Dealing with Death
Americans have forgotten how to die! And perhaps without knowing it, many Orthodox Christians fail to realize the discrepancy between American secular culture and true faith, worship, and new life in Christ. Our attitudes (or lack of any real attitudes) are often the result of surrender and confusion, our inability to deal with the reality of crisis. Why is this?
Modern secular culture frantically seeks to avoid anything that disrupts the fragile shell of day-to-day existence. Society’s opiate-like state of complacency is challenged by crisis. And death is the crisis: “the last enemy to be destroyed.” It radically separates those it touches from the on-going course of human events.
So it is only natural that little by little death has been eased away and banished. It has been sent out as a scapegoat into the lonely wilderness of skilled nursing facility, hospital and funeral home. It becomes somebody else’s problem and responsibility.
Hence, in its secularized grave clothes, death disappears into our societal subconscious and loses reality and meaning. It has been “tamed” and now dons the grey flannel suit of innocuousness.
This has not always been the case. In earlier times death was a familiar — though feared — facet of life. Its disruptive character caused a break in the continuity of the world of those whose lives it touched. It was a stark reality, the Great Enemy whose impact upon day-to- day life could not be ignored.
Today, there is little evidence of the deep presence and effects of death. Family and friends are eased through the unpleasantness, and skillfully counseled over the crisis by “grief counselors,” so that only a minimum of disturbance is encountered. Crisis is replaced by efficiency, comfort, and convenience. Specialists are trained to provide “an island of calm in that lonely hour” (from an advertisement of the Clark Burial Vault Company’s “Product Counseling Program”).
Although today’s funeral industry allows and even promotes the viewing of the deceased by family and friends, even this is done in a carefully guarded manner. If death cannot be hidden altogether, it can at least be cosmetized and freshened, so that reality is masked and diffused. Listen to the words of a document published and distributed in the public interest by the National Funeral Director’s Association:
“Seeing is believing. It is the first essential step toward managing one’s own grief. . . . Proper preparation and sometimes restoration provide the bereaved an acceptable recall image of the deceased while confirming the reality of death. . . . Removal or modification of the marks of violence or the ravages of disease help provide an acceptable recall image.”
Acceptable to whom? For whatever reasons, modern society has surrendered the whole area of death and dying into the hands of an industry which is built upon the promotion of a facade. And tragically, most Christians are content to be numbered with the rest of secular society in this regard.
Maybe Orthodox Christians should reclaim death and dying from this stranglehold of the Prince of This World and restore them to their proper place — a place which is under the sovereignty of the Lord.
Alive in Christ
The Christian idea of death once meant immediate communion with God. It was the means whereby the believer was given access to new life in the Kingdom. “For to me, to live is Christ, and to die is gain…. I am hard pressed between the two, having a desire to depart and be with Christ.”(Philippians 1:21, 23). “Come, fire, cross, battling with wild beasts, wrenching of bones, crushing of my whole body, cruel tortures of the devil‹only let me get to Jesus Christ! ” (Saint Ignatius To the Romans, 5:2).
Saint Cyprian, in his short treatise “On Mortality” (ca. A.D. 252) summarizes much of the early Christian thought about mortality and life everlasting. Near the beginning of his work, he pleads with those Christians who fear death: “It is for him to fear death who is unwilling to go to Christ. It is for him to be unwilling to go to Christ who does not believe that he is beginning to reign with Christ” (Cyprian, “On Mortality,” from The Shape of Death, J. Pelican). He continues:
“Beloved brothers, with sound mind, with firm faith, with rugged virtue, let us be ready for every manifestation of God’s will; freed from the terror of death, let us think of the immortality that follows. Let us show that this is what we believe, so that we may not mourn the death even of our dear ones and when the day of our own summons comes, without hesitation but with gladness we may come to the Lord at His call.”
The theology, liturgy, life and witness of the Church grew around examples such as these. However, just as Satan stole life from mankind through deceit, so too, in a similar manner through deception, the funeral industry has stolen death from us. In so doing, it has also stolen our essential and authentic Orthodox Christian response to death.
