Below is an interview recently conducted and published on the Orthodox Church in America website OCA News.
February 01, 2012
Deacon Mark and Elizabeth Barna write about A Christian Ending in their book and website
CHARLESTON, SC [OCA]
Mark and Elizabeth Barna live in Charleston, South Carolina, where Mark serves as an ordained Deacon at Holy Ascension Orthodox Church (OCA) in Mt. Pleasant. He is a manager for the South Carolina State Ports Authority, while Elizabeth is a businesswoman who has worked for many years in the hospitality industry. “Some people take in stray animals,” they note. “We take in stray people.” Over the years they cared for Elizabeth’s mother as her health declined due to breast cancer, and then also brought their three remaining parents to live out their final years at the Barna home. They began to ask the question, “What is a Christian ending, and how can we help facilitate this in the lives of others?” This search culminated with the publication of their book and website, A Christian Ending.
1. When we pray for “a Christian ending” in the liturgy, some of us might not know just what that entails. What does the Church mean by this phrase?
Far be it from me to speak for the church. I’ll leave that to much more learned people than me. In the Introduction of A Christian Ending we describe the night Elizabeth’s mother died. At the time we thought, “That’s about as good as it gets, except perhaps for dying in a monastery.” My understanding is that a Christian ending to our lives would be simply a continuation and a culmination of our Christian life. We pray for a death that is “painless, blameless and peaceful,” just as we hope and pray our lives will be.
We know that in many lives there is much pain and suffering, sin and often violence. Yet we rely on our loving God’s boundless love and mercy to forgive our sins and to heal our lives. Far too many people die a violent death by accident, murder or soldiers at war. We learn from the lives of the Saints and the martyrs that even in the face of great violence there is the possibility for interior peace.
Many more people die from natural causes of disease or old age. For those of us who live in a community of Christians it is, I believe, our duty and obligation to provide each of our members the most peaceful and Christian ending we can muster. Death is an awesome and terrible, indeed terrifying, thing for any of us to contemplate. Anyone who has spent time with a dying person knows how hard and desperately we cling to life. We are hard-wired by God to fight for life to the end. It is our obligation, not to hasten but, to ease that passing as best we can. We do this in the same way we support each other in our lives, through prayer and fellowship.
The Church has many prayers for the sick, suffering and terminally ill. Our care for our dying brethren begins with simply visiting them, listening to them, praying with them or reading the Psalter and other scriptures. To have time to actually prepare for death is a great blessing. I don’t believe in withholding vital information from a dying patient. It is important for one to have time to prepare if the time is available. As death approaches we can be with them, praying, singing hymns helping to bolster their faith in God’s boundless mercy and to ease their way.
2. In 2012 America, how do we view death, and how does this perspective contrast with Orthodox teaching?
I think most people spend their time in total denial of death. We simply don’t think about it. I know I don’t most of the time. As I said, it is a terrifying concept. Particularly in our post-Christian age and our anti-Christian culture, we are encouraged to spend our time in the “pursuit of happiness,” which for most people means the acquisition of stuff and participation in many sinful pursuits. Our popular culture is filled with violent movies and games or soft-core pornography. Hard-core pornography is the number one most viewed item on the internet. The days are filled with pursuit of money, power and influence and the nights with sex, drugs and rock and roll. You may have seen the bumper sticker that reads, “The one who dies with the most toys wins.” I’d like to change that to read “The one who dies with the most toys is still dead.” Then what?
The “traditional” American funeral is simply a reflection of our materialistic culture. The process of chemical embalming and creating a lifelike mannequin of the deceased is antiquated and actually quite pagan. The very idea of a display of wealth, an expensive funeral or grave monument was repugnant to the early Church Fathers.
Clearly, the popular view of life and death is quite different than the Christian view. The Christian life is, or should be, primarily occupied with the acquisition of the Holy Spirit. We believe that human beings are created by God to be his companions. We were originally created for and are called to an intimate relationship, a communion with God that is higher even than the angels and all the heavenly hosts. We enter this relationship by faith and the acquisition of virtues through the rudiments of the faith; prayer (both personal and corporate), fasting, alms giving and study of the Scriptures. In this way we acquire the Holy Spirit and conform ourselves to the image and likeness of Christ. For the Christian who has spent a lifetime in this manner of living, death is not a terrifying specter but truly a glorious homecoming. The challenge, in every age, is how to do this and still live within the time and society in which we find ourselves.
3. How did you and Elizabeth become involved with end-of-life ministry?
It came about quite naturally and also quite by accident. I have always been very uncomfortable with the American funeral industry and the cult of body preservation. It is very unnatural. We have been together thirty-five years and we’ve always had people with us. Some people take in stray dogs or cats, we take in stray people.
At one point we were involved in a Home Share program with the Department of Mental Health. We took in schizophrenics coming out of the hospital to try to help them reintegrate into society. Yet, all the time we knew that it would fall to us to take care of our parents when the time came. As we grew in the faith, we both knew we did not want to put our parents into assisted living or a nursing home if we could avoid it. Caring for Elizabeth’s mother, Ella, was our real introduction to hospice care. Almost from that moment we began looking for a house where we could care for our remaining parents. Under the heading of “Be careful what you wish for,” we ended up with our three remaining parents, two with Alzheimer’s and one with Parkinson’s, in our home for nearly seven years.
4. On your blog, you state an obvious fact: “No one gets out of this life alive.” How can we Orthodox Christians properly prepare for our Christian endings without being obsessed with, or fearful of, death?
