Deacon Mark recently traveled to Greenville, SC to assist the good folks at Saint John of the Ladder Orthodox Church prepare a parishioner for burial. This was the first preparation performed by their fledgling burial guild. We were honored to be able to help them prepare a beloved parishioner for burial. One of the participants sent these impressions and remarks.
Thank you for taking the time to come and assist us in the preparation of Photini. I sat down Friday evening after the funeral and composed my initial thoughts of the experience.
INITIAL thoughts and impressions
My own parents died eight years ago this Christmas. So, for me every death has an element of their deaths woven into it. At first, I was uncertain about my ultimate response/reaction to not only facing a dead body but, touching and handling one as well. It’s easy to say, intellectually, that all is well, but there is a deeper, more primal fear of death that I believe our culture has capitalized upon and even fed. (And had I healed enough from my own grief to be of use to others in their grief?) As soldiers’ say – you never know how you will react under fire until you’re under fire.
But, going to Photini’s body at the morgue, participating in the washing, anointing and dressing of her body has shown that the monster of death is a very elaborate illusion. And that death, while still an enemy, is only a defeated enemy and has truly lost its sting. Her body was not embalmed. We did not conceal death with chemicals or artifice. And so death was exposed in truth as a scorpion with its stinger pulled; its venom drained.
Fr. Marcus chanted the prayers and the scripture readings. Photini’s son, Christopher, Matushka Barbara, Ken and I, under the tutelage of Fr. Deacon Mark Barna made ready our sister to meet her King. We washed Photini starting with her hair. We washed her front and back and from head to toe. We dried her with towels and then we anointed her whole body with scented olive oil. We dressed her and then placed her inside her coffin. And when we were finished, she looked like a real person, someone in a deep sleep.
We transported her body to the church, where we placed it in the nave. After placing the poinsettias around her coffin, we placed her icon of St. Photini in her hands and put her cross around her neck. We sang the Trisagion and venerated and kissed her body. Then we placed dry ice along her torso. She rested among her own people.
We were there for Photini and for her son. And we were there for ourselves as well. The final act of love that could be bestowed upon Photini here in this world was ours to give. We did these things not strangers.
There was a sense of peace in the process. I felt the sadness of losing a friend and member of my community. I felt the pain of regret that I had not known of this when my parents died. I felt a joy that I could give this service. And I felt the pleasure of knowing that even in death, we can speak the gospel of God’s love to those who witness our love for each other.
As Ken commented, even if he never had the opportunity to participate again, he was glad to have had this experience. And I would like to add, that it is an experience worth having.