We recently received an email from a reader asking how to start a group or fellowship dedicated to the care of deceased members of her church. I reprint it below.
Personally, I believe we are all obsessed with death. Most people are simply obsessed with denying its reality. As Orthodox Christians we are taught to be ever aware of our own impending doom. If we could all become aware each moment that our next breath could be our last, how differently we would act, how different the world would be. Most of the trouble in the world is caused when people act as if they shall never die. I think of all the great emperors, warlords, crooked politicians and Hollywood troublemakers of history and guess what…they’re still dead. We all end up the same way. We can amass great fortunes or even conquer the world yet we still end up dead. No one gets out alive.
As Christians we prepare spiritually, physically and legally; personally and in our community. This is what A Christian Ending is about.
I am not obsessed with death. I simply realize its reality and try to prepare myself as best I can. This and my loathing of the funeral industry and the American cult of body preservation, led me to look for a better way. Having found it I felt duty bound to share it with the church at large. You can blame our priest for the book. I told him I had reams of information and suggested he find a seminarian in need of a thesis to write a book. He said, “No. You do it.” It took several years but, thanks be to God, a copy of our manuscript finally fell into the hands of our Metropolitan Jonah, then abbot Jonah.
To begin a guild or burial fellowship in your own church, I believe the enthusiastic support of your priest is essential. I’m not sure how one could do it without his support. I suggest you read the book and then talk with him, share the book with him. If he is OCA he should have received a copy already as we were blessed to send a copy to each OCA church in the US and Canada. If he agrees, begin talking to your friends and family at church. You could do as we did years ago and announce a time to meet with interested parishioners to discuss the establishment of such a fellowship. Don’t be discouraged. In the book we describe the “ideal” situation with the whole church participating. In reality, we have been doing this for over eight years with the enthusiastic support of our pastor and our fellowship so far consists of me, Elizabeth and Fr. John. Fortunately, that is all that is really needed to do the job.
We do have numerous people who have said they would like to help and will help when the need arises. We have also had several family members of the deceased insist on helping. It is an amazing thing to see three daughters prepare their mother for burial. They were so moved they couldn’t stop thanking us for making it possible. Fr. John did the readings and I directed them in the preparations. They did all the work. This has happened several times even with people you would think most unlikely to want to do it. Everyone who has participated has had the same reaction. They simply can’t stop thanking us. It is a very powerful service, our final service to our parents and loved ones. My adult sons helped prepare their grandparents for burial.
I have learned from experience that it is best to keep the actual participants to a very small group of three or four people. We have had people die who were so beloved that six or eight people awanted to help send them on their way. It simply gets too crowded around a body with that many people. I suggest those closest to the deceased do the hands on preparation and the others take turns reading and then leave the room. The preparation takes about forty-five minutes. Just divide those forty-five minutes by the number of readers and have them switch off at the appropriate time so you can concentrate on the work at hand.
You should also do some local research for your presentation to the church. Talk to the local coroner about how to handle an expected or unexpected death. What are the legal steps you must follow if someone dies at home? What paper work must be filed and in what order? You might check with local funeral homes about the cost of a “typical” funeral in your area compared with a “no cost” in-home (church) funeral. Check with your local teaching hospital about morgue facilities and refrigeration. We have an excellent relationship with our Medical University morgue where we have prepared several bodies and we have learned a lot from the professionals there.
I recommend that you research your state funeral regulations. Remember that most state regulations were originally written to protect consumers from unscrupulous funeral directors. They generally are not designed to regulate family or church funerals. Commercial cemeteries will have their own rules designed mostly to maximize profit. Our state regulations are very easy to read. If your state’s are not, perhaps there is a lawyer in the church who could help. You will find it very helpful to know the state regulations when you talk to the coroner, the hospitals, and nursing homes. They generally do not know the laws and get most of their information from funeral directors. That is the worst place to get your information. We were very kind to funeral directors in our book. However, the truth is that every time we have dealt with a funeral director they have simply lied to us.
When one of our parishoners died, he was to be transported to a neighboring state by the family for burial at a monastery. The morning of the funeral the daughter-in-law called me in tears. They had received a call from the monastery saying it is illegal to transport a body across state lines. I told her that is not correct and asked her to stay calm while I researched the receiving state’s regulations. I knew our state’s laws and I know there are no federal laws prohibiting interstate transport of dead bodies. In just a few minutes on the internet I had pulled up the other state’s regulations, read them, printed them, highlighted the pertinent parts and faxed them to the family and the monastery. The monastery, regretfully had relied upon the local funeral home for their information and the funeral director simply, boldly lied to the nuns. The family was very relieved and the funeral proceeded calmly with the burial at the monastery as planned.
When they find out we know the law, funeral directors become much easier to deal with and are willing to provide whatever service we ask for with a smile. Over the years we have developed a working relationship with the two largest funeral homes in our area and when we call they know not to try to sell anything. We have prepared several bodies in the funeral home. They are happy to provide a room and a table, water and sheets. We supply the rest from our kit. The contents of the preparation kit are on page 148 of A Christian Ending.
Feel free to contact us any time for any assistance we can render. We are available for talks or workshops for expenses only. We do not accept payment for any of our services. Remember, anyone who accepts payment for funeral services becomes a “professional” and comes under the funeral licensing laws and other regulations. This is our offering and ministry to our departed brethren and their families. If they are grateful they can make a donation to the church in memory of their loved one.
God grant you much success and many, many years.
Deacon Mark and Elizabeth
“A dog is better than I am for he has love and does not judge.” – St. Xanthias