On Death

My friend died.

He did not pass, pass on, or pass away; he did not cross over and he is more than simply “no longer with us”: he died. And he detested the euphemisms that are so often used for death in British culture.

Of course, in Orthodox parlance, we often refer to somebody reposing or falling asleep in the Lord. These terms are intended to express a theological reality, which is that the state of death, real though it is, is only temporary, and we hold dearly to our faith and hope in the general resurrection, promised to us by the Saviour, Jesus Christ in the light of his glorious Resurrection.

The euphemisms commonly used to refer to death often express no such faith or hope but merely serve as ways to avoid dealing with the reality: the person has died. That avoidance seems endemic in our society in modern times.

I spent a significant part of my childhood and teenage years on the Caribbean island of St Kitts. This was a very formative time for me, and I am grateful to have been raised in a culture that has no such squeamishness about death. I was Anglican at the time, and my parish priest and headmaster were cousins. This relationship, combined with the setting of a less rigid culture, and one in which high value was placed on religious observance, meant that I would often be allowed to leave school early to serve at various funerals (most of which were requiem masses in church). The coffin was almost always open. The few exceptions were cases in which somebody had died in a car accident, in violent circumstances, or perhaps had been dead for some days before being discovered. Otherwise, the coffin would be open, and it was so normal that my teenage mind simply never thought to question it.

The funeral directors would bring the coffin to the door of the church and would open it. Then, the priest would greet the body at the door with prayer and holy water, and receive it into church. The family, friends, neighbours, work colleagues, and anybody else who wished would then come and say their final goodbyes to their loved one. They would hold the hand of the departed, stroke the face, kiss the forehead, say a prayer, cry, and sometimes wail unashamedly. They did what they needed to do to face the reality of the death of their loved one and to grieve. Then, the funeral would begin. At the end the coffin would be sealed and taken to the grave, where the family and friends would bury their loved one as people gathered around and sang hymns. Only when the coffin was lowered into the ground and the grave filled in would everyone go home. There was a completion to the whole thing, and a certain finality that moved mourners along to the next stage.

I moved back to the UK when I was 15 years old, and made a friend at school at a pivotal time in both of our lives – this made us very close in a short space of time. A little over a year later he died. I went to the funeral and his coffin was closed. I understood why – my friend had been a passenger in a van that had hit a tree when the driver (his father) had had a heart attack. Not wearing his seat belt, my friend had been propelled through the windscreen, and his body was no doubt badly damaged.

However, my intellectual understanding of the reasons for the closed coffin did not negate the feeling that something was wrong, that I had been deprived of the opportunity to say goodbye to my friend one last time. An essential part of the grieving process had to find other avenues of expression, which were not always healthy.

It was only later that I learnt that, even had he not died in such an horrific way, the coffin would still likely have been closed because it is now considered normal in British society to pretend death away. We are not allowed to say that somebody has died, planning one’s own funeral is considered to be morbid, and we don’t even bury our dead, leaving the job instead to paid professionals after we have walked away. Yet death is very real: hiding it in a wooden box and refusing to call it by name will not make it go away.

This denial of the reality of death has even infected many who profess to be Christians, who are often heard to talk about people turning into angels when they die, or saying that the body is not really the person but is just an empty shell, or that death is a natural part of life, and other, similar pagan nonsense. These things are deceptions of the evil one and reek of gnosticism, docetism, and other long-condemned heresies.

To the Christian mind, death is not natural. Death is the very antithesis of life and of nature, and can only be said to be natural insofar as it is a consequence of the fallen nature of humankind and of creation, but this version of nature is not our true nature – it is not truly natural in the way that God intended when He brought his creation from non-existence into being and saw that it was good.

And we know this instinctively – in a way that does not need to be taught to us. That is why, even though I have firm hope in the Resurrection, there were still days in the immediate aftermath of the recent death of my friend, that I was curled up on the floor, hearing noises come out of my mouth that I did not believe it possible for a human being to make. When we encounter death, it is gut-wrenching, and this visceral reaction means that nobody has to teach us that death is not a natural part of life. The image of God in which we are made – the seed of God that is planted within us – remembers something of our pre-fallen state, of God’s intended life for us in the garden of delights. We know the life of paradise for which we were created and the “muscle memory” of our souls knows that death is alien to it.

