Tuesday, August 5, 2008

The Orthodox View of Death (Part Four)

Hymns of Paradise, a beautiful CD containing the complete Orthodox funeral service, chanted in Byzantine style by Fr. Apostolos Hill, my all-time favorite chanter. The CD also includes a wonderful 24-page booklet discussing the funeral service and the Orthodox theology of death. This CD is a must-own, in my opinion. Click here to listen to some samples from the CD.

The Orthodox Funeral Service

After I had already written the first two articles in this series, but before posting any of them, I was called on to lead a funeral service. Normally, our head priest Fr. Matthew would do this, but he could not because he was out of town at a clergy conference. In the six years since my formal reception into Orthodoxy, I had never even ATTENDED an Orthodox funeral, let alone presided over one. Thankfully, I was quite familiar with the music of the funeral service, due to my having purchased Fr. Apostolos Hill’s beautiful CD Hymns of Paradise several years ago and having listened to it several dozen times.

I was also helped by the fact that I had a very good chanter helping me with the chanting, as well as a good altar server to help with the censer (He was invaluable at the graveside service, when the high winds almost knocked over the censer stand several times). Not least of all, the Antiochian Service Book of the Holy Eastern Orthodox Catholic and Apostolic Church, 1993 edition (affectionately known by us Antiochians simply as “The Red Book”), makes doing a funeral service very easy.

I did notice that some of the hymns in the Red Book were different from their equivalents on Fr. Apostolos’ CD, differences explained by the fact that he serves in the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of North America. Still, I was gripped by how all the hymns, be they Greek or Antiochian, confirm the view of death that I have been reading and writing about lately.

First of all, the hymns confirm that rather than being a natural part of life, death is a very UNNATURAL and terrifying experience. Consider the fourth funeral idolomeion (hymn) of St. John of Damascus (as found on Hymns of Paradise):

Terror truly beyond compare is by the mystery of death inspired; now the souls and the body part, disjoined by resistless might, and their concord is broken; and the bond of nature which made them live and grow as one, now by the command of God is rent in two. Wherefore we now implore Your aid; grant your servants now departed rest, where the just that are Yours abide, O Bestower of Life and Friend of man.

The horror of death is again laid before us in the eighth idolomeion (especially beautiful on Fr. Hill’s CD), as well as the propriety of weeping and mourning for the dead:

I weep and with tears I lament when with understanding I think on death, and see how in the graves there sleeps the beauty which once for us was fashioned in the Image of God, but now is shapeless, ignoble, and bare of all the graces. O how strange a thing; what is this mystery which concerns mankind? Why are we given over to decay? And why to death are we wed? Truly these things come to pass, as it is written, by the command of God, who to them now departed gives rest.

And yet, even as it does not pull any punches regarding the horrific and unnaturalness of death, the service also holds out hope for the departed. This hope is seen both in the Epistle (1 Thess. 4:13-17) and the Gospel (John 5:24-30) readings, as well as in several of the hymns.

The hope of those who have fallen asleep in Christ is grounded first and foremost in the Death and Resurrection of Christ himself, as we see in the Doxastikon (strangely absent from the Red Book) of St. John’s idolomeia:

The death which you have endured, O Lord, is become the harbinger of deathlessness; if You had not laid in Your tomb, the gates of Paradise would not have opened; wherefore to them now departed from us give rest, for You are the friend of mankind.

And, of course, Christ’s death and resurrection made the way possible for our ultimate resurrection and our final victory over death, as we see in the second idolomeion:

Like a flower that wastes away and like a dream that passes and is gone, so is every mortal into dust resolved; but again, when the trumpet sounds its call as though at a quaking of the earth, all the dead shall arise and go forth to meet you, O Christ our God; on that day, O Lord, for them whom You have taken from us appoint a place in the dwelling of Your saints—yes for the spirits of Your servants, O Christ.

I did not know the man whose funeral I presided over, although I wish I had. What kind of man was he? I’ll never know, except through the testimonies of others. From all that I have heard, he did love the Lord and His Church, even though he was rarely able to attend, due primarily to the fact that he could no longer drive. I pray that I will meet him one day in the place “where there is no pain, nor sorrow, nor sighing, but life everlasting (Troparion of the Funeral Service).”

1 comment:

James the Thickheaded said...


Thanks for this series. The last two were... if you'll forgive me... dead on. Like the contrast laid out with Fr. Tom (Hopko) especially.

Like you, I've never been to an Orthodox funeral... but haven't seen an Orthodox wedding either. Feel like one of the kid-book characters: "so new and all". So thank you for letting me peer in.