Tuesday, July 13, 2010

My First Orthodox Funeral

Peter mentioned a few posts ago that we had a death in the parish.  It follows, therefore, that there was a funeral service as well.  While Peter had to work, his parents were able to watch our little one, so I was free to attend.  This was a relief for the choir director, he was happy to have another soprano at an otherwise sparsely attended service, as well as for our priest since I promised to bring a pasta salad for the after-service luncheon and he wanted to be sure there was enough outsider-friendly food for the newly reposed handmaiden's non-Orthodox family.

I'll admit that I was mostly concentrated on accurately sight reading the completely unfamiliar music and was not really able to take in everything about the service, but I did make a few observations that I'll share here.

The first thing I noticed was the set up of the room.  The casket was placed where the icon of the week usually stands in the middle of the nave.  The usual candle stands were there, but between them was a body.  The priest administered the service from the head of the casket, instead of behind the iconostasis/in front of the altar.  I know there was deep symbolism in this change, most of which at this point I don't really understand.  But, I did appreciate the fact that she both was and was not the center of the service.  While she was repeatedly mentioned by name throughout, it was clear that the point of the service was Christ and his resurrection - not her death.

Secondly, I was struck by the fact that we were encouraged to venerate the body.  I think that my terminology may be off though, reflecting the fact that I still just don't get so much of this.  It seemed more that we were venerating the body as an icon of the whole person who, though still in existence, had been unnaturally (though temporarily) separated from her physical body, and is currently in the presence of Christ.  So much of the language was similar or even exactly the same that we use during the weekly liturgy about the saint of the day.  I suppose this follows the logic: if she's actually seeing Christ face to face, why wouldn't we ask her to pray for us the same way we'd ask any other saint who is also in His presence?

Finally, I was glad to see that the service provided appropriate emotional space for grieving and yet also encouraged closure.  Now, it must be remembered that I was not in anyway related to the deceased.  In fact, I first saw her was at the funeral and her son, though he means well, rarely remembers my name from week to week.  I should also mention that my personal experience with funerals has been few and far between.  My grandfather, who died this past January, is the first person in my family to die since I was in elementary school.  Needless to say, the semi-Episcopalian memorial service held in his honor was so utterly lacking in, well, everything meaningful, it almost seems disrespectful to mention it.  In any case, I was struck by how the Orthodox funeral service encouraged the family and friends of the reposed to grieve the loss.  Death isn't natural, it isn't just the next step in nature's cycle, it is the product of our sin that both separates us from God and, in death, from each other and we should mourn that.  At the same time though, we were encouraged to remember that this separation is temporary and, while her body may be dead for now, her soul is still very much alive.  This seemed to me to be a very comforting thought.

In conclusion, I was both intrigued and impressed by the service.  I'm looking forward to attending more of the 'other' Orthodox services - baptism, weddings, etc., and learning more about how differently (refreshingly so, I think) the Orthodox view all aspects of life.

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