Tag Archives: funerals

A long caravan of evenings.

Two of my friends fell asleep in death last week. One was a monk who was buried at his monastery some distance from here, and the other, John, was a member of our parish. His funeral was today, and I was able to attend it.

I’ve written a lot about funerals and death since my husband died, and am at the point where, though I continue to experience grief, these days the loss and its pain primarily show themselves as elements of the same stuff that every single human experiences, we who live as part of this creation that we also live in. The creation that is waiting:

“For the earnest expectation of the creation eagerly waits for the revealing of the sons of God. For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of Him who subjected it in hope; because the creation itself also will be delivered from the bondage of corruption into the glorious liberty of the children of God. For we know that the whole creation groans and labors with birth pangs together until now. Not only that, but we also who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, even we ourselves groan within ourselves, eagerly waiting for the adoption, the redemption of our body.”  -Romans 8

John had been married to his wife for 64 years, since she was 18 years old. He had suffered great pain and disability for much of his life — his particular “stuff,” but while waiting for his full redemption, he was busy doing good works. Maybe his spirit was groaning for its deliverance from corruption, but he expressed his eagerness in generosity and encouraging words and cooking for people.

I was looking for a poem to post this evening, because I had no good story of my own to share. It turns out there was no poem at hand that would serve very well, but here is one from the archives that reminds us to keep on keeping on, through whatever losses we suffer. I’ll see you in the morning!


And there was evening, humid
with lightning, when my father

fell to the earth like summer hail,
scattered. I gathered

my mother, we threw in
a handful of pebbles. And

there was morning, bitterly.
There was evening news

bluing walls, violet morning
on thunderheads, and the evening

when morning
would never again light our bodies in bed.

Morning caravans, headlights,
evening. A long caravan of evenings. Then

there was only me, morning. Awake in a room
in a building vast with rooms. Everyone

evening. Everyone morning. And God
had finished all the work he had been doing—

babies, honeybees, spreadsheets, winter
mornings. I said,

I will not stop here, evening. I’ll see you
in the morning.

–Thomas Dooley

Holy Friday and our own holy bodies.

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)

More on this subject is in the article online from which these paragraphs were taken.

We pray and kiss her good-bye.

The picture below is of a cemetery that I have visited a few times in the last two years. This week I was here for the burial of Nina, about whom I told you not long ago, when she was still going strong.

Fvl cemetery Radonitsa 15

Nina said recently, and smiling, I’m sure, that she didn’t really want to celebrate another birthday on this earth; and though she wasn’t sick or in pain, her heart did stop one day, just before she would have turned 104.

When I heard that she had died I was still in the mountains, and it made me sad to think I would not be able to pray at her funeral – so I was pleasantly surprised to learn that it would not take place until later. It’s not traditional to wait that long, but perhaps the birth of one of her great-great-grandchildren, who was present at the service and two weeks old, had something to do with the delay.

It was to love and honor Nina that I made the effort to get to church that morning, and not because I knew her or her family very well. I wasn’t feeling energetic or “spiritual” and you might even say I was in a bad mood. So I was completely surprised at how personally and deeply I was affected.

Her casket was in the center of the church. We were all gathered around singing, and the priests and deacons were censing Nina and the church, because something fundamental and important and holy was going on. Yes, they were censing Nina. Father addressed the common but mistakgl photos ninaen idea that people often express about the dead, saying, for example, “That’s not my mother!” as though the material aspect of the self was unessential. “Well, who is it, then?” he asked.

Father Stephen in a recent blog told about a Protestant church in his town that forbids the presence of the body at funerals. He writes, “Biology is easily the most fundamental aspect of our human existence. We do not ‘have’ bodies – we ‘are’ bodies.”

I’m so thankful that in my church we do not whisk away the body, but instead acknowledge it as the most “fundamental aspect” of the person and the way that we have known them their whole life. We sang a hymn about “the last kiss,” and we had the opportunity to kiss and venerate Nina’s holy body, with which she worshiped God and loved so many people during her many years on the earth.

I did think a lot about my husband that day, and I wept, because I still feel the raw places where he was torn away from me; but because it has been over a year since his own falling asleep, I was less distracted by my own grief and able to pay closer attention to the service than I could at the two funerals I attended last spring and summer. I noticed Christ with us at Nina’s funeral, and the palpable love of the Holy Trinity, which we reflected in and from our own bodies, still more or less intact.

gl Nina graveside

The liturgy of the funeral service is rich and deep. It is a commending of the believer to God, praying, “Grant rest in blessed repose, O Lord, to the soul of your servant,” many times, solemnly and lovingly, with Psalms and many readings from the Gospels and other scriptures, such as this passage from John, in which Jesus tells His disciples,

Verily, verily I say unto you, he that heareth My Word and believeth in Him that sent Me, hath everlasting life and shall not come into condemnation, but is passed from death unto life…. the hour is coming and now is, when the dead shall hear the voice of the Son of God; and they that hear shall live. For as the Father hath life in Himself, so hath He given to the Son to have life in Himself, and hath given Him authority to execute judgment also, because He is the Son of Man.

Marvel not at this; for the hour is coming in which all that are in the graves shall hear His voice and shall come forth….

gl blessing grave w holy water

Hearing words like this, I couldn’t dwell too long on the horrible unnaturalness of death, and the sorrow of a soul being torn from its body. Again, I am helped by the way that Fr. Stephen explains our perspective:

In the traditional theology of the Eastern Church, this world and the “next,” are not two worlds. We use the language of place (heaven and earth) for lack of language not for accuracy. There is more to the created order than we see (“all things visible and invisible”). But that which is not seen is not inherently separate from that which is. Sacrament (mystery in the East) is a way of describing the relationship between what is seen and what is unseen. Everything is sacrament, icon and symbol.

In such a setting, death is a change, but not an end. That which we see, the body, remains important and worthy of honor. A funeral, the service of remembrance, is a sacramental gathering in the presence of God. The body is honored, even venerated. The life of remembrance, eternal remembrance, begins.

gl shovel of dirt into grave

I hadn’t planned to go to the cemetery for the burial, for various reasons, but I didn’t want to leave this event that seemed to have a stately and grace-filled momentum – I wanted that grace!

So I drove over with a couple of other women, and stood with the family and fellow parishioners, including that brand-new baby, while we committed our dear friend to the earth – for a time. The epistle we had just heard echoed in my mind,

(I Thessalonians 4) 13 But I would not have you to be ignorant, brethren, concerning those who are asleep, that ye sorrow not, even as others who have no hope.

14 For if we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so will God bring with Him those also who sleep in Jesus.

15 For this we say unto you by the Word of the Lord: that we who are alive and remain unto the coming of the Lord, shall not precede those who are asleep.

16 For the Lord Himself shall descend from Heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet of God; and the dead in Christ shall rise first;

17 then we who 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.

If you would like to read more about the Orthodox funeral service, there is a good article on this site. It’s all very encouraging!

With the saints give rest, O Christ, to the soul of Thy servant where sickness and sorrow
are no more, neither sighing, but life everlasting

gl harrowing med resurrection anastasis