A Lifetime of Reparation
In order to define the place of death, as Archbishop Anthony Bloom has declared, it is critical that we not put our discussion of death and burial off until it is too late. There must be an on-going awareness of death during our whole lifetime. Without becoming macabre, the Orthodox pastor should continually prepare his parishioners to face their death and the death of their fellows. Saint Isaac the Syrian once wrote:
“In your heart, be always ready for your departure. If you are wise’ you will expect it at every hour…. Go to sleep with these thoughts every night, and reflect upon them every day. When the messenger comes, go joyfully to meet him, saying: ‘Come in peace. I knew that you would be here and I have not neglected anything that could help me on my journey.'”
Orthodox Christians have a decided advantage in this regard. We are constantly reminded of death in our worship as we pray: “For a Christian ending to our lives, painless, blameless, peaceful, and for a good account of ourselves before the awesome, dread judgement seat of Christ.” We should keep this recollection before us continually in our Rule of Prayer.
Mindfulness of death in the patristic sense is not the denial of life, but rather its enhancement. The quality of Orthodox Christian living is intense and serious, and it is wonderfully transfigured by God’s grace into hopefulness, joy, and faithfulness.
That is why, in the midst of Great Lent and in the face of death, we sing, “Alleluia!” We are enabled to look beyond the tragedy and crisis of death’s surrendering of body and soul. We can see that there is meaning given to death: meaning given in the Light of the Empty Tomb that shines brilliantly in a darkened world.
The reality of death for us is indeed horrible, critical, and tragic on one level. But beyond that, it also means that we shall be restored to our original likeness. In Christ we are meant to be restored to our original life in communion with God. This begins at our baptism and lasts our whole life long, unto the ages of ages — form one degree of glory to the next.
Death in the Early Church
The Orthodox theology, spirituality, and liturgy of death bear a close resemblance to much of what we see within orthodox Judaism. And we see ourselves as the New Israel. Our Holy City is the new, Heavenly Jerusalem. Saint Paul and others have made it clear that we have inherited the Vineyard which in former times had been under the care of other stewardship. Many of the elements that make up the canon of funerary customs of Byzantine Christianity came themselves from the Jewish world. They came to be “baptized” so to speak. They were assimilated into our tradition: brought in and fullfilled in Christ.
But what is that tradition? What were the prevailing customs that became canonized by the lex credendi — this rule or canon of faith which is the criterion of our liturgical practice (i.e., our lex orandi)?
Immediately after an Orthodox Christian had fallen asleep in the Lord, the eyes and mouth were secured shut. The priest was notified, and the recitation of the Psalter began. This recitation would continue until the body was removed from the home. Upon the arrival of the priest, a brief Memorial Office was held at the deathbed. This consisted of the Trisagion, Troparion of the Dead, Litany and Prayer for the Dead, and the Dismissal.
Next, the body was washed with water (usually perfumed) or a mixture of water and wine. This, and the following preparation, was accomplished by the elder women of the family (the role of the Myrrhbearing women in Matthew 28 and elsewhere was a widespread custom throughout the Mediterranean world). Next came the application of aromatic myrrh, as a precaution against the odors of rapid decomposition in a warm climate. Hands and feet were bound together to insure an easy laying-out when rigor mortis set in. The body was swaddled in linen and then clothed in garments ranging from simple apparel to elaborate vesture.
The face of the deceased was covered with a veil. This appears to be an ancient custom for the sake of modesty, but it survives today for clergy: covered as they are with the veil that is otherwise placed over the chalice at the Liturgy. The head of the deceased was then crowned with a wreath of laurel or flowers. The Russians seem to be the only Orthodox Christians who consistently maintain this custom with a chaplet that bears the words of the Trisagion. In some “Orthodox cultures” of the Old Country, a long covering or shroud is placed over the body of the deceased. For the laity, an icon was placed in the hands; for monastics, the Psalter; for priests and bishops, the Cross and/or Gospels.
