". It would be to return a piece of Maine and a piece of his sacred land to the greater whole from which it was drawn originally. Places are sacred, and the "home" of a person and their family is absolutely even more so, by virtue of how they bond with it and live on it. I can understand how a native family can experience emotions of loss AND a relieved sense of "regaining" if they could somehow get the remains of a family member back. No, they aren't getting their brother back just as he was when he left. But they would be getting back intimate reminders of who and what their brother was while his spirit lived here with the flesh.

We know our loved ones through their bodies. Their bodies are very important. Their bodies bear the imprint of their spirits, and are illuminated by their spirits, and shaped by the spirit. Even when the spirit is gone, the body maintains something of a vague power, a sanctification due to this precious relationship and experience. The body is not a mere vessel to be cast off and discarded. People who think like that are enchanted with the religions that teach us to turn away from this world and keep our eyes on distant heavens. This world is sacred, and so are its earths and waters, and so are these bodies that our spirits join with to have the experiences we call our lives.

Every human being who is sane, I think, will experience the loss of a loved one's body after their death as a hole, a void, an incompleteness for these reasons. Bodies are not "mere matter" to be placed vertically "far below" the spirit. These two poles of every life exist on an equal keel, in many important ways. We come to know people through their bodies. The earth and water of the body give a vibrant power of expression to the spirit. The body is not a lesser brother to the spirit, to be shunned for its mortality, but a part of spirit to be cherished.

There is an important reason why the ancients were respectful about burial places, and about the treatment of the body after death. And it has to do with some very deep powers, and a recognition of spirit as not alien to this world. If we ever loved the spirit of a person, then we must treat their bodies well, as well as we might keep safe a beautiful letter they once wrote to us- for the body is another expression of their will and their hopes and dreams. The brave spirit of Donald Francis
has gone to the place where all the dead go, and gone on to meet with the Truth about things. But so long as his remains can be found, they should be returned to his home, for something that his spirit was involved in is still here, and in a broad sense, his power is still here.

1 comment:

puny human said...

I haven't visited your blog in a while and enjoyed spending some time here reading. Thanks for continuing to provide a counterpoint to the transcendent-spiritualist religions.

As if there could be disembodied spirit or disensouled matter!

Best wishes,