Before we get to today’s topic, I want to tell you about a new book that I’m very excited about. Yesterday Ancient Faith Publishing released Behold a Great Light: A Daily Devotional for the Nativity Fast through Theophany. Some of you may not know that I’m an editor at Ancient Faith, and at Christmastime about two years ago I started thinking about how the Orthodox approach to Christmas is so different from everyone else’s. I wanted to find a devotional to help counteract all the secular consumerism during the season.
So I came up with the idea of a devotional that starts with the beginning of the fast on November 15th and continues through Theophany—not the usual Advent devotional that covers the first 25 days of December. I pitched the idea to the publishing staff, who gave it the green light, then I organized the format, choosing a reading for each day and a hymn from the Church related to the day’s theme.
And now the book is here! The contributors are eight Ancient Faith authors, bloggers, and podcasters, who each wrote a week’s worth of meditations. In alphabetical order, they are Fr. Basil Ross Aden, Elissa Bjeletich Davis, Fr. Stephen De Young, Fr. Stephen Freeman, Fr. Michael Gillis, Laura S. Jansson, Nicole M. Roccas, and Brandi Willis Schreiber. The authors were all a joy to work with, and they wrote meditations on topics such as the biblical Christmas story, the Incarnation, Old Testament prophecy, the Nativity icon, the Virgin Mary, and the Baptism of Christ.
I’m usually not a devotional-reading type of person, but I need all the help I can get to keep my thoughts centered on Christ during the Christmas season. I can’t wait to start reading it during the fast, and I hope you’ll buy a copy in time to start reading it then too!
Also, Elissa, one of the contributors, will interview me on her live call-in show, Everyday Orthodox, on Sunday, September 24th. I’m not sure that I’m that interesting as a person, but I am excited to talk about Behold a Great Light. Whether or not you tune in, please say a prayer for me!
And now, on to today’s topic: Remembrance of Death & “Celebrations of Life”
Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about death. Hey, I am so much fun at cocktail parties.
Actually I haven’t been talking a lot about death, and I promise I’m not going through a morbid phase in my life. In fact, my thoughts about death over the past year or so have been positive, preparatory, and practical.
When I stand at the great Day of Judgment, I want to hear “Well done, good and faithful servant” (Matt. 25:21). And I bet you feel the same way. In Matthew 10:22 Jesus said, “He who endures to the end will be saved.” I want my life to count. I want to live well, and I want my life to end well. And these goals require intentionality and planning.
Praying for a Christian Ending
The Fathers across the centuries continually tell us to be mindful of death, and we even pray for the end of our lives at every Divine Liturgy. Each Sunday we stand in the nave, singing the responses, crossing ourselves, and trying our best to follow the priest’s opening cry of “Let us attend!”
The Great Entrance arrives with the procession of the Gifts, and the choir begins to sing the Cherubic Hymn:
Let us, who mystically represent the Cherubim and who sing the thrice-holy hymn to the life-creating Trinity, now lay aside every worldly care. So that we may receive the King of all . . .
The Liturgy continues, and we ask for “an angel of peace, a faithful guide,” for “pardon and remission of our sins and transgressions,” and “for that which is good and beneficial for our souls.”
Then . . . Have you noticed? The deacon prays, “That we may complete the remaining time of our life in peace and repentance, let us ask the Lord.” So far, so good. “And let us ask for a Christian end to our life, peaceful, without shame and suffering, and for a good defense before the awesome judgment seat of Christ.”
Every Sunday the Church gives us this reminder to live faithfully in Christ and to look toward the end of our lives. But what exactly is “a Christian end”? I prayed along with this petition for many years without thinking about it, except that, well, it’s a good thing to pray. Of course we all hope to die without pain and to be ready to meet our Maker. But I didn’t give much thought to “a Christian end to our life.”
I have discovered over time that being ready for a truly Christian ending requires both attitude and action: that we be mindful of death in our everyday lives, and that we take concrete steps. On a practical level, the physical and ritual aspects of a truly Orthodox death require careful planning.
So in the next few posts of Walking an Ancient Path—probably three, but it might stretch into four— we’re going to consider many aspects of death through the lens of the Orthodox Church. Now, if you’re thinking “Maybe I’ll skip these,” I ask you to bear with me. I hope you will find these discussions encouraging rather than morbid. We are the people of the Resurrection, and we live in hope. Honestly, sometimes that hope feels more theoretical than actual, so if you struggle with a fear of death—and we all do, at some level—I hope you will press on reading and find great comfort in the words of the Fathers and in the practices of the Church.
