The Burial of the Dead

One of my favourite theologians of the early 20th century is Virginia Cary Hudson. Virginia was a little girl of ten years old in the southern United States who wrote a series of essays for her teacher in an Episcopal boarding school in 1904. She wrote her little essays with all the innocent naivety of her tender age and with enough charm that her teacher preserved her essays. They were eventually published in 1962 in a slim volume entitled O Ye Jigs & Juleps!

One of her essays was entitled “Sacraments.” As a good little Episcopalian, she described Baptism (“When you are little and ugly somebody carries you in church on a pillow, and you come out a child of God and inheritor of the Kingdom of Heaven. They pour water on your head and that’s a sacrament.”), and also Confirmation (“When you are twelve you walk back in yourself with your best dress and shoes on, and you walk up to the Bishop, and he stands up, and you kneel down, and he mashes on your head, and you are an Episcopal. Then you are supposed to increase in spirit. Then everybody kisses you and that’s a sacrament.”).

In her childlike Summa Theologica, she also described the rite for the Burial of the Dead. In her words, “You get carried back in the church again. But you are dead and it takes six people to lift you. And everybody cries and that’s the last sacrament you are going to get. Mrs. Park was old and so sick she didn’t even know her own children. When Mrs. Park died I sure didn’t cry because I bet when she waked up and found she was dead she was just tickled to death.”

I am confident that ten-year-old Virginia had no knowledge of Orthodoxy, which makes all the more remarkable her intuition of our theology and praxis. Evidently the Kingdom of Heaven does indeed belong to children. For our burial office is suffused not just with sorrow but also with joy and confidence in the mercy of God. It also increasingly differs from the rites for the burial of the dead found in secular society.

That society has returned unwittingly to the understanding of ancient paganism, which posited a sharp dichotomy between the soul (very valuable) and the body (completely disposable). For ancient pagans and as well as for modern secularists, what really mattered was the soul. The body was regarded as the disposable earthly container for the soul, possessing no more lasting value than an envelope containing a letter. One keeps the letter (maybe), but throws away the envelope into the garbage. Similarly, at a secular funeral today, one says nice things about the soul, but burns the body as if it were so much garbage.

This burning is called “cremation” and is a thriving industry. It is also promoted with lies, such as the lie that bones burn. Bones in fact do not burn. To reduce them in size, funeral directors send them through a grinder. The resulting ground-up bones are combined with the remains of the combustible parts of the body and offered to the bereaved as the “cremains” as if all the body had been reverently reduced to ashes in the fire. Sometimes talcum powder is added to further the illusion that bodies in their entirety can burn. The practice of cremation has always been execrated by Christians (and also by Jews and Muslims) until fairly recently. Orthodox still object to the practice, and insist upon committing the bodies of their deceased to the earth. We burn garbage. We do not burn people.

In Orthodox theology, it is the entire person, soul and body, which bears the image of God, since the human person is an amalgam of flesh and spirit. That is why the deceased person is present for their funeral in the Orthodox Church. Orthodox dead are not whisked from their hospital beds to the hospital morgue and thence to the crematorium. They are present at their funerals, even if, as Virginia noted, it takes six people to lift them. The casket remains open at the funeral so that those who loved the departed may see their faces as they pray for them and give them the last kiss before the casket is closed and the dead are reverently buried in the earth. This cemetery earth forms the bed from which the dead will awake at the final resurrection on the Last Day. Indeed, the word “cemetery” comes from the Greek word koimeterion, and literally means “sleeping place,” since we confess that Christ has transformed death into a mere sleep, so that we will rise from death just as those who sleep awake and rise each new day.

The Orthodox burial office therefore presupposes that the dead person being buried will rise again. As C.S. Lewis once said, Christians never say “Good-bye” as if death were final. They only say, “Au revoir,” for they will see their dead again in joy at the final resurrection. Christians share Christ’s victory over death. As death no longer has dominion over Christ, so it no longer has dominion over us.

That is why the Church patterns its liturgy for Christian burial after the Holy Saturday Matins service which celebrates Christ’s own burial and triumph over death. The usual elements of the Matins morning service (Psalm 119, Psalm 51, the Canon) are there in both services. As Christ died and was raised, so His disciples also die in sure and certain hope of their own resurrection. That is why the liturgical pattern of His burial forms the pattern for theirs.

Christian burials are therefore markedly different from secular ones. Ours are filled with hope and certainty and joy. As St. Paul wrote, we do not grieve as the hopeless world does (1 Thess. 4:13). The body of the deceased is always present at our funerals in an open casket. We give our beloved dead the last kiss, as a pledge that we will greet them again. We pray for their souls, confident of the mercy of Christ. We commit their flesh reverently to the earth, waiting for their final resurrection. And we refuse to let sorrow consume us. Little Virginia said it best: when her beloved Mrs. Park died after a terrible time when she did not even recognize her own children, Virginia didn’t cry. She knew that when Mrs. Park woke up and found she was dead, she would just be tickled to death. I’m sure that Mrs. Park was indeed tickled. For Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death, and upon those in the tombs bestowing life.

Photo: Pres. Vassi Haros

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Fr. Lawrence was formerly an Anglican priest, graduating from Wycliffe…
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