If death is a natural part of life, why did Christ come to conquer it and to rescue us from its jaws? Why do we celebrate the Resurrection Sunday by Sunday, and every day of our lives, if the body is a mere empty shell and not part of the human person? Why did God become flesh – a real, physical human person – in order to be united to us and save us? Why does our sacramental life in the Church involve our bodies so much if they are not part of us? Surely it would be enough simply to contemplate being cleansed of sin rather than being physically washed, and to think about the Body and Blood of the Saviour rather than actually eating and drinking them. But we know that this is not the case! The Word became flesh, so we hold the body to be precious, we are baptised, and anointed, and fed; we cross ourselves, bow, and prostrate in worship; we venerate the relics of the saints – the bodies of those who have been made holy – and we know that the scandal of the Christian Faith is precisely that we believe that the body is just as much a part of the human person as the soul.

‘If Christ is not fully human, humankind is not fully saved.’

Saint John of Saint-Denis
The Resurrection,
by the hand of St John of Saint-Denis

Yet, living as we do under the conditions of the Fall, we must face the fact that death has been introduced into the human experience, with all the pain and grief and confusion that accompanies it. In British society in the 21st century, in which many people do everything they can to shy away from death when they encounter it, how are we, as Western Orthodox Christians living our faith and working out our salvation, to approach this?

Well, we are not about to transform society overnight and, unless approached directly for spiritual or emotional guidance by those with whom we have a suitable relationship, it would certainly be insensitive at best and boorish at worst to tell bereaved people that they are grieving for their loved one incorrectly. I cannot pretend to have all of the answers but I can share the following thoughts and observations.

I was at the hospital a little over three weeks ago when my friend died. I was one of a small number of people who had gathered around, who said prayers, sang hymns, and commended him to God. As we caressed him and held him, we felt his warm body turn into a cold one. This experience will not always be possible (or desirable), but being confronted with the reality of death before us disavows us of any denial that it has happened. I am embracing the stages of grief as I experience them but can honestly say that denial has not featured at all. A closed coffin deprives people of this healthy progression, I think. We should remember this in our parish practice and personal arrangements, thus allowing our church life and even our own funerals to be a source of healing and faith.

My friend was an Anglican priest who had hoped, in retirement, to enter the Orthodox Church. As it happened, this was not to be, for he had a retirement of only a few short months. His funeral plans stated only that he wished to be taken into church in the evening, and have a mass of requiem offered for him, then a non-eucharistic service the following day. Beyond that, nothing was stipulated. This meant that I had significant leeway in planning his services and, with encouragement from a good friend of his, also an Anglican priest, I incorporated as many elements of our Western Orthodox tradition into them as was reasonably possible within the context and canonical requirements of the Church of England.

My humbled body will be raised in joy! Alleluia!

The Gradual from the Requiem Mass

Those services for me marked a turning point in the grief process, for the Praelegendum and other propers from the Western Orthodox Requiem Divine Liturgy were replete with hope in the Resurrection of Christ and in the general resurrection that awaits each of us. I still miss my friend – I always will – and at the moment I am still crying a little each day, but these tears are for the pain of separation and not tears of despair. Therefore, we must immerse ourselves in the teaching and liturgical prayer of the Church, which serve as a healing balm and proclaim to the world that we are people of the Resurrection.

On that note, let us avoid euphemisms for death. Those who have “passed” or who have “crossed over” cannot be raised; only the dead can be raised. So, with sensitivity, let us speak honestly about death. We cannot believe in the resurrection if we cannot acknowledge death.

Finally, we should say our prayers, particularly Compline which, in addition to being our commendation of ourselves into the protection of God each night, is also a commendation of our souls and bodies into his arms as we keep ourselves ever aware of our own mortality.

“In peace in the same place I will lie down and sleep,
because You alone, O Lord, make me live in hope.”

Psalm 4: 9

This psalm verse that we pray every night at Compline is the same verse that is chanted in the Sarum Use, when the Holy Gifts are entombed on the night of Maundy Thursday. The hope of which the verse speaks is a clear expression of hope in the Resurrection.*

Let that Resurrection hope shine forth in our worship, our lives, our conversations, and in all we do and say, so that, perhaps gradually, those around us might come to understand that death, with all its horrors, has no ultimate power over us, and they too might come to believe in our Saviour Jesus Christ, the great Victor over death.

*Some psalters replace “hope” here with “safety”, which is an unfortunate failing of translations based on the Masoretic text.

Christ is risen from the dead; by death He has conquered death, and to those in the tombs He has given life!

The Paschal Acclamation

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