Today we will consider the Orthodox Christian emphasis on the remembrance of death, which manages to be sober, realistic, repentant, and full of resurrectional hope. We will also look at changes over the past few decades in the wider Christian world in the ways we remember and honor the dead.
Then, during the next two or three posts we’ll look at the Orthodox view of the value of the human body, which will then help us understand why the Church has an approach to dying, death, and burial that seems rather rigid in the modern salad-bar approach to Christian faith and practice. We’ll take a little trip through Christian history and see how the ancient Church took care of their dead, contrasting historic Christian practices with the significant changes of the past hundred or so years with the rise of a professional funeral industry and the growing popularity of cremation.
We’ll also explore how difficult it is, at least in the US, to experience the dying process, care for the dead body, and burial in a truly Orthodox Christian way. An Orthodox death—a Christian ending—doesn’t happen by accident, and there are a host of state and local regulations to navigate, not to mention cultural and family pressures. I’ll also provide resources along the way as you think about practical details in your own life, with special attention paid to the wonderful Ancient Faith book and podcast series A Christian Ending by Dn. Mark Barna.
Why am I suddenly envisioning climbing into a cart and going through the Haunted Mansion ride at Disneyland? Probably because modern society is so committed to the denial of death that we think of it in terms of ghosts and the supernatural and all kinds of scary Halloween things. That’s ridiculous and sad.
As Deacon Mark points out in A Christian Ending, “Understanding Death: Part One,” we can summarize the Orthodox approach to death with the triumphant Paschal hymn:
Christ is risen from the dead,
Trampling down death by death,
And to those in the tombs
He has granted life.
Remembrance of Death
Whenever possible, we should always remember death, for this displaces all cares and vanities, allowing us to guard our intellect and giving us unceasing prayer, detachment from our body, and hatred of sin. Indeed, it is a source of almost every virtue. We should therefore, if possible, use it as we use our own breathing.
— St. Hesychius the Theologian of Jerusalem, The Philokalia, Vol. 1, p.189
As I’ve been on this hopeful yet sober journey of thinking about death, I have been wracking my brain to remember the teachings about death that I experienced in my Protestant past. I honestly don’t have much to go on. Naturally we thought and taught a lot about what happens after death— the hope of the resurrection and of spending eternity with Christ. But often the thoughts on eternity were a mixed message: We should remember that we will be in God’s presence one day and give an account for our lives. But at the same time, in most of the churches I attended, salvation was defined as a one-time decision that involved saying the sinner’s prayer. After that, heaven was a guarantee.
The question of why I should be concerned about “working out [my] own salvation with fear and trembling” (Phil. 2:12) was never deeply addressed, except to emphasize the blessings of walking with God in our daily lives. The “fear and trembling” part was mostly passed over, because, hey, we knew we were saved.
I realize that my experiences are just a small sampling of Christian reality in the US, but I attended several churches in different parts of the country, visited others, read a lot, listened to Christian radio, and attended many conferences. Over the years I noticed that the topic of repentance was addressed less and less frequently, and while pastors and teachers talked about standing before God at the final judgment—it’s in the Bible, after all—it wasn’t really a frequent sermon or Bible study topic. Repentance is an important part of living and preparing for death, and these topics were just not a priority.
In my Evangelical context, “remembrance of death” wasn’t a thing. In fact, I don’t think I had heard that phrase until I began inquiring into the Orthodox Faith. Here, “remembrance of death” is not just an occasional subject that the Fathers address; it is a frequent admonition.
Fearing vs. Remembering Death
At any moment, every soul can expect the telegram from heaven to break off all relations with earthly things, to seal the time of this “fair” to render an exact count of his spiritual trading, and to seal his eternal fate either in the heights of heaven or the depths of hell. Ah, When I reflect upon this, what can I say? May the all-compassionate God be merciful to my wretched soul, which has nothing but its indifference and unreadiness. My mind stops when it contemplates the absolute truth about salvation. — St. Theophan the Recluse
A young inquirer once told me that thinking about death is negative and depressing, and she couldn’t understand why the Church kept harping on the subject. She had come from a critical, judgmental religious background, which played a part in her almost visceral responses to some of the sayings of the Church Fathers.
But as I kept coming across these reminders, I began to realize that contemplating death—not obsessing over it or falling into a mire of despondency, but really facing its reality—helps us to understand the importance of how we live and to remember that this world is not our true home. When we face the reality of our eventual end, we become more intentional about how we live: in the decisions we make, in the words we say, and in our struggle in the life of faith. Elder Philotheos Zervakos, who died in 1980 and was a spiritual son of St. Nektarios of Aegina, wrote:
The reason people sin is that they don’t remember death as they should. The wise Isaac the Syrian says that the devil attempts in every way to remove the thought of death from man’s mind. He fills man’s mind with unprofitable and harmful recollections. He will give the whole world to man so long as he doesn’t think or remember death and doesn’t consider it in depth. We must reflect how we will die; well or badly? Ready or unprepared? All of us who fear death do so because we have not loved God as we should.
