Justin’s Bones

This column was published on UPI’s Religion and Spirituality Forum on January 8, 2007

“My God, is there any sin worse than indifference?”–from Nature Girl by Carl Hiaasen

Last month, while hiking in the woods along Big River, near my hometown of Mendocino on California’s North Coast, my ten-year-old nephew Justin found the skeletal remains of a young man who had been missing for twenty seven years.

It is a story that will, no doubt, live long in the canon of Daniel Family Lore: Justin and a few of his friends, who were on an outing with my sister-in-law, left the regular path to do some bushwacking. Their curiosity was aroused by the sight of a pair of hiking boots lying in the undergrowth, and the shoes, it turns out, were still being worn by the bony feet of a human skeleton.

Bones and boots were all that remained of what once had been Daniel Robert Niven, a former Marine who first was reported missing in the late days of the Carter Administration.

It’s not often that one finds a perfectly shod skeleton lying on the forest floor, and those of us who love my nephew were worried that maybe he’d be spooked by so macabre a meeting with mortality. Thankfully, he seems fine and, even happy to have been part of solving the mystery of the whereabouts of Mr. Niven. Still, if I were in charge of writing the story of Justin’s life, I would have postponed his first encounter with death by at least a decade. Ten years old is still a tender age, too young for haunting and disturbing encounters with death.

I suspect that it would be hard to find an uncle who would not be similarly concerned. No one wants to see a child’s psyche tweaked by the creepiness of life and death in the world we call home. This is why we don’t let preteens watch movies like “Deliverance” or “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.” It’s a gift. We want our children to enjoy the innocence of childhood while they can.

Yet there seem to be plenty of adults in the world who are willing to endow the lives of children with encounters of violent death on a daily basis. The human community seems unable to resist the urge to shed blood. We do it with our warfare and we do it by choosing cruel leaders who make use of terror to gain and to hold on to power.

I’m speaking of places like the Sudan, where government forces have engaged in genocide in Darfur and have destabilized all of Central Africa.

I’m speaking of the Holy Land where senseless and heartless acts of terrorism have been met with cruel and relentless military reprisals creating a humanitarian crisis in the Palestinian territories.

But I’m also speaking of American. Our nation currently is engaged in wars that have resulted in the deaths of a staggering number of civilians. Estimates vary. The Bush Administration places the number at around thirty thousand. Research published in the British medical journal Lancet suggests more than 600,0000 have died as a result of the US invasion of Iraq. Either way, we’ve managed to put a lot of dead bodies in the way of a lot of children, and those children will be affected. They will be haunted by the butchery our wars have engendered. They will carry the terror, the sadness, the loss of innocence with them as long as they live. We who should have known better have damaged them.

I don’t believe the problem is one of cruelty so much as indifference. Life is full. Most of us have a hard enough time keeping track of our own kids, and its hard to see how the wellbeing of children halfway around the world is our problem, even when our leaders, funded by our tax dollars, are stealing the children’s innocence.

It’s time to make the wellbeing of children everywhere our problem. In places like Sudan and the Holy Land we must raise our voices against all acts of violence. And where our voices carry the most weight, in the democratic process, we must be relentless. We must demand peaceable policies from our elected officials. The time for indifference is well behind us.

After all, most of the children whose psyches are damaged by an early encounter with mortality have uncles who want the best for them. We can’t keep every skeleton out of the woods, but maybe the time has come to form an international movement for the solidarity of uncles so that, working together, we can give our nephews and nieces the gift of childhood innocence.

2 thoughts on “Justin’s Bones

  1. Indeed, Justin seems to be more excited than spooked. He was certainly stoked when the story hit the Santa Rosa Press Democrat (even if the recounting of how Justin discovered the bones was a little off, and his name wasn’t mentioned). I think he’s gotten a lot of milage out of all this with his friends!

    I never saw a (confirmed) dead body until Uncle Bill’s funeral. Then, I was in my mid-twenties. Now, as a paramedic, I see them all the time. The are usually shod. Usually they still have their flesh on. Sometimes I try to bring them back to life. Mostly I don’t succeed.

    It’s a little wierd how casual death now feels to me; it rarely creeps me out and it never makes me “sick.” One might think that’s good, but I wouldn’t want everyone to feel the way I do; it may be a requirement for survival in my job, but I think a little bit of that creepiness about a dead body is healthy. And perhaps it’s necessary…it may be one thread in the social fabric that keeps things from getting out of hand.

    Some incomplete thoughts… Thanks for the chance to ponder! Gotta get the kids to school…
    Yer Bro,


    I happened to be born into a new world European family that practiced a lot of old world European values and some of those values were in the realm of the dead and dying process.

    It seems so unfair. His life is being cut short by this illness.

    Accepting that life is complete is perhaps the most difficult part of life. We found that life is a cycle and that no one knows the length of that cycle except God. From my vantage point, it often seems so difficult for people to accept this fact if they have been sheltered from the life cycle.

    Did that mean that I did not mourn, grieve or weep over that loved one, God forbid. It’s hard for us to accept that a child who dies from a prolonged illness or run over by an auto or mother a laid low by breast cancer or a life given to our country to defend a herritage does not leave a legacy or has not had a complete life. However, if it is only when the deceased is eighty or ninety years old that we allow ourselves the peaceful feeling that they had a complete life we are deceiving our loved ones and ourselves.

    The truth of the poem “No Man Is An Island” really brings this “Bare” so to speak we are each a part of each other and we all leave a little behind to remind us of those we left behind.

    still learning and practicing the experience

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