A Christian Ending
Kevin Allen · November 11, 2012
Guest: Deacon J. Mark Barna, author of A Christian Ending: A Handbook For Burial in the Ancient Christian Tradition, speaks about dying, death, the movement toward natural burial, and dealing with grief from the perspective of the ancient Orthodox Christian tradition.
Kevin Allen: Thank you for joining me on Sunday, November 11, here in the U.S. on Eastern Orthodox Media’s live listener call-in program. We of course welcome and love our listeners worldwide as well. Remember, next Sunday night, Ancient Faith Radio’s new live listener call-in program on all subjects Orthodox, Orthodoxy Live with Fr. Evan Armatas, debuts at the same time as this program and will alternate with Ancient Faith Today every other Sunday night. So now there’s a live listener call-in program on Ancient Faith Radio every Sunday night at 8:00 p.m. Eastern and the corresponding time zones around the country.
Our topic tonight is “A Christian Ending: Preparing for Death and Burial in the Ancient Christian Tradition,” and my guest is the Reverend Father Deacon Mark Barna, Orthodox Christian cleric and co-author of the book with his wife, Elizabeth: A Christian Ending: A Handbook for Burial in the Ancient Christian Tradition, published by Divine Ascent Publishers. The number to call in with your questions or comments is 1-855-AF-RADIO, 1-855-237-2346. Our screener, Troy, will be taking calls in about 15 minutes. We’re going to open the lines fairly early tonight and keep them open, because I love the interaction with you, our listeners. One note, please, though, tonight we ran across the last show. When you call in, please remember to turn your computer volume down so we don’t pick up any feedback when you go live. Our chatroom is now open; it’s being moderated by Fr. John, and that’s ancientfaith.com/ancientfaithtoday, and we’re also on Facebook at AncientFaithToday, and we post useful information there about our guests and our upcoming programs, and I’d love to have your comments, and while you’re there, please press the “Like” tab.
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Now to our program tonight. Talking about subjects like death, and burial especially, is a subject that seems antithetical almost to our culture. Our popular culture is precisely about the avoidance of aging and mortality. We go to great and almost any length we can not to think about, talk about, or face our mortality. We hide it whenever possible. One of the ways we’re taught by our ancient Eastern Orthodox tradition to wake up from our spiritual slumber is precisely the remembrance of our own mortality, without, of course, becoming obsessive or despondent, and there are many questions that come up and will come up tonight in our conversation about the end of our life journey: how to care for and prepare ourselves and our loved ones for their final journey home. We’ll discuss as many of these kinds of questions tonight as we can, along with the movement towards natural and green burial outside of the funeral and mortuary industry.
My guest tonight is, as I mentioned, Dn. Mark Barna. Dn. Mark serves at Holy Ascension Orthodox Church, which is an OCA parish in Mt. Pleasant, South Carolina. He and his wife, Elizabeth, co-authored the book A Christian Ending: A Handbook for Burial in the Ancient Christian Tradition, and along with excellent and provocative information, it is one of those books, at least in my experience, which produces a real change in mindset and thinking on [an] oh-so-important topic. It certainly has mine. It includes appendices with a preparation kit for taking charge of the burial arrangements of a loved one or parishioner, post-mortem legal forms, important websites and prayers and readings for the preparation of the dead, as well as a narrative that weaves throughout about redeeming our ancient Eastern Orthodox and, frankly, classical Christian burial traditions.
Dn. Mark and Elizabeth are also available to conduct seminars. They do consulting on the subject of end-of-life ministry and ancient burial customs, and you can reach them at achristianending.com. Dn. Mark Barna, thank you for your ministry first of all, and thank you for joining me tonight on Ancient Faith Today. It’s great to have you.
Deacon J. Mark Barna: Thank you, Kevin. It’s great to talk to you. I thank you for the invitation. We’re big fans of your show; we listen all the time. I bring you greetings from the Deep South, from Holy Ascension, and from Fr. John Parker.
Mr. Allen: Please tell Fr. John he’ll be on my program in 2013 to talk about evangelism. I send my regards back to him.
Dn. Mark: Great.
