By Tim Serban
In every disaster or mass casualty event, a volunteer chaplain will face many dilemmas. We have learned that no two disasters are the same. However, complex ethical dilemmas will very often emerge unexpectedly.
The Oxford Living Dictionary defines an ethical dilemma as “a situation in which a difficult choice has to be made between two courses of action, either of which entails transgressing a moral principle.” During a disaster relief operation, the solutions might depend on the circumstances that unfold.
Below, I present some of the dilemmas that spiritual care teams have faced in recent years. Some offer resolutions; some do not. However, making time to wrestle with the questions will be more beneficial than the actual or suggested resolution to each dilemma.
9-11: What do we bury if we have no body? The Catholic family of a fallen firefighter goes to its priest chaplain and asks, “The only thing they found was his FDNY turnout coat. They don’t believe they will ever find his body. My pastor says the Catholic Church will not permit a burial without a body. What do we do?”
Flight 93: Families of the United Flight 93 victims are gathering in Shanksville, PA, for a national memorial service with first lady Laura Bush, and Secret Service officials need to identify family members with a unique lapel pin. They ask the Disaster Spiritual Care leader, “What neutral symbol would be appropriate and respectful to all faith traditions?” In the limited time, the team suggests the image of a dove holding an olive branch with a rainbow as the backdrop. This became the family pin for the families of the Flight 93 victims that day.
Hurricane Katrina: The Disaster Mortuary team leader and Northern Command asked American Red Cross Disaster Spiritual Care leaders, “How can we support the needs of two religious groups who traditionally perform a ritual washing of the body as part of their burial rite? We have leaders of the Jewish and Muslim faiths requesting to provide their ritual washing. How can we honor the ritual when we are unable to identify the faith of any casualty?”
Together this group determined that a general washing of the body would not be offensive to any faith community. As a solution, a simple washing station was added at the end of the autopsy process to honor those whose tradition required it while respecting all traditions. This was an acceptable solution, given the nature of this complex disaster.
Airport morgue: A local chaplain reports the New Orleans airport has become a temporary emergency field hospital. Survivors, including some frail nursing home residents, are being identified with red, green, yellow, and black tags. Those marked with black tags are not yet dead but are being placed alongside those who already have died in a temporary morgue. How will you respond and how will you support those who are labeled in this area?
Honoring the dead: Red Cross Disaster Spiritual Care teams are asked to partner with the Disaster Mortuary teams doing the recovery work of those who have died. The teams ask the chaplain to honor the dead by providing a meaningful prayer to honor the life of each person when their body is recovered. What might you do?
Boston Marathon bombing memorial: An impromptu memorial emerges in front of the barricades across Boylston Street, when the crowd gets word that the street will open soon. Spontaneously the crowd decides to relocate the entire memorial on the sidewalk street corner. What remains after the large memorials of candles, running shoes and makeshift cards are piles of dead flowers, rain-soaked cards and unrecognizable debris. A person picks up a garbage bag and begins loading the remaining debris. What dilemma might occur if as a Red Cross volunteer with visible Red Cross clothing you are observed filling the garbage bags and disposing of them in the trash?
In the months after Hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria, the Las Vegas shooting, and the northern California fires, countless ethical dilemmas have emerged, and they are being addressed by those who courageously responded. It is too early to fully appreciate the depth and impact of these recent dilemmas, and we will not engage with them yet, out of respect for our many responders. Our goal is to continue to learn from each experience and to remain flexible and compassionate in the face of each disaster or tragedy.
Tim Serban, BCC, is the American Red Cross Disaster Spiritual Care national lead and the chief mission integration officer for Providence Health Oregon.