The term “prothesis” is used to denote the preparation and laying-out of the body. (The same term refers to the arrangement and setting-out of the bread and wine for use at the Divine Liturgy.) Often the body lay in-state immediately outside the entrance of the house, facing toward the East, resting in a coffin or on a pallet.
Now came the procession to the Church. The singing of the Trisagion often accompanied the noise of mourners. Candlebearers, priest, and censer all accompanied the body. A vigil, which was to last through the night, began as soon as the body arrived at the Church. The remnants of this all-night vigil are seen in our liturgical books in use today. The Funeral Office is simply an abbreviation of matins/orthros. The bereaved remained with the body throughout the night, chanting the Psalter and awaiting the sunrise.
After the Orthros, the Divine Liturgy was celebrated, and the assembled faithful prayed that the deceased would remain in God’s Eternal Memory. The grieving then imparted their last Kiss of Peace upon the one who had fallen asleep, and all then formed the procession to the cemetery (“cemetery” is from the Greek for ” sleeping place”), to the singing of the Trisagion. At the place of burial, a short Office was held, and the body was placed into the ground, then covered with earth.
All of this has been modified in recent times here in America due to a number of factors such as secular society in general, medical technology, county or state regulations, and the funeral industry’s marketing strategy. But it still survives, though often unnoticed, in the Church’s liturgy of death and burial.
How tragic that whereas orthodox Judaism has managed to maintain clarity and steadfastness in its liturgy of death and burial, Orthodox Christianity in America has often become muddled and capitulating. Ask this: Who among Orthodox Christians has not gone along with the funeral practices that correspond to the norms of American secular society? Who has bothered to see to it that the members of the Body of Christ are cared for with the whole liturgy of death and burial that we find in the liturgical manuals? Unfortunately, all too few.
The Courage to Act
If we as Orthodox Christians are to make our witness consistent with our liturgy and prayer, we must challenge the “norms” and practices so prevalent today. It will take courage to face the culture that surrounds us. It will take strength to face the funeral industry that orchestrates the way Americans die and are at their disposal. It will take perseverance in dealing with the bereaved who have come to expect the non-Orthodox norms.
Nonetheless, this all can be done if, as Metropolitan Bloom says, our attitude toward death becomes the touchstone of our attitude toward life. This task must begin early on in the lives of the faithful. It begins now. It must be presented, taught, and preached at every turn. If the Church is to be central in the events that surround our falling-asleep so that the true meaning of death can be proclaimed, then the Church must have an authentic centrality in our life and witness today, so that the true meaning of life can be proclaimed.
And oddly enough, in their desire to be “of service” the members of the funeral industry will — if only asked — work with us to see to it that our rites and customs can be carried out. It simply takes a family or pastor to initiate this. Rather than demonizing the funeral industry as “them” versus “us,” it would be better if we saw those in the industry as simply naïve folks who are un-familiar with the Orthodox way of death. They simply default to the manner in which they have been trained: the American way of death. It is up to Orthodox clientele to help familiarize them. We are, after all, a minority in the Western world. It is Satan’s desire, however, to use this “American way” to render death innocuous if not meaningless.
Christ has trampled down death; He has destroyed it; He has done away with it. So, woe to us if we allow Satan to lull us into the lie that death being cosmetized and made serene has no tragic consequences. He has masked death’s crisis. Death now has a subtle appearance that seems to remove it from being Satan’s legacy to us.
Death does have a sting. Christ has removed it, not Satan. We must be mindful of this at all times, lest our victory shout, “Christ is Risen!” lose its meaning, and be something else to add to the list of the items stolen by the enemy.
The Church’s liturgy of death has a number of aspects. As we have received the texts and customs today, we can see much of the above-outlined order. The question to ask is whether or not the family of the deceased (or the pastor, for that matter) see that the whole Liturgy of Death is taken advantage of.
