For five decades, the circumstances of the sudden death of the famed anti-Vietnam War monk Thomas Merton have remained cloaked in the confusion of assorted stories having very little commonality, except for the most basic facts of date and place.
The date—December 10, 1968—and place—in a cottage located at a Red Cross conference center near Bangkok, Thailand—are about the only undisputed points of yet another death of a hero in that very violent year. Even the time of death, approximately 2:00 p.m. local time, was disputed by the police report, a fake witness statement and biographer Michael Mott—all stating the time was one hour later.
Everything else about the circumstances of Merton’s death depends upon the version told by those who had any familiarity with it, a result of the absence of an autopsy and the rapidity of how his body was removed by the U.S. Army, embalmed, and flown back to the United States on a military aircraft also transporting other casualties of the Vietnam War being fought nearby. The presence of Father Louis (as Merton was known in the monastery) on that plane, among the bodies of soldiers, sailors and Marines killed in a war which he had long opposed, added even more irony to the mystery surrounding his death.
Authors Hugh Turley and David Martin, in their 2018 book, The Martyrdom of Thomas Merton, have effectively deconstructed nearly all of the assertions of Brother Patrick Hart (Merton’s secretary at the Kentucky abbey regarding the scene he described).
Not only was there no evidence that Merton had taken a shower, or collapsed into a disheveled pile onto the floor, a large cut and contusion on the back of his head was not noted at all, and photographs taken immediately after his death—which had been kept virtually hidden for 49 years—show that his body was lying perfectly straight, with his arms lying beside his body, just as it might be placed into a coffin.
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