At first, I didn’t notice the sirens. As a medical doctor, I’d grown used to electronic distress calls. Besides, I live in New York City. Ambulance whines and taxi horns are the treble and tenor lines of urban music.
My eight-year-old pointed them out. “Coronavirus,” she said, as an ambulance wailed one block away. “More coronavirus,” she said, as yet another siren rose and fell in the opposite direction. The empty streets amplified the urgent calls.
It was late March, and the governor had ordered us to stay home. But my family needed milk, and my daughter needed a walk. So here we were, traversing the valley of the shadow of death in search of essentials.
We are new New Yorkers, having arrived last summer for my work in medicine and ethics—two disciplines with sudden relevance. From urgent meetings about ventilator allocation, to redeploying clinicians to care for desperately ill patients, my work never stopped. Yet in the words of Seamus Heaney, “There was no sense of what to anticipate.” The wail of death was the only certainty.
During New York City’s most intense weeks of the pandemic, I found I could focus only on the task before me: sick patients, policy deliberations, food for my family. Other occupations—laughing with my children, for example, or writing prose—evaded me. Coronavirus eclipsed both joy and art.
Heaney recalls a time in Belfast in 1972, when he and the singer David Hammond set out to record a collection of music and poetry to promote the joy of song. On their way to the studio, a series of explosions shook the city. Sirens screamed. People died.
Hammond could not make music against the backdrop of the ambulances. As Heaney puts it, “The very notion of beginning to sing at that moment when others were beginning to suffer seemed like an offence against their suffering.” To make art in the face of sadness would be callous and irresponsible.
Or would it? Heaney second-guesses himself: “Why should the joyful affirmation of music and poetry ever constitute an affront to life?” It’s true, he says, that some art can insulate us from reality, feeding complacency and self-deception. But what about artists who have earned—whether by toil or tears—full rights to the subjects of their inspiration? What about artists who salvage from what Heaney calls “the catastrophe of history” not only truth, but also beauty?
It was late April. I was puzzling over this question, wondering how I might rescue truth and beauty from the coronavirus, when I received a note from one of our hospital’s chaplains, who is Jewish. The morgues were fully occupied and the refrigerated “morgue extensions” were filling up. She could only imagine, she said, that the souls of those lost during this time were disoriented, destabilized, and hurting. Would I join her in the Jewish ritual of shmira? Would I read the psalms over the dead?
I grew up in church, so I knew the psalms. But shmira? I asked some friends to tell me more. It turns out that the word means guarding. Members of the deceased’s community take turns sitting with the body, guarding it from physical and spiritual harm. This might traditionally have involved shooing away vermin, but it also means guiding perplexed souls away from temporal life. Reading the psalms can surely provide comfort in life. But could it restore beauty and truth in the presence of death?
This shmira would be different. Not only were we unaware of the names of the Jewish dead, but due to precautionary measures during the pandemic, we could not physically sit with the bodies. Instead, there would be an electronic sign-up sheet. We would read the psalms in the comfort of our own homes: socially, but not spiritually, distant.
I wasn’t sure what I thought about mobile morgues full of disoriented, destabilized, and hurting souls. But I was certain that reading the psalms could never hurt. It might even help. I signed up.
Seamus Heaney wanted the Twenty-third Psalm read at his funeral. He had been born in Ireland to a Roman Catholic family; by adulthood he no longer believed. He nevertheless wished for a Catholic burial Mass. As one biographer put it, “There is no other way to bury someone from the Catholic tradition in Northern Ireland.”
On Wednesday morning, when the time for my shmira shift arrived, I opened the Good Book to Psalm 23. The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. An ambulance cry interjected. I had noted the sirens less frequently in recent days, but now they were sounding again. As the wail died out, I returned to the words of consolation and beauty. Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff, they comfort me.
I turned next to Psalm 90, another common shmira reading. The psalmist declares the span of human life to be seventy years, or maybe eighty, if by reason of strength. True enough. But life is soon cut off, and we fly away. We must therefore learn to number our days, says the psalmist, so that we might grow in understanding. Living in light of our finitude can make us wiser.
But the psalmist’s musings are disrupted by more suffering. Anguish seems to thwart poetic reflection, much as the 1972 Belfast explosions thwarted music. He cries out, in essence, Enough! How long must this suffering go on?
And yet—as if anticipating the dilemma of Heaney and Hammond—the psalmist’s response takes the form of Psalm 90, a poem set to song. Its words seem already to understand what it took Heaney rather longer to discover: that the affirmation of poetry and music is never an affront to life, even to a suffering life. In the midst of misery, it is possible to create art that might itself offer consolation.
By the second week of May, the morgues in New York City were full. Sirens still whined past my windows—four sirens in the space of an hour.
But as we seek to accompany the sick and face our own mortality, art remains indispensable. Much as reading the psalms might do for those souls in the morgue, art can reorient, stabilize, and console us. It also has the power, as Heaney reminds us, to rescue truth and beauty from the catastrophe of history.
L. S. Dugdale is a physician and medical ethicist at Columbia University and author of The Lost Art of Dying.