Here is another inspiring story, that I post every year on Holy Thursday, about another inspiring woman, who also died at Holy Trinity in Asheville, also during Holy Week of 2004—her story was witnessed by the entire congregation. Please take a few moments and read what follows:
Have you ever wondered what would be the best way in which to die?
Have you ever thought that one of the happiest moments in your life could take place at a funeral?
Well, I witnessed a person die in the “best” way that a person can die, and her funeral was one of the happiest moments of my life.
Here is her story:
Eva Cledaras was a wonderful lady. She was 77 years old, a former parishioner in my former parish, and was a dear friend. In fact, in 2004, we had made plans for her, Presbytera and I to get together the Saturday after Easter to plant flowers in her yard. On Holy Wednesday 2004, she was the last person to get anointed with Holy Unction. In fact, she remarked to me, “I’m glad I got to be last tonight, so that we can chat for a few minutes.” The conversation wasn’t particularly memorable, in fact my only memory of the conversation was that we had one, on what would turn out to be her last full day on earth.
On Holy Thursday evening, she attended the lengthy service of the 12 Gospels. She sat in her usual seat in the back pew on the right side in the seat closest to the center aisle. During the service, after the procession, I allow people to come up row by row and venerate the cross as we continue the service. At some point after the Procession, the priest censes the congregation. I remember walking down the center aisle, censing the congregation. As I came to the back pew and censed the pew where Eva was, she did something unusual—instead of bowing or making her cross, she waved at me. I thought that was odd. As I was censing in the narthex, I looked through the glass participation separating the nave from the narthex, and saw Eva through the glass, and it looked like she had a halo around her head, also something odd that I filed in my mind.
Now, when people come up to venerate the cross, I always tell them to stand or kneel and offer the prayer of the repentant thief, “Remember me O Lord when you come into your kingdom.” The repentant thief said this to Christ, who answered him, “Truly I say to you, today you will be with Me in Paradise.”
So, a few minutes later, Eva came up to venerate the cross. I was later told that she waved to people as she made her way up the aisle. She knelt in front of the cross, said her prayer, went back to her seat and sat down, and had a massive heart-attack. No trauma, no loud cry, she just fell over and stopped breathing.
The ushers came into the altar to tell me that someone was in medical distress, and they were calling 911. I asked, “is it Eva?” because then I knew why she had waved to me. The service continued, the paramedics came, I went to the back of the church briefly to anoint her with Holy Unction, the service concluded, and they were still working on Eva. Rather than having people leave, I asked everyone to come up to front of the church, we knelt around the cross, 150 people and sang hymns and offered prayers. After Eva’s body was taken out by the Paramedics, I followed to the hospital where she was pronounced dead on arrival.
I stayed at the hospital for a few hours, then returned with her great-niece to the church to retrieve her car. Her niece, a close friend, asked me to drive Eva’s car back to her house, and she followed me in my car. I remember sitting down in Eva’s car at 2:00 a.m. on Good Friday, I turned the ignition on, her radio station came on, there was a card with a reminder about her dentist appointment for the following day. And I thought, how surreal, who parks their car at church and thinks that the next person who drives the car will be my priest, because I will be dead? Probably no one.
Needless to say, I didn’t get much sleep that night, nor did anyone else who had witnessed what had happened. Good Friday morning, I went to church for the service of the Great Hours, a service normally only attended by a few people, and was shocked to see the church almost full, as it had been the night before. It seems that no one got any sleep, no one could go to work, and no one felt that they could do anything but go to church. Our Good Friday adult retreat turned into a large group counseling session. I told people, we didn’t have a tragedy in our church last night, we had a miracle. 150 people came up to the cross and said, “Lord remember me in Your Kingdom.” And to one He answered, “Today you are with me in Paradise.” If you wanted to pick a way to die, what better way than in church, surrounded by friends, with your last words being “Lord, remember me in Your Kingdom.”
The Tuesday after Easter, the Orthodox Church celebrates the feast of Sts. Nicholas, Raphael and Irene. Eva’s funeral was held on that Tuesday in 2004. A liturgy that normally is not well attended, in 2004, we had a packed church, for LITURGY. The choir sang, it was like the Resurrection Service all over again. It seems that no one could go to work, we all wanted closure on the woman we all knew as a friend, who died in front of all of us. After the Liturgy, I went out of the church to escort the casket in. As I entered the church, everyone stood up and sang Christos Anesti! Christ is Risen! As is the custom during Bright Week, we chanted the hymn 10 times, with the Psalm verses from Psalm 68—which happens to be one of my favorite Psalms. After the first couple of times of Christos Anesti, I stopped and mentioned this is what it must sound like when someone goes to heaven, a choir of all the angels singing Christos Anesti and welcoming the new arrival. I turned toward the casket, holding the censer and my Paschal candle, and intoned the verse, “Let God arise and let His enemies be scattered, let them all that hate Him flee before Him,” a verse of triumph and victory for God’s people, and I looked at Eva, and then I looked up and saw the empty cross behind the altar (according to our tradition, the figure of Christ is removed for 40 days as a sign of our Lord’s Victory over death), and I felt not joy, I felt euphoria, ecstasy, and this remains one of the happiest moments of my life. That there is a God, who rules over all, even over death, and He provided a miracle for a wonderful lady, a dear friend and a dedicated Christian. Who could have lined up everything so perfectly, other than the perfect God?!
The death of Eva Cledaras was not a tragedy—it was a MIRACLE, witnessed by the entire congregation at Holy Trinity in Asheville, NC, in 2004.
Every year, I mark this anniversary, by making a moment of silence between the 9th and 10th Gospels on Holy Thursday, the time when Eva passed into everlasting life. It was right before the hymn “Exethisan me ta imatia Mou,” “They stripped me of my garments.”
Memory eternal +Eva Cledaras+–remembering you, as I do each year on Holy Thursday.