I remember when death came into our family for the first time. I was about 12 years old when my mother’s first cousin passed away. I was not prepared to deal with how my relatives dealt with death in Greek culture. When we went to the home of my mother’s first cousin, his wife and a few other women were sitting on a couch. After my mom entered, all of the sudden this ongoing wailing and crying started among several of the women with my mom joining in. This wasn’t just shedding a tear; it was ongoing, out loud crying with words being recited in Greek that I could barely understand. This continued with each new person who entered the house. Meanwhile, the men in the home remained stoic and unexpressive. It continued into the funeral service at the Greek Orthodox Church.
All of this freaked me out. What I do remember about this is that after his death (the first cousin), my mom was not the same health wise. Contrast this with my experience of the death of a good neighbor of Presbyterian background when we lived in Detroit. When I went to the funeral home, everyone was talking like it was a party and there were no tears. My neighbor’s casket was unnoticeable until I saw it at the far end of room. His wife was by the casket talking to people, but there was no line of greeting, no crying, not even any somber sadness.
Over time, as I reflected upon these two contrasting experiences of death, I came to see that there were problems with both of them. Before continuing, I want to quote these verses from St. John of Damascus, which are sung at an Orthodox funeral service:
“What earthly sweetness remains unmixed with grief? What glory stands immutable on earth? All things are but feeble shadows, all things are most deluding dreams: yet one moment only, and Death shall supplant them all. But in the light of Your countenance, O Christ, and in the sweetness of Your beauty, give rest unto him whom You have chosen: forasmuch as You love mankind.”
What I love about this hymn of St. John is it communicates a bitter sweetness in death. In our funeral services we allow for grieving to occur, yet we do not grieve without hope. Our funeral service teaches about the reality of death and why death came into the world. But it also offers the solution to death in prayers and hymns related to the Crucifixion and Resurrection of Christ.
O God of spirits and of all flesh, You trampled upon death and abolished the power of the devil, giving life to Your world. Give rest to the soul of Your departed servant in a place of light, in a place of green pasture, in a place of refreshment, from where pain, sorrow, and sighing have fled away.
At the funeral service, clergy and servers vest in white, the color of Resurrection, the 8thday of the week, the first day of the new creation. So the death of an Orthodox Christian should never be an occasion for morose, hopeless grieving, nor one where the reality of death is denied and no tears are expressed. Having said that, next week, I will speak as to how families can prepare their children to deal with death when it does happen.
The blessing of the Lord be upon you,
The unworthy +Paul