Wow. Uh, there’s a lot to unpack there. We can easily see the truth of Elder Philotheos’s words in the society around us. I can’t speak for Europe or Australia, but American culture is extremely death-avoidant and obsessed with youth, entertainment, and self-actualization. It makes sense psychologically. When we’re busy having a good time, we definitely don’t think about sin.
Venerable Moses the Ethiopian agreed, writing in the 4th century,
When we meditate wisely and continually on the law of God, study psalms and canticles, engage in fasting and vigils, and always bear in mind what is to come—the kingdom of heaven, the Gehenna of fire and all God’s works—our wicked thoughts diminish and find no place. But when we devote our time to worldly concerns and to matters of the flesh, to pointless and useless conversation, then these base thoughts multiply in us.
Saint Moses could have said this in the 21st century. Our world is full of words and diversions, including a love for murder mysteries and action thrillers with high body counts, but as a society we don’t deal with our mortality, and we certainly don’t think about a final Judgment.
Even Christians can be death-avoidant. After all, we’re swimming in these cultural waters together. In A Christian Ending, Dn. Barna states that we fear death because we don’t take time to contemplate the meaning of the Gospel message. “Only Christianity resolves the problem of death,” he says. “Only Christianity reveals death for what it really is. By proclaiming the resurrection of Jesus Christ, we announce the defeat of death as the last great enemy” (“Understanding Death: Part Two”).
As Orthodox Christians, we affirm this truth. I believe it. But sometimes that understanding is more an intellectual assent rather than a living, resurrectional hope in my heart. I personally don’t fear death itself—at least, I don’t think I do—but I do fear the dying process. I worry about dying in pain and experiencing prolonged suffering, and I worry about those I will leave behind. I know I’m not alone in these worries.
Deacon Mark notes that the Orthodox remembrance of death leads to humility. When we remember death, we realize that we have no control over the how and when of the end of our lives; all of it is in God’s control. And so this remembrance is the first step in conquering fear of death, because we have to recognize reality in order to come to terms with it. Deacon Mark teaches that “the remembrance of death brings salutary sorrow, which brings forth true repentance, which brings forth the remembrance of God, which brings joy.”
In the 4th century St. Basil the Great wrote,
If the hope of Christians were limited only to this life, it would rightly be reckoned a bitter lot to be parted from the body. But if we who love God regard the sundering of the soul from these bodily fetters as the beginning of our real life, why should we grieve like those who have no hope? — Letter 101
The early Church experienced much persecution and martyrdom, and they also lived long before antibiotics and modern medicine. Death was an immediate, everyday reality, and Christians practiced remembrance of death in ways that sound extreme to those of us who are so insulated from it. Deacon Mark notes that St. John Chrysostom encouraged his flock to pray in cemeteries and to remember that tomorrow, they themselves would be buried there. In monasteries, some monks slept in their own coffins as a reminder of the brevity of life. Perhaps some still do. (I haven’t taken a survey.) Ancient monasteries in Mt. Athos or the Kiev Lavra also have ossuaries or bone houses on their grounds, where the bones of the monastics who have died are dug up, polished, and gathered in a niche, then the graves are recycled.
These are not the practices of people who avoid death or who live in fear of it. Saint John of Kronstadt wrote,
What is most terrible to man? Death? Yes, death. None of us can imagine, without terror, how he will have to die and breathe his last sigh. . . . But, brethren, do not fear, and do not grieve beyond measure. By His death Jesus Christ our Saviour has conquered our death, and by His resurrection He has laid the foundation for our resurrection.
— My Life in Christ, p.282
As St. Paul wrote in 1 Thessalonians 4:13, we do not “sorrow [or mourn] as others who have no hope.”
Now, I heard that verse a lot in my past. The truth of it brings great comfort in the midst of the grief of losing loved ones. But in my experience, when the memorial service or “celebration of life” was over, we moved on. There are no memorials in the Protestant world for those who have died, and certainly no prayer for the departed. There are no rituals to help and comfort the grieving, unless the pastor happens to have a thoughtful practice of sending a card to the bereaved on the anniversary of a death.
