A New Magazine Article by Deacon Mark
Below is a new article written by Deacon Mark for Alleluia magazine.
A Christian Ending to Our Lives, Burial in the Ancient Christian Tradition by Mark Barna
Mother died early one afternoon in April. She had lived with us for six years, having been bed-ridden for the last five. We called hospice and our priest and began reading the book of Psalms over her body. When hospice arrived, my wife Elizabeth, her primary care giver, and I washed her body there in her bed. We gave her a manicure and pedicure, washed her hair, anointed her with fragrant oil and dressed her in one of her Sunday dresses. Fr. John and I then carefully carried her body into our living room where her casket was waiting. We held vigil in our home that night. In the morning our sons came to the house to transport their grandmother to the church. After the funeral service, we loaded her casket back into the van and carried her in procession to the grave site at our local monastery and buried her there. It was an intimate, beautiful process, harkening back to the customs and traditions of Christian communities for nearly two thousand years.
The Orthodox Church addresses the whole of human existence. From the genesis of mankind as the crown of creation, one destined to live forever as a close companion of a loving God, through the trials and suffering of an often overwhelming and tragic life, to our death and burial in the earth; the Church celebrates, comforts, rejoices and mourns. Orthodox Christians live their lives in a universal community of believers and worshipers dedicating “ourselves and each other and all our life unto Christ our God.”
Burying the dead has always been recognized by the Church as one of the chief corporal works of mercy. Yet, we have created a gap in the continuity of care from the moment of death until the funeral. In little more than one hundred years it has become our custom to turn our bodily remains over to the funeral industry to “make the arrangements” for burial.
A death in the Church is a death in the family. When a loved one dies we have many options available to us. One of those options is to handle the funeral and burial in the same way that Christians have done since the very beginning. There is a movement now, away from the American industrialized form of dying, to a more intimate, traditional Christian burial. The remains of the deceased are prepared and cared for in community and returned to the earth as soon as possible, often without the use of a funeral home or a funeral director. Most states have no laws requiring embalming, caskets, vaults or crypts. Only eight states have any requirement that one use the services of a licensed funeral director in some way. There are no federal laws regulating funeral matters.
All people are rightly concerned with death. It is the ultimate destination of all material creatures. Of all creation, only mankind is aware of our own impending demise. While death is universal, it is also the most individual experience of all. Even if we were to lie down together and die at precisely the same moment we still die our own, very individual death. Moreover, we cannot know when our death will come. No matter how rich and powerful we may become we cannot beg, buy, borrow or steal one more heartbeat.
The world’s religions are ultimately concerned with reconciling people to death. They endeavor to provide some solace and comfort in the face of it. Secular religion relies on science and technology to attempt to prolong its approach and, upon its ultimate failure, tries to ignore it or dress it up with face paint and platitudes. Atheistic philosophies attempt to ignore it or pass it off as merely natural.
Christianity does not offer resignation or reconciliation with death. Rather, it is the revelation of death. It reveals death because it is the revelation of Life. Christianity alone proclaims death to be unnatural. Christ is Life! Only if Christ is Life is death what Christianity proclaims it to be, namely, the enemy to be destroyed and not a “mystery” to be explained, or a “natural” part of life. It is only through the revelation of Christ as Life that death is revealed as the enemy, the fall from life.
Only Christianity resolves the problem of death. By proclaiming the resurrection of Jesus Christ it announces the defeat of death as the last great enemy. Death is not part of God’s plan for mankind. It is the result of a distorted life gone astray. In his incarnation Christ took on the whole of fallen human life. By descending into the waters of baptism He regenerated, renewed and returned all matter to the potential of its earliest created grace. By his passion and resurrection He “trampled down death by death.” This is the final confirmation of His defeat of death and the renewal of life. He offers mankind new life over which death has no hold.
Jesus’ baptism in the waters of the Jordan River was more than a symbolic act of ritual cleansing or solidarity with the disciples of John. It was the type, the very real foreshadowing and participation in His own death and resurrection in Jerusalem only a short time later. By humbling Himself to descend into the water He was not cleansed by the water, but He, the Creator of the water, cleansed it and made it new again. Likewise, by taking on human flesh He renews man’s nature, his image and likeness of God, making a renewed personal relationship with God possible. In baptism, Christians also participate in Christ’s own death and resurrection. By our descent into the recreated waters of baptism we humbly, willingly, die with Christ to be reborn into that renewed personal relationship of joy, healing and Life that He provides for us. The old man dies, and a new man, born in the renewed image and likeness of God, emerges.
“Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in the newness of life. For if we have been united with him in death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his.” – (Romans 6:3-5 read at the Sacrament of Holy Baptism)
By His passion, death and resurrection, Christ trampled down death and made it no longer the last great enemy, but the restoration and entrance into the life of blessedness in the presence of God for which mankind was originally intended. As Christians we are not bound to this world of death; what some have referred to as a “cosmic, whirling graveyard.” We are bound to our Lord God and Savior, Jesus Christ. Believers no longer live for ourselves but our life and death are in the service of the Lord. Seeing him in our neighbor, we serve Him, love Him and care for Him at every opportunity. Even though the prospect of death is still a very real, awesome and frightening mystery, seeing Him as Creator, Benefactor and Redeemer, we look forward to our heavenly birthday with anticipation and joy. “For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain … My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better.” (Philippians 1:21–23)
Christ’s triumph over death, allowing our entrance into life, has led many Orthodox Christians across America to begin to redeem the burial process from the commercial process that it has become. Over the past decade, it has been our honor to prepare the bodies of numerous people for burial in a beautiful, natural and holy way.
The process is very simple. Regardless of whether we are in the morgue, the home, hospital or funeral home, we think of it as preparing our beloved brother or sister to greet the King. When family or friends come to help, we ask them to think of what they would do if they were called to greet the King. We would wash our hair and our bodies. We’d get a manicure and a pedicure. We’d don our best clothes and, perhaps, put on some fragrance. This is what we do for our family and friends before they leave us for the last time.
Today as we transition from the commercial American funeral toward the ancient Christian practice, there are many variations and intersections between the two traditions. We have prepared several bodies in funeral homes and conducted natural funerals with the assistance of funeral directors. Ideally, preparation of the body begins immediately after the repose of the deceased. The book of Psalms is traditionally read continuously from the time of death until burial except during services. After washing, the body is anointed with fragrant oil. Then the body is dressed in a traditional white baptismal garment. Today we often bury people in their “Sunday best.” Sometimes a person will request the use of a traditional Orthodox Christian burial shroud.
When the body is ready, it is transferred to a coffin or other container and taken to the church. There are several traditional coffin makers around the country making beautiful, handmade coffins. Some people have used woven baskets and the like or even no container at all. It is purely individual preference. Using dry ice, we have routinely kept bodies very well for three days. In the case of our beloved Archbishop DMITRI, we kept him very successfully, in the August heat of Dallas, Texas for five days. Current state-of-the-art chemical embalming can only delay decomposition for three days.
At the church the family gathers with friends and the church to hold vigil. This can also happen at home if the family prefers. A short service of prayers for the dead are said and then those gathered take turns reading the Psalms through the night, as they are able, over the body of the deceased. On the appointed day, the funeral is held in the church; the body is taken in procession to the cemetery and buried.
Such intimate contact with the grieving family and the deceased throughout the process has an amazingly cathartic effect on the entire community but particularly on the family. People who we never expected to want to help prepare a loved one for burial have insisted upon doing so and have come away thanking us repeatedly for the opportunity. Spouses have shed copious tears while helping to prepare the body and come away exhausted but surprisingly renewed in spirit. Grandchildren have paid extreme honor to beloved grandparents by devotedly preparing them for burial. Everyone who has been involved in this process has been profoundly touched and thankful for the experience.
Over the past decade we have had the opportunity to perform this service many times for family, friends, parishioners, complete strangers and even our beloved hierarch. This is the last honor and the last service we can offer to any person in this life. It is our last opportunity to serve. We consider it an honor and a privilege. In the fortieth day memorial service, the words of the Orthodox funeral hymn fill the church once again, “For dust thou art and unto dust shalt thou return; whither we mortals all shall go, making our funeral dirge the song: Alleluia, Alleluia, Alleluia.”
Deacon Mark Barna serves at Holy Ascension Orthodox Church in Mt. Pleasant, SC and is co-author of the book, “A Christian Ending, A Handbook for Burial in the Ancient Christian Tradition.”