There are prayers at the parting of the soul from the body. These include the Canon of Supplication to the Savior and the Theotokos at the Parting of the Soul, the Prayer for a Soul being Judged, the Prayer for a Person Who has Suffered Long, and Who is at the Point of Death.
At the moment of death comes the Office After the Departure of the Soul.
The Panikhida (or Parastasis or Trisagion) is next appointed to be taken at the home of the deceased. This Office serves as a special vigil (or watch) over the body.
A Litya for the Departed may be taken at the home immediately before taking the body to the church.
The Funeral Vigil is held in the church. This service, like much of what has been listed above, comes from the monastic tradition of the Church. The vigil is essentially the Office of Matins, with psalmody, hymnography and scriptural passages which relate specifically to death and judgment. It is interesting to note that the Resurrection is not often mentioned in this service. Thus the Vigil should normally be fulfilled in the Eucharistic Divine Liturgy in which the faithful meet the Risen Savior, together with all those who are alive in Him.
The Funeral Divine Liturgy is the service appointed immediately preceding the trip to the cemetery. Sadly the Funeral Divine Liturgy has been neglected in many places, while the Funeral Vigil has been transformed into the funeral service itself. It is unfortunate that the organic unity between the Vigil and the Divine Liturgy has been lost. The full vision of the Liturgy of Christian Burial (i.e., the meaning of life, death and resurrection in Christ) cannot be grasped when this distortion is perpetuated. And this vision is just as significant as the vision of any other aspect of human existence. Thus the Funeral Divine Liturgy should be preserved with the funeral vigil.
At graveside the brief committal and interment office is taken.
On the 7th and 40th days the Panikhida or Trisagion is held, as well as annually. This service is essentially an abbreviated version of the Funeral Vigil.
Keeping the memory (eternal) of the deceased as well as prayer for the dead are the two central aspects of the Panikhida. We keep the memory of our deceased loved one continually before us. In the Old Testament we read that a tremendous fear of God’s people was the possibility of being forgotten by Him. To be no longer in the mind of the Holy One was essentially to be annihilated — to cease to be. And so we fervently conclude the Office with the prayer “Memory Eternal,” convinced that when God remembers, His creature lives.
Additionally, prayer for the deceased is another expression of our love. Although the dead are judged by how they lived their lives (see Matthew 25 for the criteria of judgment), the Church also teaches us that our prayers help the deceased in some manner (just as they help one another in some manner in this life). In a text that comes about 50 years before the birth of the Lord Jesus we read in 2 Maccabees 12:42-45 that after their death in battle, prayers, supplications and sacrifices were made for certain sinful Jewish soldiers.
Often a mixture of boiled wheat and other ingredients is offered at the Panikhida. This is called koliva, kutia, etc. It is connected with the words that the Savior spoke in reference to His resurrection: “Truly, truly I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains as it is, but if it dies it produces much fruit.” (Jn. 12:24) So, wheat becomes a symbol of what we proclaim in the Creed: “I look for the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come.” See also 1 Cor. 15:36-38 where St. Paul discusses death, the body and resurrection in relation to wheat.
On the Saturdays of the Church Year, as well as certain specific Saturdays of the Church’s liturgical calendar (especially during the season of Triodion and Great Lent) we commemorate the departed. This is due to the fact that all of the Saturdays of the year receive their meaning from Lazarus Saturday and Holy Saturday — where death’s sting was overcome by the fact that Life reigns. The verses of the service of Vespers for Friday evening (i.e., liturgically the eve of Saturdays), as well as the service of Matins on Saturday — not to mention the propers for the Saturday celebration of the Divine Liturgy all indicate the theme of prayer for the departed. One note should be made: given the Resurrectional character of these two major Saturdays, for the Christian, the color for the vestments is white. Praying for the deceased is not mourning, it is a proclamation that Christ is Risen! Fr. Alexander Schmemann writes: “It is in light of the Saturday of Lazarus and Great and Holy Saturday that we can see the meaning of Christian death and our prayer for the dead.” (Great Lent, p. 73)