Category Archives: death

Die before you die.

The day after I wrote about feeling my mortality, I was prompted to think more on the subject, first by Father Stephen Freeman, in an article about hospitals vs. hospice, and the importance of visiting the sick. When he was chaplain on a hospice team:

“It was the first time I ever saw a doctor listening carefully to nurses and chaplains. There was nothing ‘active’ that could be done other than providing comfort and support. The team stood in awe before the reality of dying, inevitably sharing the knowledge that what a patient was facing would be our own lot in time.”

For several years I’ve had more of that awareness myself, that every moment I go on living it is only because of God’s will and sustaining power. This understanding was only heightened when I was weak and sick, and not distracted by all the “active” things of my typical days, and could be in awe of the fact of existence.

This morning, I have a further reminder of death, and the scripture that tells us, “Precious in the eyes of the Lord is the death of His saints.” A woman about my age fell asleep in death this week and I will be helping to prepare her body for burial in just a couple of hours. We will pray and anoint her with oil and commend her to Christ, before she is moved to the church for her funeral. It is always a holy thing to join with a sister at this stage in her “journey to the kingdom.”

In the short movie linked below, the musings of a 97-year-old philosopher as he calmly and “philosophically” considers his own death show a sensibility much more deeply human and nuanced than what he wrote in his book on the subject when he was younger. Though he feels that he lost half of himself when his wife of 70 years died, at the same time he doesn’t want to die; he has just started noticing the beauty of trees the way he never did before. The intellectual history of his own mind tells him that “there is no point” to life, so it doesn’t make sense to him, he calls it foolish, that he should mind saying good-bye. But he does mind.

Maybe it was the death of his wife that shook up his life so that now he calls death “the one thing central to my existence.” And he doesn’t have it figured out. Though now he likely knows more than he did then, because he has actually crossed that river; the movie was made by his grandson in his memory. There is a short article with a little more information at The Atlantic.

Father Stephen: “The monastic tradition of the Church has the notion that we should always keep death before our eyes. In a culture where sickness and death are hidden from view, such a notion can seem morbid and wrongly formulated. St. Paul said of himself, ‘I die daily’ (1Cor. 15:31).

“More completely, he said, ‘I am crucified with Christ, nevertheless I live. Yet not I, but Christ lives in me. And the life that I now live, I live by the faith of the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me’ (Gal. 2:20).

“These are not morbid notions, but remembrances of the truth. If you lived on the edge of a cliff, only disaster could come from forgetting that fact. We remember the truth of our existence (including its end) so that our life might be shaped by the conscious remembrance of the name of God. When we pray, ‘Lord, Jesus Christ, have mercy on me,’ we proclaim the futility and emptiness of our self-existence, while more profoundly proclaiming the goodness and kindness of God in Christ who, in us, tramples down death by death.

“There is a monastic saying in Orthodoxy: ‘If you die before you die, then you won’t have to die when you die.'”

The grump showed up with snowballs.

From the ascent with our Savior through Holy Week, through the Crucifixion, to the peak of Paschal joy – from there the only direction for the emotions is down. The sun went away right after the high holy days, also, and the thermometer dropped as fast as our mood.

But we came to the second Tuesday after Pascha nevertheless, the day when I always love to go to one cemetery after another with my snowball (viburnum) flower petals and sing “Christ is risen” along with varying numbers of other Orthodox who keep this tradition around here. And today I thought I might just go to the first one on the route, where my husband is buried. It was another cloudy and cold morning, and for reasons I probably don’t even know the half of, I just wanted to stay in bed.

One reason I came after all was that this year, finally, we were invited in writing, in the bulletin or in an email or both, to bring a picnic and to eat together at the third cemetery when we had completed our rounds of the graves and prayers. I had planned what I would cook this morning and bring, and I didn’t want to miss being able to hang around the cemetery longer. (Is there an “afterglow” among the graves? Oh, yes!) Though I did wonder, “Why this year, for a picnic? This is not picnic weather!!” I looked at the forecast and they did say the sun might come out by noon…. Please, Lord!

It’s pathetic how long I argued with the day and with myself. I got up late, but in time to cook sausages and load a basket with bread and butter. In the garden I cut a bagful of snowballs and remembered to bring in some fresh little flowers for the icon that essentially shows the Incarnation of the One who has destroyed death by death. I was humming the resurrectional verses about that as I went about my work, and all these activities showed me that I was indeed alive, and not even half crippled.

Last week I read Earthly Possessions by Anne Tyler, which a friend had recommended and lent to me. You might say it’s about half-crippled, dysfunctional and alienated people. It reminded me of Flannery O’Connor except that the characters weren’t real or strange enough to convey their lostness. On the other hand, there was no hope of their finding or being found by God. Descriptions of scenes or people always included details of ugliness or brokenness, but never beauty on any level, outer or inner.

I thought a lot about the novel at the cemeteries today. The narrator Charlotte would have found lots of tackiness to describe, had she been with us. The old parts of the cemeteries are not kept up. I found pictures just now that I had taken of these resting places in the past, including the most neglected one, where Nina is buried.

