Christianity is not reconciliation with death. It is the revelation of death, and it reveals death because it is the revelation of Life. Christ is this Life. And only if Christ is Life is death what Christianity proclaims it to be, namely the enemy to be destroyed, and not a “mystery” to be explained. Religion and secularism, by explaining death, give it a “status,” a rationale, make it “normal.” Only Christianity proclaims it to be abnormal and, therefore, truly horrible. At the grave of Lazarus Christ wept, and when His own hour to die approached, “he began to be sore amazed and very heavy.” In the light of Christ, this world, this life are lost and are beyond mere “help,” not because there is fear of death in them, but because they have accepted and normalized death. (Fr. Alexander Schmemann, For the Life of the World)
In the normal course of events, among the things we expect can be included is the death of those we love. If it comes at the end of a long, happy life, accompanied by minor suffering, we tend to think of it as a “good” death. Disney has popularized the notion of the “Circle of Life”: one dies, another is born, and “life” continues. It makes for a very catchy song. But, of course, death does not obey such rules. It is not a Disney film.
My ministry over the years has included a great deal of death. My first parish was composed largely younger families. The deaths that occurred were few, but often more poignant because of that fact. In one large parish that I served, I buried around 120 people over the course of 9 years. That’s more than one a month. That ministry was followed by 2 years during which I worked as a hospice chaplain, averaging about 3 deaths per week. It was emotionally draining work. The tendency of our culture is to focus on helping people feel better. In that model, death is a “problem” in that it makes us sad, disrupts our lives, and creates other issues. As a hospice chaplain, I was directed to create a “grief support” ministry to help “survivors.” What I learned is that grief is not a sickness or a problem. It cannot be “fixed.”
Schmemann’s observations, made over 40 years ago still hold true. Indeed, the culture has moved even deeper in its “normalization” of death. A mega church in my metropolitan area has now set a rule that does not allow for the body of a deceased person to be present for the funeral. The service is a “celebration of life” with music, a video presentation, and remembrances (maybe a sermon?). Dealing with bodies is awkward, cumbersome, fraught with emotions, and such. No doubt, the new rules make everything easier for everyone.
Orthodoxy is embarrassing by comparison (and intention). The presence of the body in the Church is normative, as is an open casket. Indeed, the conclusion of an Orthodox funeral includes the “last kiss,” as family and friends come and take their leave. I recall one of the first Orthodox funerals I attended. It was for the wife of a priest. Nothing was shortened or omitted. As we approached the body, the hymns written by St. John of Damascus were being sung. At a certain point I realized that the choir was singing about “worms.” My modern mind was taken aback by the frank boldness of such a hymn. It shattered every etiquette I had learned surrounding death. It was death without pretense.
Of course, those hymns were written by a monk in the 7th century. Death was not just a present and unhidden reality within that culture, but also a daily requirement for a monk’s meditation. There was a keen sense that only in rightly considering our death could we rightly live our life. Some of the parables of Christ make the same point.
There is a reason that Pascha is the great central feast of our faith. With preparations beginning in the weeks of Great Lent, the Church moves relentlessly and steadily towards the death of Jesus. In services of Good Friday, the Church not only commemorates Christ’s tortuous death on the Cross, but, most poignantly stands beside the image of His dead and lifeless body, portrayed on the epitaphion (the “Burial Sheet”) placed in the center of the Church. In most Churches, the epitaphion occupies the same space as a parishioner’s coffin. Christ’s death is our death.
One of my earliest experiences within my present parish was the sudden death of a beloved parishioner. She died in a car crash only three days after her Chrismation at Pascha. As the Church staggered through the days of our mourning and her burial, each day seemed to exactly parallel the events of Holy Week which we had just completed. Indeed, when someone dies and is buried in Bright Week (the week following Pascha), the hymnody is simply a repetition of the Paschal hymns. For our death is Christ’s death, and His Pascha is ours as well. We stood at her grave and sang loudly:
Christ is risen from the dead,
Trampling down death by death,
And upon those in the tomb
I think we sang it with a greater assurance than I would ever have imagined. Pascha has never been the same for me (nor have funerals).
The path set out for us by Christ leads always to the grave. It takes us to that one point where all earthly dreams and efforts come to an end. Initiation into the Church, in the sacrament of Holy Baptism, is described as a burial. Somehow, it is a fact that is too easily obscured. The Holy Eucharist is a remembrance of death:
For as often as you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death till He comes. (1Cor. 11:26)
It is, after all, Christ’s Body and Blood that we consume.
Death is anti-modernity. It mocks progress and the project of a better world. At the grave, we have everything in common with a pre-historic figure and nothing in common with the schemes of our modern world. Everything has come crashing to its ironic conclusion. As we bustle about with slogans of a better world we force ourselves to be oblivious to the fact that our Sun is dying and our planet will someday grow cold or be dissolved in fire, or, much sooner, endure yet another extinction-level visitation from a modest-sized asteroid. It is, of course, utterly astounding that the Creator of the universe Himself walked among us, speaking Aramaic, sweating beneath the heat of the noon-day Sun. His visitation alone makes us, the merest specks in a near infinity, remarkable and of significance.
As the Psalmist wrote:
When I consider Your heavens, the work of Your fingers,
The moon and the stars, which You have ordained,
What is man that You are mindful of him,
And the son of man that You visit him? (Ps 8:3-4)
The poet, Shelley, was more dramatic:
I met a traveller from an antique land,
Who said—“Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. . . . Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed;
And on the pedestal, these words appear:
My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings;
Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.”
Despair. That is the end of all things apart from Christ. However, that same despair rightly frames the event of the resurrection itself. The death of Christ mirrors and accompanies the path of all creation, including ourselves. But it leads us to a moment as surprising as our existence itself (which we take for granted in our ingratitude). That moment is the conquering of death by Life itself, just as Life itself gave (and gives) existence to the universe itself.
To stand in the Church with the body of a deceased friend is to stand at the very heart of our gifted existence. That we are is a gift at every moment. That we shall be is the same gift in even greater form. All that we are and ever shall be is imaged for us in the God-Man, Jesus Christ. It gives us a hope and courage to live with faith that there is purpose in what we do, even in our dying. In all that we do, we do with Him and in Him, and, in union with Him, His life is ours.