There are two aspects to preparation for death, the spiritual and the temporal. I think the most important first step is to take care of your end of life paperwork. Whenever I’m asked to give a talk about the subject the first and last thing I emphasize is to get your papers in order. As Christians we spend our lives in service to others. Why would you want to leave a mess for your family to clean up should you die unexpectedly? In A Christian Ending, Chapter 11 deals with personal pre-planning and the forms you should have. Appendix B contains a form that we created to inform family and friends of your final wishes. This is particularly important for converts whose family may not be familiar with natural burial.
I’ve found this to be a good way to get in touch with your own mortality. There is something about creating a will and filling out a Healthcare Power of Attorney that is quite sobering. Amazingly, we have very good friends who have actually helped prepare other friends for burial and still haven’t created a will. It’s a mystery to me.
Spiritually our entire life is in preparation for our death and judgment. One cannot emphasize enough the rudiments of the faith; prayer, fasting, alms giving and attendance at church services. They are so rudimentary that sometimes we forget their importance. Beyond that, the awareness of our impending death is paramount. The Saints, teach us to keep the remembrance of our own death on the very tip of our nose, always right in front of our face. Imagine how different the world would be if everyone was able to do that. The constant remembrance of death is a very sobering and important practice according to the Saints.
The fact is that, except for suicide, I am completely powerless regarding my own death. I am not guaranteed another breath. No matter how hard I try I cannot force my heart to beat one more time. It is all a gift. It is a gift I may be called to account for at any time. If we could be conscious of that every moment of the day, how differently would we treat our neighbors? If everyone could do this, would the world be full of despots and petty tyrants, wars and starving and abused people?
The Saints universally teach that the antidote for the fear of death is the fear of sin. If we were even half as afraid of sinning as we are of dying, we would not sin and therefore would have no fear of death and judgment.
5. What are people’s most common misperceptions about the end of the life, and what is the question you get the most often?
End of life care, palliative care and hospice is really a different subject than what we deal with in our book. A Christian Ending is specifically about the step by step process that takes place after a person dies all the way through to the beginning of the funeral service. I think there are probably many more misconceptions about after death care than there are about end of life care. Most of what people know about care of the dead comes from the funeral industry. Often people think it is illegal to bury your own dead without the services of a licensed funeral director. In most places that simply is not true. The laws and licensing provisions were originally designed to protect consumers from unscrupulous undertakers. Natural burial is so natural that there is very little reason to regulate it. Our state, for example, specifically exempts family and church burials on private property from the state funeral regulations. There are no federal regulations regarding funerals or transporting a body across state lines. You can also ship a body via air freight without a funeral home. One of the most common misperceptions is that an body which isn’t embalmed, must be buried within twenty-four hours. It’s simply not true.
Probably, the question we are asked the most is, “How long can you keep a body without embalming?” The answer is, “Indefinitely.” The invention of refrigeration made chemical embalming obsolete. However, since chemical embalming is the one thing that only licensed funeral directors can provide and is the foundation of the industry, they keep perpetuating the myth. It is very easy to keep a body for three days with dry ice.
I was honored to be asked to come to Dallas to prepare the body of Archbishop DMITRI for burial. Using our book, the people there did a beautiful job with the initial preparations. Vladika lay in repose in the cathedral there for five days with no problems at all. We were very vigilant about keeping his body cool with dry ice between services. We removed the ice for services and returned it when they ended. He looked so good and so natural; I don’t think the casual observer would have ever known all that we were doing behind the scenes.
6. Tell us a little about your book, and why you wrote it.
It’s all our priest’s fault. It’s always the priest’s fault, right?
A Christian Ending started out as a simple instruction manual for preparing a body for burial. Over the years my discomfort with the American funeral industry led me to explore burial in an Orthodox Christian context. Clearly, it is an important part of life and we should do it right. To my own surprise I had accumulated a good amount of information. One day I mentioned this to Fr. John Parker and half joking, told him to find a seminarian in need of a thesis and I’d turn my files over to him to write a book. He said, “No, you do it.”
The first draft was simply a step by step, hands-on description of how to prepare a body for burial. We wrote it specifically for Orthodox Christians and therefore took a lot of basic Christian knowledge for granted. Our later experiences led us to include information on legal matters, dealing with the coroner, hospitals and nursing homes and mobilizing parishioners to help. Later we included some short chapters on the evolution of funerals. Realizing that natural burial is becoming popular with the New-age and Green folks, we added a chapter of some basic theology for the non-Orthodox or non-Christian reader as a form of outreach.
The first opportunity we had to use our own instruction manual was for a dear friend and parishioner who died unexpectedly. It was a great shock to us all. We went to the morgue to prepare his body and everything went “by the book.” Everyone involved with that first “in-house” funeral was so touched by it that we knew we would continue.
Another thing really struck me. The director of the Medical University morgue told me as we were leaving, “We’ve had Muslims, Hindus and Buddhists in here. You’re the first Christians.” That struck me as very sad. “You’re the first Christians.” We of all people, the people of the Cross and the martyrs, have not been taking care of our own departed brethren. What kind of witness is that?
We had been reading selections from the Psalms during the preparation procedure so we developed a small service of prayers and readings to use specifically during the preparation of the body for burial. The readings are programmed to last about as long as the preparation and we included them in the book for ease of use.
We didn’t write the book for profit or notoriety, but simply to make what we have learned available to the Church. To us it just makes sense that we should render this final service to our beloved brothers and sisters in Christ. We have done this for friends, family and perfect strangers. We have trained many people. People we would never expect have insisted on preparing their loved ones themselves. Everyone who has been involved has been touched and greatly moved by the power and simplicity of what we do.
Reprinted from: Orthodox Church in America http://oca.org/news/oca-news/mark-and-elizabeth-barna-write-about-a-christian-ending-in-their-book-and-w.