On Holy (“Good”) Friday we Orthodox keep vigil next to the “shroud” icon of Christ all night through, until noon on Saturday, remembering our Lord in the tomb. From the time of His death until His Resurrection on Sunday, we don’t go about our “usual business.” In my parish, parishioners take turns reading or chanting Psalms at a small lectern, with the aid of a candle during the hours of darkness.
This vigil is something we also try to do, if at all possible, for any mere human from whom the spirit has departed, as each one bears the image of Christ. And as He blessed Creation and the material world by becoming part of it in His Incarnation, so each body of flesh is holy and precious.
(I don’t know if I wrote here previously about how we were able to honor my husband this way two years ago, between the time of his death and his burial, as his coffin remained in our house until the day of his funeral, and many people came to pray the Psalms nearby over the course of three days.)
Even if you are not a Christian, or a worshiper of any kind, the body is that aspect of your person with which you have exerted your will to live and love — to stand up, to feed yourself, and even better, to embrace those you love and to express thanks and kindness. All these actions and behaviors build a heritage and a history attached to your physical self, a unique life given by God. It’s not a “shell” or a thing to be discarded as unimportant. You are honorable, every part of you, because of Who made you, and because of His love.
Christians have the added motive to honor the body, that we want to follow the example of our Savior in every way that we can. As His body was lovingly prepared for burial, so we want to do when it is in our power.
I was gratified to read the following explanation of some of these things that was included in a funeral program last summer, when we were saying goodbye to one of our parishioners and laying his body to rest:
“…we believe the body to be an honorable and even a holy thing. For us the body is not something which is dishonorable or defiled, or to be hidden away or hurriedly disposed of. It is less than the soul, and we know that, deprived of the soul, it will dissolve into its elements, but we believe also that on the last day, whether the deceased were a Christian or not, it will be raised up again. We believe that it was part of that person who has died and is therefore to be treated with reverence….
“The body of an Orthodox Christian is a holy thing. It is that body which was washed in Holy Baptism, anointed with holy Chrism, which partook of the Body and Blood of Christ in the Eucharist, which was anointed with holy oil, which received the tonsure at Baptism, at Ordination or at monastic profession, which was crowned in marriage, which made the sign of the Cross, which looked at and kissed the holy icons, which reverenced and touched the sacred relics, which stood in prayer, which made prostrations, which listened to the chants and readings, which read the Scriptures and prayers, which smelled the incense and fragrances, which went on pilgrimage, wept, suffered illnesses and pains, suffered in child-birth, which struggled against the passions, which gave alms, which fasted, restrained itself, tried to keep itself pure, indeed which participated in the true worship of the True God.”
Know ye not that your body is the temple of the Holy Spirit? (I Cor: 6:19)
Joy and sorrow have been mixed up together for me this week, as it has been life-eventful in a similar way to the days surrounding my husband’s death two months ago.
Yesterday morning as I was standing at the kitchen sink I noticed out the window that the foxglove was blooming. I had been neglecting the garden and never noticed the flower stalk that must have been shooting up.
It was another overcast beginning of a day, perfect for pictures, so I went out with my camera to see what I could see – there’s a lot of beauty in my messy garden right now.
Over the last several years I’ve had the honor of being the sponsor/godmother to three women who all came into the Church as adults. One of them, Kathleen, told me when I first met her that she had a medical condition that was probably going to kill her, though her symptoms were well-managed at the time. We lived in the same neighborhood and became close friends.
Kathleen declined very quickly in the last few months; I was consumed with my husband’s care and didn’t know how ill she was, until he died and she gave out of her need to our family. She came to our house, barely able to walk in a straight line, and spent at least an hour reading Psalms and weeping by his coffin.
A couple of weeks ago she went into the hospital and was put on hospice care; many of us from church have been visiting her and I know she has felt the love of the Lord through His people. She’s been very peaceful in her distress.