Mr. Allen: Let’s start. We’ve got a lot of questions, and if we have to go a minute or two over time, hopefully you’ll hang with us, because this is an important subject. We’ve got a lot of pre-calls as I’ve mentioned, probably more than on others, so let’s get right to it.
Dn. Mark, we go to great lengths in this culture especially to avoid the reality of death as I just mentioned in my intro. How would you and how do you characterize in 2012 America how we view death and how does this perspective contrast with Orthodox teaching on end-of-life and death?
Dn. Mark: Well, Kevin, we outline in the book very quickly the history of burial and the impact of the Industrial Revolution, the advent of hospitals and the funeral industry on our relationship with death. The impact of our high-tech society is yet to be seen, but the only way that I can characterize it really is: we’re sort of a schizophrenic society. We celebrate, almost worship, death in movies, video games, the horror sub-culture of vampires and zombies, but we don’t want to deal with the reality of it. We just ignore it, at best. Most of us are very far from the reality of death in our everyday lives, unlike people from the past, before the Industrial Revolution and all these changes that have happened. The rhythm of our life has changed so much—it’s so fast-paced—that death is just not part of that rhythm any more as it was in the past. The reality of death for us is hidden in hospitals and it’s left to the funeral industry, so that rather than interact with death, we’re just left to react to it, and often in unhealthy ways.
One of our neighbors died recently, and we’ve been doing Orthodox funerals, natural burial, for so long it was really a shock to me to go to his viewing at the funeral home to pay my respects. It was just so loud and raucous in there. It was really… I was surprised at how shocked I was. But you know that discomfort with death is nothing new. It’s universal to all human beings. All the Fathers wrote about it, but the Church stands in direct opposition to this world that we’re living in, with consumerism, and the Church itself maintains a rhythm of life that includes the reality of death. Only the Church understands the reality of death and proclaims its destruction. “Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death, and upon those in the tombs bestowing life.”
Mr. Allen: Amen. But how can we—and we read about this and talk about this, but since we’re on this subject directly—what’s the best way in your opinion, or how does our tradition, Dn. Mark Barna, talk about properly preparing for our Christian endings without being obsessed with or fearful of death? I’ve got a couple of grandkids, and I don’t know where they got it from, but they’re already very aware of and sensitive to [death]; they’ve been to funerals, and they’re a little afraid of it. How do we deal with that, then, from an Orthodox perspective, and not get obsessive and overly fearful?
Dn. Mark: There’s no reason to get obsessive, and in fact the question still remains: why are Christians still afraid of death? If we know that, we proclaim that death is defeated, then why are Christians still afraid of death? The Church Fathers tell us that the answer to that is that we live superficial Christian lives, that we’re not diligent with our prayers and confessing our sin, and they teach us the only true death is sin. Sin is separation from God, and that is the only true death, is separation from God.
Now, how do we deal with that, how do we prepare ourselves to face our mortality? The Church gives us everything that we need to do that. It’s the rudiments of the faith. It’s so simple we forget about it: the rudiments of the faith—prayer, fasting, confession, almsgiving, attending services, and spiritual reading, and the lives of the saints. I find some of the best reading in the world is the lives of the saints. All the things that encourage us to grow in our faith are the things that are going to help us deal with our own mortality.
The Fathers teach us—I’m sure you know, you’ve heard this quote—that the fear of sin is the cure for the fear of death. If we feared sin half as much as we fear death, we would not sin; therefore we wouldn’t fear death, because what we really fear, as Christians—we don’t fear death, I think—we fear the judgment. If we feared sin half as much as we feared death, we wouldn’t sin, therefore we wouldn’t fear the judgment.
Mr. Allen: I think, too—I don’t know if you feel this way—that for a lot of people who haven’t particularly had spiritual experience or any depth in their spiritual experience, they’re living in a certain realm in their head or their body or whatever where they’re not aware of a broader aspect of life at all, and so they’re living inside the ego—and I’m speaking about myself as well—so obtaining the spiritual life and the spiritual experiences that we offer through the Church are part of it, no?
Dn. Mark: Absolutely. The spirit of our times is consumerism. Our whole society is about obtaining more stuff, just gathering more stuff, whether it’s material goods or power or wealth or whatever it may be, and it’s not about attaining virtue and attaining the gifts of the Holy Spirit. That’s what the Church teaches. As I said, the Church stands diametrically opposed to the world. Virtually everything the Church teaches is the opposite of what the world is teaching us.
Mr. Allen: Right. Fr. Deacon, I have a call coming in from Mary from Wellsburg, Iowa, that I’d like to take now. She’s been on hold for a minute or two. Mary, are you there?
Mary: Yes, I am.
Mr. Allen: Good evening. What’s your question for Dn. Mark Barna?
Dn. Mark: Hi, Mary.
Mary: Hello. Thank you for taking my call. I was just wondering: most of my relatives are Protestant, and one has already been cremated and several others are planning on cremation. I’ve kind of voiced my concern to them, but should I just accept that or what should be my response?
Dn. Mark: Well, that’s a family situation, and you know your family much better than I do, but cremation is sold to us as being enlightened and as being ecologically sensitive. In truth, it is neither of those things, but I really think that the vast majority of people choose cremation because of the expense—because it’s cheaper. It’s that simple. But it’s not cheaper than free, and nothing is. We don’t charge for anything that we do. We have never charged for a funeral, and wouldn’t do that. What we do is a service of mercy and love, and if there were money involved, it wouldn’t be a service of mercy. If you can talk to them in those terms… It’s very difficult for people who are locked into a certain perspective on death and funerals to even conceive of natural burial, and I’m not sure how you can deal with that with your family, but it does take some time, and you can deal with them and see how things go. Regretfully, my own father was cremated. It was very sad for me; it was a very difficult thing, but that what he wanted. That’s what he insisted on, and that’s what happened.
Mr. Allen: Fr. Deacon, let me just follow up on behalf of Mary. Why, then, is it so anathema to the Orthodox Church for those who want to be cremated to be cremated, because as Mary pointed out, more and more Protestants and Catholics, and of course Hindus and Buddhists, cremate their dead? So in some sense, along with everything else you pointed out, we stand in contrast to the rest of the religious traditions. Why, then, is it such a problem? And thanks, Mary, for your call; we’ll follow up on that.
Mary: Thank you.
Dn. Mark: We do stand in conflict with that, because we place such value on the human body. The process of cremation does extreme violence to the body, and the body is a precious item. In the lives of the saints, the early saints risked their lives to retrieve the bodies of martyrs and give them an honorable burial. Cremation does extreme violence. It destroys the body. It destroys the temple of the Holy Spirit that’s been sanctified by baptism and the reception of the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ. We simply don’t accept that.
Mr. Allen: So it really comes down to the dignity of the human person as body, soul, and spirit as opposed to the Eastern religions where the body and the soul are completely in duality. I think [of] some of the Gnostic traditions, Father, where a body is considered kind of corrupt and just the temporary housing place for the soul. That’s obviously not the way we view it, so that makes perfect sense.
Dn. Mark: [That’s] not at all [how we view it]. Some of those religions as I understand them—and I’m not that well-versed in them; I know that you are much more—actually see the body as a more-or-less prison for the soul, and the body has to be destroyed to release the soul. That’s just not true at all. God the Word himself put on flesh and sanctified the human body. We are all inheritors of that, and we value the human body extremely.
In addition to that, cremation destroys the body, and in burial we place ourselves in God’s hands. God will do what he will do with us in the grave. We have incorrupt relics of saints all over the world. We’ve visited some of them; it’s miraculous to see a completely preserved body over many, many years. Cremation just completely eliminates God’s ability to deal with that and provide us with holy relics It’s also in some ways, most importantly to me, our final act of pride. The Christian life is a life of humility and service, and in deciding that I will have my body destroyed when I die, it’s the final act of my own pride instead of allowing God to do what he will do with me.
Mr. Allen: Fr. Deacon, let me just follow up on that, and then I’ve got a call coming in that I’d like to take next. One of the rationalizations that I’ve heard from former days as an Evangelical was that God knows where all the DNA and all the cells are, and he can just put it all back together again, and what happens when, for example, somebody is killed in a plane crash and their body is cremated? He is able to put body and soul back together at the final judgment, so why would it matter that we are cremated? I don’t want to overdwell on this cremation thing, but I want to get clear on that.
Dn. Mark: Sure, he can and he will, but that is my point about it being the final act of pride. Our life is one of humility, of obedience to God, allowing him to work his will in our lives and after our lives. At the last moment, to say, “No, God, this is what I’m going to do. I make this decision; you don’t”... Certainly someone who’s burned to death in a house fire or in an airplane crash or even a ship that sinks at sea, that’s an entirely different story; that’s not an act of pride.
Mr. Allen: Just one last follow-up on that, and then I’m going to move on to Mark, our caller. We get our sense of the dignity of the body and the human person from the Jews. Is that not correct? And traditionally they do not cremate. Is that also correct?
Dn. Mark: That is my understanding, yes.
Mr. Allen: So we’re part of that Judeo-Christian ancient tradition, and that’s where we came up with the idea. I’ve got a call coming in from Mark from Nebraska. Mark, are you on the line?
Mark: Yes, I sure am.
Mr. Allen: Great to have you on Ancient Faith Today.
Dn. Mark: Super! Good to be here. Thank you, Kevin, and thank you, Fr. Deacon, for taking my call. This sort of goes along with what Mary, the last caller, had asked. My mom had passed away about a year ago and had been cremated unfortunately. I’m a convert, so all of my relatives are mostly Roman Catholic, and they allow for cremation these days. My question is more along… They’re not open to some of the rites that we have as Orthodox. I remembered that when I was a catechumen, my priest, Fr. Christopher, had told me that if I had died during the catechumenate, that I could have an Orthodox funeral, and I didn’t appreciate the beauty of it at the time. Our bishop had even said, “Yeah, for the same price, too.” My question is more like what we can do as Orthodox for our non-Orthodox relatives that aren’t able to receive the beauty and the prayers and the grace that goes along with our funeral services.
Mr. Allen: Mark, let me let you go on that, and why don’t you pick that up online? We’ve got a bunch of calls coming in. Thanks for your call.
Mark: Thank you.
Mr. Allen: You’re welcome. Fr. Deacon?
Dn. Mark: That’s a very good question. Again, it’s a difficult question because we’re talking about Mark’s family; we’re not talking about my family. I can only speak from our experience, and we have actually prepared bodies for non-Orthodox that requested that they not be embalmed. We had a very serious situation with that here recently. A locally well-known artist had let his wife know that he definitely did not want to be embalmed, and she was at her wit’s end. She had no idea how idea how to accomplish that. She thought that she had to go through a funeral home and that he had to be embalmed, all these things. One of her friends gave her a copy of our book, and she read it and asked if we would come and talk with her. We did that, and at the end of that conversation, she asked if we would come and we would prepare his body for burial. We were happy to do that. It’s a mercy that we will do for anyone who requests it, who needs it.
Mr. Allen: Including non-Orthodox, Father?
Dn. Mark: Absolutely.
Mr. Allen: That’s great. So you’d recommend your book for anyone, then, not only Orthodox, that are interested in traditional and natural and green burial?
Dn. Mark: Absolutely. Yes, absolutely. In fact, we hope that people, even non-Christians, will read the book. We went back and rewrote it and put a little bit of Christian theology in there that they might latch onto, and it could possibly be a good source of evangelism.
Mr. Allen: We’re going to take a break in just a few minutes, but I want to get this one in before we do. I’m speaking with Dn. Mark Barna, the author of A Christian Ending: A Handbook for Burial in the Ancient Christian Tradition. Before we get talking further about Christian burial per se, I want to first talk about any Orthodox guidelines that should be followed when a loved one, a godparent, or someone dies. I had a godson that died. He had a heart condition. We knew it would happen eventually, but the day you get that call you forget everything you thought you knew. I ran out, I grabbed a prayer book, but barely that. So what are some of the first things the Orthodox Church recommends that we do at home or at someone’s home or at the nursing home or in the hospital when the person, the Christian, dies? Call a priest, place an icon or cross near the bed, that sort of thing?
Dn. Mark: Yes, all of those things. We really think that it’s important, and we’re trying to spread the word on this, that the first thing that we advocate is that we really have formed some visitation ministries. The priest can’t be everywhere at all times, and just to have people who are out there visiting the shut-ins and those who are sick in the hospital or at home and keeping him advised as to what their condition is and what to expect. Fortunately, with most deaths, anything other than an accidental death, you’re going to have some warning. There’s going to be some notices; as you say, you had some notice and you were somewhat prepared. The priest will probably be aware that something is in the offing.
