A family burial

At my sister’s funeral, I had to be not just a priest but a grieving brother,
personally alive to all the history that had brought us to that day.

 WALKING WITH THE EXCLUDED 

Tracey Leonard (left) working as a volunteer alongside Mother Teresa (middle) in Kolkata, India in January 1988. Her brother, Fr Richard Leonard SJ, writes: “Whether in or out of a wheelchair, Tracey was passionate about comforting the sick, campaigning for justice — especially for the dignity and rights of Indigenous Australians — and defending the innocent. The people who lived out these struggles were her saints — and Tracey was a saint to me.”

By Fr Richard Leonard SJ 
This is an extract from his latest book, ‘Why God?’ 

Among the hardest things a Catholic priest must do is to bury a member of his family. While by law or custom the members of most other professions are discouraged from looking after their own family, a priest is often expected to minister to his. And overall, we want to. Baptisms and weddings are joys. Funerals, though, are tough gigs.  

In 2017, I had to bury my 56-year-old sister, Tracey (pictured here during her time in India). I have done many tragic funerals—the deaths of children, the victims of suicide, of car accidents and murders among them, but Tracey’s Requiem Mass was the most demanding of any liturgy at which I have presided. I have acted as the family’s priest on other occasions, empathetically pastoral I hope; but now I had to be not just a priest but a grieving brother, personally alive to all the history that had brought us to this day, and alert to all the tensions it held.  

Tracey’s life and death were more complex than most. After graduating as a nurse in 1981, she immediately left Australia to work with Mother Teresa in the House of the Dying in Calcutta. All up, she spent three years in India over two stints, and she loved it. On her return home, she ran the health centre at Wadeye, a remote Aboriginal community in the Northern Territory. Bush nursing and Tracey Leonard were synonyms. 

It was there, aged 28, on October 23, 1988, while doing a favour for some of her friends, that her car broke down. As it was being towed away, her vehicle rolled off the road and hit a tree. Everyone else got out without a scratch; Tracey was left a quadriplegic. She had been all over the world caring for God’s poor; in the 28 years after her tragic accident, Tracey was the poorest person I know: a kind of poverty that had very little to do with lack of money. 

Ten years after the accident, using a voice recognition program, Tracey told the story of her extraordinary experiences in Calcutta and outback Australia. Her book was called The Full Catastrophe. Since her death, I have lost count of the number of people who had never met her, but who have told me that they felt they knew her from that book. They found her courage inspiring. I did too.  

Whether in or out of a wheelchair, Tracey was passionate about comforting the sick, campaigning for justice — especially for the dignity and rights of Indigenous Australians — and defending the innocent. The people who lived out these struggles were her saints — and Tracey was a saint to me.   

Saints aren’t perfect, but they’re transparently good. Trace was far from perfect, though I am yet to meet anyone who was dealt such a devastatingly cruel hand and remained as positive, engaged and encouraging. The evening before she died, after recognising each of the friends and family who had gathered around her hospital bed, as it seemed her awareness was slipping, she began to call out: “Feed the boat people! Feed the boat people!” While everyone in the room was focused on Tracey’s needs, she was focused on those she thought were in greater need still.  

In the years after her accident, her death would sometimes be a topic of conversation between us. She gave out lines like: “Life has not exactly been all beer and skittles”; “I don’t want to see old bones”; and “You know, Richard, there are worse things than dying.” Though she came to some peace and reconciliation with her life, I would not have wanted her to suffer a day longer.  

She gave me more than a few instructions for her funeral. Everyone should leave some guidelines as to what they would like. Tracey’s went from “Just cremate me quickly like the Hindus do in India,” to “I want twenty people in the back yard—and you can say some prayers if you like.” Later, she pleaded, “I don’t care what you do, Richard — just don’t go over the top.” 

I am not sure a Requiem Mass with a bishop and eighteen priests on the altar qualifies as low key, but we did our best to keep it simple. We had the private cremation of her body that she had asked for and the long and wonderful wake that we knew she wanted. These sacred and secular rituals were all deeply consoling. 

I lost the plot twice during Mass. The first time was when my brother thanked our almost 84-year-old mother for devotedly caring for our sister over nearly three decades. And I came off the rails again at the very end of my homily. I had decided to adapt the most famous of lines from one of Tracey’s favourite saints, Dr Martin Luther King, Jr., and imagined him helping her out of that wheelchair and declaring to the cloud of witnesses: “Free at last! Free at last! Thank God almighty, she’s free at last!” 

Buy your copy of the book ‘Why God?’ here, with a discount applied throughout May 2024. 

Tracey Leonard’s book ‘The Full Catastrophe’ is still available on Amazon.

Banner image shows St Canice’s church in Sydney. Photo: David McMahon

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