The experience has been less peaceful for me, because of the similarities of her decline to what I went through so recently. I was angry for a week, over having to reawaken this chapter of my grief. For two days I couldn’t make myself go to the hospital to see her — I was too disabled by emotion to face the staff and other people who might be around, and I wished that K. were still at her house where I could be alone with her.
My priest came to the rescue when he asked me to come along the first time he brought her Communion in the hospital, and since then I’ve spent many hours by her side, talking at first, and reading things she wanted to hear.
At the same time, I was helping to prepare for the baptism of a new baby in our church, little Mary for whom I had been asked to be godmother, way back in the early part of the year. Last week I had the joy of laundering the baptismal gown that she would wear, a dear little dress in which her mother had also been baptized.
Sunday was the day: “Our” new baby was dipped in the font, and her tiny squirming self placed immediately in a big towel in my arms. I helped to dress her in this frock and put her new cross around her neck. Then she was anointed with holy chrism, “sealed with the gift of the Holy Spirit.”
If you have never had a whiff of holy chrism, it’s worth attending an Orthodox baptism just to get an inkling of what it is like to participate with all your senses in the realities of the faith. In my parish all the newly-illumined carry about them this scent of heaven for at least a few hours, but this was the first time I held a goddaughter in my arms and was able to share so intimately the added sweetness, reminiscent of my own baptism eight years ago, by nuzzling a baby. It was a wonderful, almost magical day, all through, but just the beginning for Mary. I look forward to praying for her and loving her for many years on this earth. For that matter, after I leave this earth, why would I want to stop?
Kathie wasn’t able to attend the baptism, but afterward I spent some time with her and told her about my new goddaughter. Later in the week she lost the ability to talk, but we kept on reading psalms and prayers for her. We anointed her with holy oil and tried to make sure she was comfortable; one friend played music through Ancient Faith Radio on her smart phone for a few hours last night.
This week I have begun to understand that the timing of these events is a gift from the Lord. He’s giving me the means of experiencing the sorrow and meaning of my husband’s end of life in a way I wasn’t free to do at the time, because I was caught up in the swirl of decisions and tasks and being there in each moment. I didn’t have time to think, “These are the last days, or hours. You are about to be cut apart from your soul’s partner.”
But at this point I have been able to pray for Kathleen and grieve for myself at the same time. It’s certainly not anything pleasant, but I can appreciate the benefit, because I am someone who likes to do a thorough job of whatever is necessary.Kathleen fell asleep in the Lord early this morning when none of her friends was with her. May her memory be eternal! At noon four of us women from church prepared her body for burial, washing it and smoothing it all over with a special olive oil that had been infused with heady aromas of flowers. At the end of life, as at the beginning, out of love we lavish good smells. I was reluctant to wash my hands afterward, not wanting to lose the reminder of the grace that we all felt, and the honor of being able to minister to this earthly vessel, the body that was her means of worshiping God all these years.
The flowers in my garden tell this story that is the story of all of us: …as a flower of the field, so he flourisheth. For the wind passeth over it, and it is gone; and the place thereof shall know it no more. But the mercy of the LORD is from everlasting to everlasting….
One blossom is just opening, exquisite and pure, and right next to it in God’s garden another flower has faded and will soon return to the earth from which she sprang not so long ago.
But that will not be the end, because we are not flowers, but humans made in God’s image. Jesus Christ assures us, “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live,and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die.” (John 11:25-26)
Even though we are more than flowers, I am reluctant to be done with the metaphor. So, think of this: As we are made in God’s image, we have the potential and the opportunity to be gardeners of souls the way He is, co-laborers in loving the people around us, as we are cared for by Him. Let us tend His garden with love, as long as He gives us strength.
Tomorrow is one of the Soul Saturdays that we have in the Orthodox Church, on which we commemorate those who have gone to their rest. Archbishop Stylianos tells us that “Christians always took care, with memorial services and charitable acts done especially on Saturdays, to stay close to their dead and ask God for their repose and salvation.”
