On Sunday, August 28, 2011 I received a call from my friend Vladimir Grygorinko, Subdeacon and close spiritual son of Archbishop DMITRI of Dallas and the South (Orthodox Church in America). He was calling to tell me that Vladyka DMITRI had just died.
The Archbishop had been failing for several weeks. About a week earlier I was asked if I could be available, on a moment’s notice to fly to Dallas and lead the faithful there in the preparation of his body for burial. My immediate response was, “Of course! I would be honored to do that.”
It was Archbishop DMITRI who tonsured me a reader, ordained me to the diaconate, blessed the establishment of our church and then consecrated our church building, Holy Ascension Orthodox Church, Mt. Pleasant, SC. All of us dearly love him.
I remember vividly the day Vladyka came to our little storefront church in Mt. Pleasant, SC to ordain me to the diaconate. I was standing in the altar and the small room was packed with people when the bell rang signaling his arrival. We saw him walk by the large front windows in his Klobuk, carrying his staff, with his subdeacons, Vladimir and Misha. There were so many people in the room that they had a little difficulty opening the door. Then, as he entered, I remember one of the most interesting sensations of my life. As I stood on the other side of the room with dozens of people between us I felt it. It took just a moment to register. Then I realized it was love. When he walked through the door with his long white beard, his bright eyes and big smile there was no mistaking it. You could feel the love from across the room.
The last time I saw Vladyka was at the consecration of our new church building. I served as his deacon this time. He was here for several days and I was blessed to spend some extra time with him. He was about ready to retire by this time. He was clearly slowing down. Fifty years of spreading the gospel, and planting missions across the South and Mexico had taken their toll. The subdeacons carried a coffee maker and thermos bottles in the trunk of the car so that Vladyka could have his particular brand of high test coffee at all times. He lived on the stuff. Some claim it may be what kept him going for so long. It was clear that his short term memory was fading, but he was still as clever and quick witted as ever. When it came to services he was still first rate and very much in charge. The consecration of a church is a long service. He had to sit a couple of times but he was in control during the entire service, telling everyone what needed to be done. Between services I enjoyed so much just sitting with him and chatting about the church, his youth or anything at all.
Getting to Dallas on a Sunday morning wasn’t easy. When I finally arrived at Vladyka’s house and saw his body I was very impressed. A parishioner was reading the gospel by his head. Vladimir, Fr. Seraphim, and Fr. John had done an excellent job with the initial preparations. They had installed two window air conditioners, washed and covered his body with dry ice placed under the coverings. Everything was perfect. Back out in the hallway I told them, “There is not much here for me to do. You’ve done a wonderful job.” Fr. Seraphim responded, “We read your book.” That certainly made me feel good.
Sunday night there really was not much for us to do regarding his body. All of the timing of the funeral was yet to be determined. There was also a bit of a panic regarding where Vladyka would be buried. The plan is to build a chapel beside the church and bury him there. However, Dallas city government was not happy with the idea and several options were discussed. Dealing with any bureaucracy is an arduous task in the best of times. Trying to get a decision, much less a variance quickly is impossible. The parish council decided that the funeral would be Friday and that Vladyka would be transferred to the Church in procession on Monday afternoon for a panikhida service Monday evening and he would lie there until Friday.
The tradition for the funeral of a layman is to read the Psalter from the moment of death until the burial except during services. For a bishop though, we read the Gospel. This was done beside Vladyka’s body from early Sunday morning until his burial on Thursday. The faithful took turns, first in his home by his bedside and then in the Cathedral.
Monday morning there was liturgy in the Cathedral. The rest of the day was spent making preparations for the funeral, receiving bishops’ travel plans and discussions with the parish council and city regarding how and where to bury him. Monday afternoon I went with Vladyka’s deacons and subdeacon’s back to his bedroom to make the final preparations for burial.
Even though the initial preparations we quite thorough, since it was already thirty six hours since Vladyka died and he would lie in repose in the Cathedral for another three days, I decided to wash him again thoroughly with a hospital biocide cleanser before anointing and dressing the body. I mostly just directed the clergy and showed them a few things I’ve learned since writing the book. Reading the Gospel continued while we worked. I noticed a remarkable lack of bruising on his back and buttocks when we turned him over. Then we anointed him with fragrant oil. Vladyka looked good when I arrived but the olive oil really does good things to the skin. I’m still amazed at how effective olive oil is in rejuvenating the skin. We clothed Vladyka in his usual undergarments. Then Metropolitan Jonah entered with all the available priests and we performed the vesting of a bishop just as it is done when the bishop is standing in the Church. The room was packed, the lights were low. There is a prayer chanted for each piece of the bishop’s vestments. Normally, in church the subdeacons vest the bishop, but for his funeral his priests do it.
When the priests completed the vesting we brought in the casket and transferred his body into it. Modern houses are not built to accommodate home funerals as they were a hundred years ago. It was a bit of a struggle moving the large heavy box through the doors and around corners. With considerable effort, the priests managed to carry the casket down the stairs and out the front door. Then, with the choir singing “Holy God” we began the procession with the whole church to the cathedral just around the corner. The bishop’s house is just behind the cathedral so we did not have far to go.