I experienced exactly zero emphasis on remembrance of death, which is a mindset that can shape us in such positive ways. As the Egyptian monk St. Philotheos of Sinai explained in the 9th or 10th century,
Vivid mindfulness of death embraces many virtues. It begets grief; it promotes the exercise of self-control in all things; it is a reminder of hell; it is the mother of prayer and tears; it induces guarding of the heart and detachment from material things; it is a source of attentiveness and discrimination. . . . In addition, the purging of impassioned thoughts from the heart embraces many of the Lord’s commandments. The harsh hour-by-hour struggle in which so many athletes of Christ are engaged has as its aim precisely this purging of the heart.
None of these fruits are negative or morbid; in fact, mindfulness of death in the light of our hope in Christ draws us closer to Him as we live our lives according to His commandments. And I’m beginning to see that the lack of contemplation of death has impacted the way we remember our dead and the death rituals we practice across the Christian world. Just in my own limited experience, I have seen serious changes in the non-Orthodox Christian approach to funeral services even over recent decades.
Changes in Death Rituals
When St. John Chrysostom wrote his Divine Liturgy in the fourth century, the people filling his church knew what a Christian ending encompasses: they understood the importance of the one who has fallen asleep in the Lord to be spiritually prepared for death, of course, but they also shared a common understanding of the ways that person’s body would be handled, both physically and in the rites and practices of the Church, from the moment of death through that body’s final resting place.
In the United States, at least, this understanding of care for the Christian believer after death has been largely lost, and over an astonishingly brief period of time. I was a bit surprised to discover these changes a few years back, then, as I reflected on them, not so much. Considering the radical changes in worship services in the Protestant world over the past several decades, it makes sense that other rituals would undergo shifts as well. When there is no recognition of Holy Tradition to anchor beliefs and practices, change is the only constant. The changes simply need to be justified by a Bible verse—or the lack of a Bible verse on a particular subject.
Even a little over a hundred years ago, and definitely 150 years ago, Christians of all stripes—Orthodox, Roman Catholic, and also the diverse branches of Protestantism—approached the death, funeral, and burial of a loved one in the same way. Think about that. It’s hard to believe nowadays that there was once a universal understanding of a “Christian ending.” The words spoken in the funeral services would differ, of course, according to differing theologies, but the care of the body itself looked much the same as it had for the past two millennia after Jesus’ Resurrection.
Today, even among deeply committed Christians, that unity of understanding and practice has fragmented—so much so that St. John Chrysostom and his flock would not recognize most modern Christian approaches to death as, well, Christian.
I experienced this acceleration of change with members of my own family who had died. But with my thoroughly Protestant background, I thought—if I even considered the topic of death rituals at all—that, like the type of church I attended, everything in the spiritual life is a matter of choice and personal conviction. Overall, American Christians approach death in the same way we approach our worship life: as an expression of our own personal beliefs and preferences. We partake at the buffet line of religious faith and practice, and we die with the same smorgasbord approach.
This is not true in the Orthodox Church. No surprise there. The Church is very intentional about death, just as she is about life and worship. And the Orthodox Church does not change. So let’s survey the current landscape before our next post, when we will consider the Orthodox understanding of the value of the human body and the Church’s historic opposition to cremation.
Different Types of Remembrance Services for the Dead
Funeral homes, which serve people from a wide array of belief systems, usually begin their website articles with the obligatory statement about honoring loved ones in ways that are as individual and unique as the family, blah-blah-blah. This makes sense in business terms and also in terms of respect for the wishes of the dead and the grieving ones left behind, who hold a variety of religious convictions, or none at all.
For example, on the website of the Westchester Funeral Home located in Eastchester, New York (go figure), the article “Funeral vs Memorial Service: Learn the Difference” explains common modern ways to honor the dead.
A traditional funeral service, the article states, “occurs with the body present and has four main parts: the visitation, funeral, committal, and reception.” A memorial service has a similar structure as a funeral but without the presence of the body of the deceased.
Both funerals and memorial services include a eulogy, readings, prayers, and songs. The order of service is similar, but there is no wake or viewing of the body before a memorial service. The article notes, “Because a memorial service occurs after the remains have been cared for, there is often more room for creativity. This is because your family can take more time to plan a ceremony and decide how you want to pay tribute to your loved one.”
The phrase “remains have been cared for” most often refers to cremation, which allows time for a service to occur later—sometimes long after the person has died. The memorial service has gradually supplanted traditional funerals in the US, largely because of the growing popularity of cremation. This is true among Christians as well as the nonreligious population. My own experience with family members illustrates this.
My older sister died in 1985, when I was 21, and hers was a traditional funeral, with a “viewing” the evening before the funeral, allowing family and loved ones to spend time in the presence of her embalmed body in the casket. Then the funeral service, with her body at the front of the chapel in the casket, occurred the next day at the funeral home.