Five years ago she sat in her wheelchair at the concrete curb that surrounds the graves of her husband and son while we were singing. Now her dear body has been in the ground next to them for three years, and the plastic flowers hanging on her makeshift grave marker have lost all their beauty. Some artificial flowers are truly lovely, but please! If you decorate a grave with them, don’t expect them to live forever.

When I was on my way to the third cemetery, the sun came out!

Below is another scene from five years ago: the rockrose at Father D’s grave in its glory. He founded a monastery in our town, and the nuns who live there always like to visit this spot in particular. Now the bush is quite dead, and I wonder if anyone will replace it….

I saw many things that Tyler’s Charlotte would not have told you about: poppies, and beautiful children, and  elderly people who came hobbling with their walkers and canes and patience to sing to the departed, those we know are included in that company of whom we are told, in St. Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians:

“But I would not have you to be ignorant, brethren, concerning them which are asleep, that ye sorrow not, even as others which have no hope. For if we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so them also which sleep in Jesus will God bring with him.

For this we say unto you by the word of the Lord, that we which are alive and remain unto the coming of the Lord shall not prevent them which are asleep. For the Lord himself shall descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel, and with the trump of God: and the dead in Christ shall rise first: Then we which are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds, to meet the Lord in the air: and so shall we ever be with the Lord. Wherefore comfort one another with these words.”

What a mystery! We know so little about those who have passed from this life. We entrust them to God, and we don’t stop loving them… I shared my bag of blossoms with the children in our group, some of whom are newly baptized and had never been to a cemetery before. I told them it was okay to scatter the petals on any of the graves; we may not know the souls who sleep there, but we can still honor them.

The little guy on the left is five years older than when I took this picture on a Radonitsa in the past, and today he was one of the children who helped toss white petals and red eggshells on the graves. Those decorations look very pretty together, by the way.

We enjoyed our picnic. I remembered the butter but forgot my loaf of bread on the kitchen counter. Several people had contributed to the feast that it turned out to be. It seems likely that from now on we will keep this tradition, and I will plan to bring chairs or a waterproof picnic cloth so more people can sit around longer. But our priest and deacon didn’t linger; they were headed to two more cemeteries!

I came home via the paint store, where I picked up several color swatches to help me with my remodeling. My inadequacy in the realms of color and design is probably one of the things getting me down lately. The man at the store said that if I bring in a flooring sample they can tell me what paint colors look good with it. That was very encouraging, but I still brought home a few paint colors to help me at the flooring store. Don’t worry – I know all of these don’t go together!

It’s easier for me in the garden; there, if the tones clash, you can remove a plant much more easily than repainting a whole room. My husband used to claim that all the colors of flowers look good with all the other colors. I don’t agree, so I guess I am not entirely lacking in color confidence.

Two of the blues that I like are called World Peace and Sacrifice. (Seems like that could be the beginning of a poem.) I don’t understand how it is that one of them supposedly complements the rust color named Copper Creek but the other one doesn’t. That’s just one of the things I’ll ask the nice man at the Kelly-Moore store next week.

When I finally came home I saw an article in my blog feed: “Ninety Percent of Orthodoxy is Just Showing Up.” That was very timely for me; I realized that blessing the graves required me showing up there at the cemetery. My mood didn’t matter at all, and I’m sure it would not have improved by not going. But tomorrow my plan is to stay home and do only homey things. I won’t argue with myself about that!

In us the dead still belong.

Today, about a week before our Orthodox beginning of Lent, is Saturday of Souls, or Memorial Saturday. In Divine Liturgy we commemorate all those who have “fallen asleep in the hope of the resurrection and life eternal.” Father Alexander Schmemann writes in Great Lent:

To understand the meaning of this connection between Lent and the prayer for the dead, one must remember that Christianity is the religion of love. Christ left with his disciples not a doctrine of individual salvation but a new commandment “that they love one another,” and he added: “By this shall all men know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” Love is thus the foundation, the very life of the Church which is, in the words of St. Ignatius of Antioch, the “unity of faith and love.”

I was able to attend Liturgy this morning, and many things contributed to my great joy in participating. Saturday morning is not an “easy” day to make it to church, and I probably could count on one hand the number of these memorial Saturdays that I have attended over the years. They are celebrated often during Lent, and other dates on the church calendar.

Today many of us had offered our contributions to the list of names of the departed that were read aloud as we all prayed. My dear godmother was present with me this morning, which made me feel more complete 🙂 and it happened to be the exact date that my uncle was killed in a plane crash long before I was born — the uncle I wrote about once here.

Today we were also praying especially for two men who more recently fell asleep in Christ, one just 40 days previous. George and Nikolai, memory eternal! Romanian women brought koliva, one made of barley instead of wheat, and other commemorative foods.

Just to stand in church, to stand in Christ, to stand with my departed loved ones — it was awfully sweet. Because of this reality that Metropolitan Anthony speaks of in Courage to Pray:

The life of each one of us does not end at death on this earth and birth into heaven. We place a seal on everyone we meet. This responsibility continues after death, and the living are related to the dead for whom they pray. In the dead we no longer belong completely to the world; in us the dead still belong to history. Prayer for the dead is vital; it expresses the totality of our common life.