Inside the cathedral the removed the lid from the casket and we began a panikhida service (a short memorial service) for Vladyka. I served the panikhida along with Fr. Marcus. After the service the people came forward to kiss his hand and cross one last time. We went to the parish hall for refreshments and more discussions about what to do about the city and burial.
Before leaving each night it was my responsibility to make sure we placed dry ice beside and on top of Vlakyka’s abdomen. It is my custom to keep dry ice on a body between services but to remove it during services. I keep a Styrofoam ice chest handy for this purpose. It has also become my custom to cover the paper bags containing the ice on the abdomen with my own vestments. It is good to cover the ice to insulate it and my vestments look nicer than a plain blanket. This works very well but it makes my vestments really cold and sometimes quite wet. It was 113 degrees in Dallas so the cool wet vestments weren’t so bad. Initially, Fr. Seraphim had turned the temperature in the Cathedral very low. At liturgy Tuesday morning some people were cold so I told him, “I don’t think it needs to be quite this cold.” Everything was working out beautifully and the ice was doing a good job. Believe it or not, Vladyka still had good color two days after his death.
For a normal funeral it is fairly easy to wait for everyone to leave and then replace the dry ice. This was a special case. This was a beloved bishop lying in repose in his cathedral. He lay in the middle of the cathedral and he was never alone. After each service it could take an hour for all the people to come for a final goodbye. It made it a little challenging to remove and replace the ice without felling as though I was disturbing the people. It seemed to go very well. No one criticized what I was doing. They just waited until I finished.
Someone who saw my photos from Dallas (click here for photos ) asked, “How long does it take for an Orthodox funeral.” I explained that it is not that the funeral takes very long, but that, like any other funeral you have to allow time for people to arrive. In the case of a bishop, there are a lot of people to arrive and perhaps, from around the world. Because we were in a cathedral and had the clergy available we had liturgy every day and services each evening. The fact that the funeral was five days from the time of death gave me pause. Normally, we try to complete the funeral and burial as quickly as possible, not because of any laws or limitations on the process but simply because it’s the best thing to do. I had never attempted to keep a body in a church for five days before but I would not hesitate to do it again.
Tuesday morning Metropolitan JONAH served the liturgy in Slavonic for the Russian community at St. Seraphim Cathedral. Then on Tuesday night Bishop Basil of the Antiochian Orthodox Archdiocese arrived with several of his clergy and served the Trisagion Prayers for the Dead, the byzantine style version of a panikhida. He gave a lovely homily.
Wednesday morning there was another liturgy. More priests had arrived by this time so it was quite an event. Then on Wednesday night we had the funeral service. This was an impressive, dare I say spectacular event. We had seven bishops, forty two priests, six deacons and numerous subdeacons, readers etc. The people were packed in wherever they could find space and a closed circuit TV link was provided to the parish hall.
Thursday morning was the funeral liturgy. The liturgy is not part of a typical Orthodox funeral but in this case it was. Again, a full liturgy with all those bishops and priests is something to see. Naturally, I served whenever asked. After the liturgy, there was a short service and a final anointing by Metropolitan JONAH. Then Vladimir and Misha put the lid on the beautiful by simple casket built by Fr. Michael. We removed all the flowers and candle stands from around the casket. We tucked his vestments and mantia in. I was the last one to kiss Vladyka’s hand before the top was put in place.
On his left hand he had a small abrasion that I had been watching all week. It was about a half inch long and a quarter inch at its widest point. It was a shallow abrasion and very clean. I noticed on Sunday that there were a couple of spots in the abrasion were I could see red blood just a skin layer below. I watched the abrasion all week. Since I was on the left side of the casket when I kissed his hand and blessing cross I had a good look at the abrasion. It was still red, five days after death.
I was blessed by Metropolitan JONAH to ride in the hearse with Vladyka and continue reading that gospel. I had hoped to ride with Vladimir and Misha since they were so close to him. They were really like family. There was only room for one passenger in the hearse and they both graciously allowed me to go. I will be forever grateful to them for that. It was a long slow drive in procession through Dallas to the cemetery where he is temporarily interred. I read all the way taking only short pauses to choke back tears.
There has been much speculation about the sanctity of our beloved hierarch. Many of us have spoken of him as a living Saint for years. Who can say? It usually takes the Church around a hundred years to canonize a Saint. However, he was without a doubt an apostle. When Vladyka was not elected Metropolitan Archbishop in 197 , he was sent to the South to establish the church here. He did so in a great way. He established somewhere around seventy five churches across the South in his fifty year tenure, tirelessly traveling from Texas to Florida, the Carolinas and everywhere in between. He is responsible for the establishment and growth of Orthodoxy in Mexico as well, having translated the service books into Spanish himself.
One can’t help wonder what the OCA might be like today if Abp. DMITRI had been elected Metropolitan, but that is pure speculation. The fact is, as an apostle, he was sent and he planted the vine of Orthodoxy in the fertile ground of the South. He cultivated it with great love and much hard work and it took root. It is now up to us, the inheritors of this vineyard, to continue its growth in the same spirit.
May his memory be eternal.
November 2, 1923 – August 28, 2011