Almost 30 years later, my parents both chose cremation. My mother’s memorial service a decade ago was held at their longtime church, and I think the urn with her ashes had already been interred at her grave plot before the service occurred—I can’t quite remember. Two years ago, because my father at 91 had outlived most of the people he knew, he didn’t want any sort of service at all. So my brother and I asked a pastor friend to perform a small graveside service several months after he was cremated and his ashes interred, which was comforting for us and helped provide some formal closure.
My parents and my sister were all professing Christians, yet the care of their bodies and the religious rituals involved after their deaths differed radically. And by the time of my mom’s death, the movement in the Protestant world toward a different form of memorial, the “celebration of life,” was already well underway.
Celebrations of Life
The Westchester Funeral Home website notes, “It’s interesting; funerals and celebrations of life have much in common, yet they often appear quite different in execution. Each is a ceremony; a gathering of people who share a common loss. It’s just that one is more rooted in tradition, while the other is the result of recent changes in social values.” The article continues,
A celebration of life differs from a funeral in that it’s often a more casual and less structured service. Many families consider a celebration of life to be more of a relaxed and party-like atmosphere with guests attending to celebrate a life well lived. A celebration of life may or may not include elements from a traditional funeral service, although the choice is left up to the family.
“Casual and less structured” is an understatement. If you are accustomed to Orthodox funerals or funerals from more liturgical traditions such as Roman Catholic or Anglican, a “celebration of life” can be really disorienting.
Rob and I attended one of these for a friend from our Protestant days who died unexpectedly in his early 50s. He had been a faithful believer who was deeply involved in supporting Christian mission work. A pastor officiated at the service, and Christ’s Resurrection and our hope in Him were clearly proclaimed, but the rest of the gathering, like all celebrations of life, was mostly an opportunity for self-expression for the family.
The body of the deceased, of course, was not present. I have no idea if he had been cremated or if the family had a private burial service. But Rob and I showed up at the scheduled time to honor and remember this dear brother in Christ.
The program had already gone on for a while, with prayers and eulogies, then when the brother of the deceased took the mic and reminisced for forty minutes, I honestly felt like I was being held hostage. The service was cathartic for the family, and it did honor Christ, but the do-it-yourself nature of it really bothered me. Rob and I were newly Orthodox at the time, and that sense of “something missing” that I had felt for years in Protestant gatherings was especially strong at this moment. We honestly hadn’t known what to expect in terms of length and content because celebrations of life are so individualized. They have nothing to do with Holy Tradition.
Even though a crowd had gathered in honor of our friend who had died, I didn’t really get a sense of remembrance of death. Because no casket or urn was present, a stranger who looked at a photo from that service would not be able to figure out the nature of the meeting. There was no sober reminder, in spoken word or hymn, that we don’t know our own length of days, and that we need to live lives of repentance and obedience to God while we still have the opportunity.
In contrast, an Orthodox funeral service, like an Orthodox sacrament of marriage, is not a time for self-expression. The priest may share a short personal message about the individual who has reposed, but the memorial service itself is scripted, as are the prayers offered shortly after the time of death and at the graveside. Time for sharing memories and thoughts is available, but not during the services.
In a free-for-all world of choice and individualism, the Orthodox Church has many rules surrounding death and the care of the body. The biggest surprise to many is the complete rejection of cremation. In fact, if you are cremated, you cannot have an Orthodox funeral service. Is the Church just being exclusive, rigid, and legalistic, or do her practices flow from an understanding of the sanctity of the human body?
Okay, obviously that was a rhetorical question. The Orthodox Church always has reasons for her rules. In life, in worship, and in death, once again we discover that the ancient Church is intentional in all that she does. The rules and rituals surrounding the death of an Orthodox Christian, rather than being stifling, are life-giving and provide great comfort to the loved ones of the deceased as well as respect and reverence for the brother or sister who has fallen asleep.
As she does in the sacraments and other traditions, in death and burial the Church points us, always and ever, back to Christ, His Resurrection, and our hope in Him.
So, next time we will dig into this. We will consider the Church’s understanding of the sanctity of the human body and its direct relation to burial rites. We’ll look at the changes in the Roman Catholic Church’s stance on cremation as well as some important reasons the Orthodox Church continues to reject cremation. As we learn, we may find that we will look at our own bodies and souls differently as we go about our daily lives.
I hope you can join me.
[If you prefer listening instead of reading, Walking an Ancient Path is available in podcast format on the Ancient Faith app, Apple podcasts, Spotify, and a variety of other places.]