This spring appears to be a time God has specially given to me to stay close to my dead, so I will attend liturgy and eat koliva. Next week I will also read Psalms by Kathleen’s casket in the church, and attend her funeral.
We will be in the season of Pentecost then. My heart is more peaceful and light than last week, and it will be further nourished in this season when we sing, “The Holy Spirit has descended!” Enliven us, O Lord.
Our family has never tried to analyze what draws us to cemeteries. But our photo albums and memories are full of pictures from wandering through many such places all over the world. Last December I snapped this photo of our soldier son at the Golden Gate National Cemetery in San Bruno, near San Francisco. We had some time on our hands and we noticed this vast military cemetery nearby, so we decided to stop in.
In England, Pippin and I visited ruins of St. Augustine’s Abbey in Canterbury and the 8th Century graveyard where some Orthodox Christians just happened to be visiting a particular grave that day. I took it as a special gift from God that they could show us the marker where St. Theodore (AD 602-90) had been buried. He came from Tarsus at the age of 67 and was one of the most important archbishops of Canterbury, and a link between East and West.
We also visited the grave of Winston Churchill near Woodstock, Oxfordshire. How wonderful to be able to put flowers on his grave (My daughter thought to do this, not I), to be close to him in a quiet churchyard with no crowds pressing.
But most of it is just history of everyday nobodies like us. Even in “historical” cemeteries the dignitaries who are buried there become less famous with every passing year, as the generations also pass and the descendants don’t remember very far back. So perhaps it’s not just history that is appealing. I can’t speak for anyone else in my family, but for me there is some blessing in being reminded of the death that lies ahead for all of us, and a feeling of connection to those who have “passed over” to where they know a lot more now about Who God is and what Life and death are all about.
Aries Clifton Bradshaw Jr. (photo above) is buried at the Golden Gate National Cemetery. In the Orthodox Church we pray for the dead that their memory would be eternal. Considering how people are not good at remembering, it appears that if anyone is going to remember us eternally it will have to be God Himself. This fact was referred to today at a Memorial Day celebration I attended, where in a prayer given by a creaky-voiced elderly man I caught a few words about those sailors who have sunk into the deep “where only Your Name goes.” We were at the rural cemetery, and this year the historic societies were dedicating a new flagpole. There were things for sale: homemade pie with milk–how homey!–and rosebushes propagated from vintage varieties that have grown in the cemetery for many decades.
Women dressed in Civil War era costumes laid wreaths in honor of those who had died in service to their country. For over a hundred years Decoration Day (the previous name for Memorial Day) has been kept by similar ceremonies in this place.
So many of the graves here are old and abandoned, and the historical association has set up a program by which one can adopt a grave. At least 40 of the gravesites now have been adopted by people who keep the weeds down and might also plant some native plants for beautifying. I would love to do this! It is a rural cemetery, with headstones and crypts scattered all over hilly terrain covered with oaks and wild grasses. Not the sort of place with acres of lawns and flat markers that can be easily mowed over.
Headstones are not allowed in most cemeteries nowadays. This picture of a lawn is where my paternal grandparents are buried. It is a nice “memorial park” surrounded by orange groves and with shady oaks. My grandmother died 20 years before my grandfather, and he planted and tended roses by her grave, until they were banned in favor of the flat look.
All through history, Christians have buried their dead. The incinerating of human bodies, dead or alive, has most often been done in desecration of one’s enemies. I don’t like the flat and somewhat boring grave markers, but they are better than having one’s remains scattered to the four winds. They are at least marking a grave, where those left behind have honored their dead by making a place for their bones, planting them in the earth as the Bible describes it, as our Lord was planted.
(This infant headstone is in Jacksonville, Oregon.)
Those who will to have their own selves cremated–well, as my former landlady would say, they aren’t going to escape being raised to Judgment. Or as I would say, God won’t have any difficulty in remembering them.
Today’s ceremonies ended with the playing of “Taps,” whose words (unsung, except in my mind) made the closing prayer that always brings me to tears of thankfulness and hope: