Fr. Thomas Hopko, Dean Emeritus of St. Vladimir's Seminary, prolific author, podcaster, and one of the most popular Orthodox speakers today
Several years ago, I purchased a lecture series on cassette by Fr. Thomas Hopko entitled “Victorious Living in a Godless World.” The lecture series is still being sold by Orthodox Christian Cassettes, and I highly recommend it. Near the very beginning of the first lecture, Fr. Hopko speaks briefly about the Orthodox view of death. Here is a summary of what he said.
In his first parish in Warrenton, Ohio, Fr. Hopko did eleven funerals in his first nine months. After the third funeral, the director of the funeral home with which Fr. Hopko worked made an interesting observation. Here is Fr. Thomas' narration of the story.
The funeral director said to me…“You know, I’ve had all these Orthodox churches, every kind you want to think of, Greek, Serbian, Carpathian, Ukranian, Russian, and I’ve had all kinds of Catholics, Protestants, Evangelicals, Ethical Culture, country preachers, and humanists—but no one ever says at the funeral sermon what you’ve been saying, Fr. Tom.
Later, another funeral director that Fr. Hopko worked with made the same observation, and the first one reiterated it. Finally, Fr. Thomas asked
“What am I doing that is so different?”
And he said, “Well, everyone comes when somebody dies and says, ‘There’s a time to live, a time to die;” they quote Ecclesiastes, and they say, “Anyway, their soul goes off to heaven, to a better place, and thank God they’re out of this yucky world, and so on, but you don’t say that. You say that death is an enemy that has to be destroyed, that God did not create death; he created us for life and not for death. He didn’t create the world to be a cosmic cemetery whilring through space, full of dead peoples’ bones. He created us good and he saved us and redeemed us for life, and death is bad, not good. It is not a liberation; it is the eschatos echthros, the last enemy to be destroyed by the power of God.”
Now there is a providence; no leaf falls from the tree, no bird from the air; God kills, God makes alive. God is the Lord of death as well as life. Everything is in God’s hands…but it is not the will of God that we should die.
And he said that he had been in the funeral business, inherited from his parents, and he had never heard any preacher say that.
Fr. Thomas concludes this part of his talk with these words:
There’s a big difference between Socrates’ dying and Jesus’ dying. Socrates drinks the hemlock…to free the soul from his body prison to go to the place of the gods, the better place. When Jesus dies, he screams, yells, sweats blood and begs God not to have to endure this. It’s a big difference.
FYI, Fr. Hopko covers some of the same material in his lecture series called "The Death of Jesus and Our Death in Him," which you can listen to on the Orthodox Christian Network website, or download it as four podcasts (it's part of the "Special Moments in Orthodoxy" series.
Tomorrow or Monday, we'll take a look at the Orthodox funeral service, and what it tells us about death.