An Orthodox Take on Death

Dear Friends in Christ,

With the recent passing of several celebrities, we are once again confronted with the reality of death. Whenever someone famous dies, the response is predictable; the modern world has developed its own set of funeral customs for the famous. Our first hint of the news is often from a gossip site; major news outlets unable to keep up cite the gossip site as a source; it is confirmed, and the television specials commence.

It becomes painfully obvious that the networks had prepared stock footage of the celebrity in advance, “just in case.” In fact, I recall a few years ago that such a pre-planned obituary was posted inadvertently on a major news website, causing much embarrassment. The specials, interviews with loved ones, and recaps of the celebrity’s life continue, and finally culminate in a funeral or series of funerals, where assorted bigshots arrive to mourn. There are eulogies and all the negative things of the past are forgotten, in a celebration of the life and the career of the individual. Whereas formerly the individual may have been mercilessly mocked by the media, he or she is now glorified. Then it all suddenly ends, as the next big issue makes news.

The Church, however, offers us a different approach to death—an antidote to it. For many today, this life is all we have, and we must make the best of it. Reacting to the overemphasis found in many Western Churches, where future rewards are promised for self-denial now, a society that doubts or denies God seeks to find fulfillment solely here. Those who accept the belief in an afterlife often view it in a neo-pagan sense, as a world much like our own where our spirit is freed from its fleshy prison and life continues much as it did before, albeit dressed up with some leftover ideas of bliss borrowed from Christianity. Almost everyone is assumed to go to this Heaven.

Orthodoxy avoids both these extremes—that of a life of denial now in exchange for a future “eternal happiness,” and the idea that we should “live life to its fullest” when this implies surrendering the body to the passions and pleasures of life. Heaven is not only a future reward; it is life with God, and this is a state that can begin now. Struggle and self-denial, which are intrinsically part of living the Gospel of Christ, are not practices that we do in the hopes of getting a payoff later, but are rather seen as the tools that help us reorder life, overcoming our bad habits and sins. Sin keeps people from seeing God; for example, selfishness keeps us from being hospitable to others, yet both the Lord and St. Paul emphasize that when we serve and help others, we are serving the Lord or his angels unaware (cf. Matthew 25:31-44 and Hebrews 13:2).

Through the Church then, we become one with God, and thus death loses its power over us. Death is a temporary separation of body and soul, which will be overcome at the Resurrection. The funeral practices of the Church show the difference in approach. Rather than the long lead up to the funeral, where people gather and reminisce about the “good old times,” pious Christians instead read the Psalms over the body of the deceased, keeping a vigil with him or her. Rather than being a celebration of the life of the person, the focus is on praying for the person to be forgiven of all his or her sins. This intercessory prayer for the dead is found in Scripture (2 Maccabees 12:42-45) and benefits both the person who has died and also us, as we are doing an act of charity by praying for them. Through this prayer, we expresses our unity as one family in Christ.

During the funeral, we also show reverence for the body. The body is not seen as a prison of the soul, but rather as equally intrinsic to man. When a person is filled with the Holy Spirit, his body and soul both become holy; we see that the sick even brought people to the street that the shadow of St. Peter as he passed by might fall upon them and heal them (Acts 5:15). The physical and the spiritual are truly united in man; the body will be reunited with the soul one day. In our modern culture, this attention to the body is often considered morbid; the person is to be remembered “in spirit” while the body is a reminder that the person is dead, and thus it is either embalmed quickly to preserve the appearance of sleep, or it is cremated and we see an urn and a photograph of the person. This avoidance of the reality of death is escapism.

The funeral service also reminds us that we too will pass away, and that we should begin our preparation now. The modern world seeks to immortalize people by their deeds, and ignores the reality of the judgment to come. True immortality—life with God—is attainable by all. On Pascha, we chant that “Christ is Risen from the dead, by death hath He trampled down death, and upon those in the tombs hath He bestowed life.” If we die in Christ, we will rise in Christ. But in the preparation, we will already begin to experience life with God, and thus the end of this life and the beginning of the next will be like a transition from good to great, not a time of uncertainty, grief, and loss.

Let us therefore remember in prayer all those who have died, both our loved ones and those who may not have someone praying for them. If you have not offered prayers for your deceased loved ones recently, please consider sending their names to us for inclusion in our prayer list. You may send us an email or letter, or give us a call. Please indicate if they were Orthodox Christians, their baptismal name if so, and the date of their falling asleep.

Yours in Christ,
Fr Anastasios