Yesterday thirty-nine people — thirty-eight adults and one teenager — were discovered dead in a refrigerated trailer in Essex. We do not yet know who they were nor where they came from, though the Essex Police and their colleagues from other Forces have moved quickly to begin investigations. The media have reacted as we would expect, expressing horror and revulsion, then turning to other topics. This morning Twitter, for example, is replete with squabbles about politics, ‘inspirational quotes’ and the usual rag-bag of opinions, ranging from the thoughtful to the whacky. For some of us, however, those deaths in the trailer are not so easily forgotten, nor should they be. Our common humanity demands that we remember.
At the end of every Hour of the Divine Office and at the end of every meal, we pray for the dead. Some outside the community would like to limit such prayer to the ‘faithful departed’ in the strictest sense (i.e. those baptized as Catholics), but we have never done that, preferring to pray for all who have died, especially those who have no-one else to pray for them or who have died in terrible circumstances. The thought of those desperate people dying in an airless, frozen darkness is horrible. Not for them the beautiful rituals with which we surround death in the monastery — the prayers by the bedside, the anointing, the candles, the holy water, the accompaniment of the sacraments. A prayer, a kind thought, a remembrance, is little enough, surely?
Too little perhaps, because behind the horror and tragedy of those deaths is the scandal of people smuggling and trafficking. We need to do more than lament the circumstances, we need to eradicate the evil. That will take courage and vigilance and the kind of activism many of us baulk at. It will also mean sacrifice, because unless we tackle the causes of migration to the West people will continue to take huge risks — and there will always be others ready to exploit them. There will be more deaths, more tragedies.
We do what we can, of course. Here in the monastery we pray, and we do not lose hope. Donne’s sonnet ends with the lines
One short sleep past, we wake eternally
And death shall be no more; Death, thou shalt die.
Amen to that.