Friday, November 27, 2009

Update: Nutty Putty Cave Becomes a Final Resting Place

Officials have announced that the body of John Jones, the spelunker who died after becoming trapped in Nutty Putty Cave in Utah, will not be recovered.  The dangerousness of the spot where Jones died makes a recovery effort too perilous, and so his body will remain there as the cave is sealed off to all future visitors.  A memorial marker will be placed there.

The news stories about this indicate that the decision not to retrieve the body was made jointly this morning by law enforcement, the cave owners and operators, and members of Jones' family.  His own relatives had to make the decision to leave him where he lies.  That can't have been easy.

In the truest sense, this is not a case of missing remains.  Everyone knows that Jones is dead and they know where his remains are, they just can't get to them.  In that sense, the usual uncertainty that comes with giving up on returning the body of someone presumed dead does not apply.

At the same time, every culture has specific ideas about what should be done with the human body after death.  Whether you are used to a wake or a viewing, burial or cremation or something else, all of us have basic beliefs about how a dead body ought to be treated.  No culture on earth has, as its usual course of action, leaving a body where it falls.

Death in general, and unexpected death in particular, take away our sense of control.  One of the ways to help trauma survivors is to help them see what measure of control they do have, even if it's just over what to eat or where to sit.  Death rituals reassert control of the living over the process of dealing with death.  We may not be able to stop people from dying, but we can decide how the body will be treated and where it will go.

Officials in Utah are to be commended for including the Jones' in this discussion.  While the final decision may have been pretty much a foregone conclusion, including the family in it helps them reestablish some control.  The family is also to be commended for putting the safety of responders over their own very real, very deep needs.  Hopefully, they take some measure of comfort from having done the right thing.

Note:  The picture above is not of John Jones, but rather of one of the responders during the rescue attempt on Wednesday.


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Naomi Zikmund-Fisher
is a clinical social worker, former school Principal and a Crisis Consultant for schools and community organizations. You can learn more about her at
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