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December 6, 2007

Last Rites for the Dead? A Jeremy Blake and Theresa Duncan Update

It's been five months since the art world's "most glamorous couple" committed suicide, but their seemingly fading story, which I blogged about several times this summer, has lost none of its hold on me. Every few weeks I've Googled the names Jeremy Blake and Theresa Duncan to see if there are any developments. And except for a September article in the British Independent that didn't offer anything new, there's been little to report. Until now.

In the January issue of Vanity Fair, Nancy Jo Sales has a huge, in-depth feature that paints the most complete picture yet of how such a gifted, beautiful young couple could come to such a puzzling, tragic end. Questions still abound: On the day Theresa died, which restaurant did she and Jeremy go to for lunch at 3 PM, less than four hours before she took her life? And what happened there? What did they talk about? Considering that apparently no one, including Jeremy, had the slightest idea she might end it all, the story will always remain a bit of a mystery.

Several things in Sales' piece stand out. First, there's Jeremy's wonderful description of Theresa, courtesy of Raymond Chandler: She was "a blonde to make a bishop kick a hole in a stained glass window." Then there's Father Frank Morales who, devout SoMA readers will recall, is the colorful East Village Episcopal priest at the center of the couple's lives their final year. (They moved into the St. Mark's Church rectory in January of 2007, and immediately befriended Morales.) Other writers have speculated that Morales, who's big on conspiracy theories, is a nutcase. Sales notes that she was married to Morales for two years, separating from him just two months before he met the couple last January! So she knows whereof she speaks when, later in the article, she calls her ex-hubby "the radical left's Fox Mulder, a man who makes mere 'conspiracy theorists' look like Sunday drivers."

There's more. The night Theresa committed suicide Jeremy returned home from work around 7 PM. He passed Morales in the church garden and invited him up for a drink. When Morales arrived at the apartment 10 minutes later, Theresa was dead, the police were there, and Jeremy was sobbing and pounding the walls. Some detectives arrived and began questioning Jeremy in Theresa's office. Her body was in the bedroom, where Jeremy discovered her, and a cop was stationed at the door. Jeremy never returned to the room that night.

OK, we knew all that. But here's what Sales says happened next: "Morales asked to be let into the bedroom to perform last rites over Duncan's body. She was now on the floor, where the E.M.S. workers had been examining her. He knelt down and spoke the prayers."

Huh? Last rites--for a dead person? This struck me as odd, so I called Father Gawain de Leeuw, an Episcopal priest and SoMA contributor.

"That is very odd," he said. "And theologically, it's ridiculous. You perform last rites for the sick, not the dead. You pray for the sick, you anoint them. You take their confession. Those, essentially, are the last rites. But you don't pray with the dead, or anoint them, or take their confession, or do anything for them. They're in the hands of God, and the priest's next step, as far as the body goes, is the burial service. Until then, his or her job is to pastor to the living--to gather the family and pray with them, preparing them to release the body to the hospital, or whoever."

"Whatever he did, you wouldn't call it 'last rites,'" agreed Puck Purnell, another Episcopal priest and SoMA contributor. "You can say a commendation prayer for a person at the time of death, but last rites are for the living."

I told Gawain that I wondered if Morales wanted to be with Theresa's body for his own reasons, because he was in shock and trying to process the blow.

"Now that makes sense," Gawain said. "Maybe he was pastoring himself!"

Then again, maybe we're missing something here, or overanalyzing a minor detail. Clearly, not everyone, including Episcopal priests, agrees on what constitutes "last rites" and when they're administered. What do you think?

Follow-up note: I searched the Internet, and it seems Morales has performed last rites for the dead before.

Posted By John D. Spalding | Email


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