The message from dispatch was confusing so I asked for the incident commander's phone number and called him as I drove to the scene. The Sheriff's Sergeant said, "Hello, Padre. The funeral home guys are here but the family won't let them remove the body until a holy man does his thing." I was a little less confused, but still wondered what I was getting into.
At the time I was part of an association of clergy who had received specialized training and certification from the International Conference of Police Chaplains. We served the county sheriff's office and several municipal police agencies. Our primary ministry portfolio was to provide pastoral care for cops, much like military chaplains. But some of our training prepared us to work alongside deputies and officers. An unattended death in a home was among those occasions.
However, the family's refusal to allow the body to be moved had caused the responding officer to call in his sergeant. The call for service was now an "incident."
As I entered the home much of my confusion lifted. I detected the delicate odors of coriander and saffron from the kitchen. A young woman talking to the sergeant had an accent that makes the sound of English beautiful. They were Hindus.
I briefly spoke with the widow and her sons. The deceased and his wife had moved from India a few years before to be with their children. The man had died of natural causes. In fact, he was so ill at the end that his physician authorized the release of his body over the phone. During our conversation I asked about the man's career. Hearing the answer I excused myself and approached the sergeant.
"Frank." He gave me a look when I used his name. We always used ranks and titles in public. "He was a cop. A career in the Indian Constabulary, followed by service in the Criminal Investigation Department."
The sergeant raised his eyebrows,"CID?" The CID is a rough equivalent of the FBI is British-style law enforcement. "OK Padre. Thanks for the heads up."
I returned to the family and we all went into the bedroom where the body was on the floor. He was a small man, neatly arranged by the EMTs. I had asked the family if they had a copy of the Vedas. They did. A son sat cross-legged on one side of his father, I knelt on the other. I prayed softly under the sound of the man's Sanskrit, adapting my Rite of Ministry at the Time of Death from my prayer book. Instead of making the sign of the cross with oil on the deceased policeman's forehead, I made a single stroke, approximating a Hindu tilaka mark. I could hear sighs of satisfaction from the family standing around me.
Those sighs were transformed to gasps of wonder some minutes later as a relieved pair of funeral staffers finally rolled their gurney out the front door. The street was lined with police cars, light bars flashing. Sheriff's deputies and cops from four cities were formed up on either side of the home's front sidewalk. In somber unison the women and men slowly offered their salute as their brother from the other side of the planet was carried before them to the waiting hearse. The hearse was escorted away by a pair of patrol cars.
It is in the nature of my trade to be around death and those affected by death. In my experience, however, there is no community that is more broadly and deeply wounded by the death of one of its members than those who serve you in law enforcement.
The anecdote above describes how law enforcement officers quickly assembled to pay tribute after the natural death of a cop who was a stranger. Wednesday, by contrast, you will see law enforcement representation from across the nation to honor agent Jared Francom, killed in the line of duty last week. Unlike military personnel who are generally in harm's way only when deployed to a war zone, a law enforcement officer is deployed into potentially lethal combat every single day. Any traffic stop, any domestic violence call, any citizen in distress response, these and many other daily incidents in a deputy or officer's shift can suddenly disintegrate into a deadly confrontation.
And while it usually isn't the forefront of their thoughts, every man and woman who protects and serves us knows that any time they clock in, it could be their last.
The vocation of serving and protecting you as a peace officer is risky, and rewarding, and holy. The Apostle Paul, writing to the church in Rome taught: The police aren't there just to be admired in their uniforms. God also has an interest in keeping order, and he uses them to do it. [Romans 13:4bc -- The Message translation]
May God's blessings bring peace today to those who are sworn to keep the peace.