This week I attended a funeral for the first time since my conversion to Orthodoxy. This was not an Orthodox funeral, and I wondered whether I would have a new perspective on old traditions.
Dealing with death in the South involves a set of customs that may not be the same for the rest of the United States. For one thing, the family of the deceased is suddenly up to their eyes in casseroles. When someone dies, you get food.
This funeral followed a form very similar to every one I have ever attended. A viewing at a funeral home was followed by a procession to a cemetery, where a small service was held.
The struggle to create some kind of form or tradition where none exists was painfully obvious.
A man that I assume was a pastor recited Psalm 23 and the Lord’s Prayer. My wife and I automatically crossed ourselves, singling us out to those around us as probably Catholic or something.
The funeral director invited anyone who wished to say a few words to do so. A friend of the deceased spoke haltingly of his departed buddy, not really knowing what to say or how to say it. Others told of dreams they took as premonitions, or read poems. Someone turned on a portable CD player and blasted several seconds of a rap song until the CD began to skip.
Please understand that I mean no disrespect to either the deceased or their grieving family. I pray for their comfort and relief from despair, and for the soul of their loved one. But in my view, trying to discern “what they would have wanted” is a hardship on those already grieving, and leaving our last memories of our departed to a paid professional is not how it ought to be.
Without the Church to guide us as we take our final breaths, fear and dread can be overwhelming. Without the tradition found in the Church our loved ones must struggle to comfort each other and make sense of the grief and loss they must bear.
Count me worthy to pass, unhindered, by the persecutor, the prince of the air, the tyrant, him that stands guard in the dread pathways, and the false accusation of these, as I depart from earth.
– Canon of Supplication at the Parting of the Soul
Of course the non-Orthodox and those of no faith can have traditions and rituals. Ritual is part of how mankind deals with the unknown. But for those of us who have discovered the faith of the first Christians, we can plug into its history and the work of those who personally knew Christ, who trampled down death by death.
This set of readings help explain the Orthodox position on death and funerals. I’m currently reading this book on following the ancient traditions on end of life matters, and plan to use use it to help me plan my own final arrangements.
Death is a loss for those of us left behind. A funeral is our way of making sense of this loss. Let us hold those who have departed before us in memory eternal.