At the time of death, we will normally say the prayers for the departure of the soul from the body. Those prayers are available in the Great Book of Needs, volume three, published by St. Tikhon’s Press. The other prayers that are readily available are the trisagion prayers for the dead of the Antiochian Service Book. It’s a great resource.
As far as touching the body or what to do physically when a person dies, we don’t do anything that’s not for the ultimate respect and honor of the deceased. You should straighten them in bed. Some people will die in a fetal position, and they need to be straightened, laid on their back, covered neatly, hands crossed on their chest, close the eyes. The closing of the eyes is a time-honored tradition. It’s all through the Old Testament about closing the eyes of the dead. It’s just a simple act that needs to be done, to close the eyes, close the mouth, and cover them neatly. We don’t cover the head; we just don’t do that. They’re still there; they’re still there with us, and there’s no reason to cover them completely.
There will probably be icons there already. If for some reason there aren’t, we always bring an icon and a votive candle. We are not always able to light it; in a hospital there’s oxygen, and in the morgue they don’t want us to light it there either. After the short service of the trisagion or other prayers, we’ll begin reading the psalms. The tradition is to read the psalms from the time of death until the burial, and we do the best we can. In the old days, the time from death to the burial may have been a matter of hours. Most people who die of disease or of old age die in the middle of the night, and so in that case they might be buried the next morning or the next afternoon. These days, we have to wait three, sometimes five, days, so it’s not always practical to read the psalms around the clock. You just can’t get that many people together to do it, but that’s one of the old traditions that is just a wonderful tradition. In fact, as my father was dying, I simply sat by his side and read the Book of Psalms so he could hear them.
Mr. Allen: Nice. What about anointing the forehead or body with holy or blessed oil?
Dn. Mark: Certainly. Usually the priest is there to do that, but anyone can do it. That’s certainly a wonderful thing to do. Usually, as I say, with people who are in the process of dying, the priest will be aware, and he’s probably been there and anointed them and prayed with them and heard their confession several times by the time it actually comes.
Mr. Allen: Well, we are speaking with Dn. Mark Barna. He has written a terrific book, a very important book called A Christian Ending along with his wife Elizabeth, a handbook for burial in the ancient Christian tradition. We’re talking about end-of-life and caring for the aged and natural and green burial. We’ll be talking further about that, but right now we’re going to take a break for just a minute or less. When we return we’ll talk a little bit about why redeeming our ancient burial customs is so important. Stay with us.
Mr. Allen: Welcome back to Ancient Faith Today. Thanks for listening. I’m speaking with Dn. Mark Barna, author of A Christian Ending: A Handbook for Burial in the Ancient Christian Tradition. Thank you for joining us. Our number is 1-855-AF-RADIO, that’s 1-855-237-2346. Following back up, Dn. Mark, why is redeeming our ancient burial customs that you and your wife Elizabeth have been really advocating and promoting and so involved in—why is it so important?
Dn. Mark: For some people it may not be. For many people, the way that we’ve been doing it for the last 150 years in America, that may be just fine, and we want you to understand that we don’t condemn anyone for that. We’ve had family members who were embalmed and buried in that way, and I think probably all of us have. As we mentioned earlier, talking about cremation, even my father was cremated, and we still pray every day and we trust in God’s mercy. God is merciful, and we have to be merciful as well, even to ourselves, and not beat ourselves up for choices that have been made in the past. As Christians, our lives are dedicated to the service of God and our neighbor. How many times have we heard people say when someone passes, “Oh, I wish I’d done this” or “I wish I’d done that” or “I wish I’d said something”? I think all of us have probably felt that way. I know I usually do every time someone I knew dies, there’s something I wish I’d done.
The preparation of a body for burial is our last opportunity to serve a deceased member of our body. To be honest with you, personally, I think it’s simply time for Orthodoxy in America to grow up and take care of our own.
Mr. Allen: The third chief aid to penitence is performance of the spiritual and corporal works of mercy, and among the last of the chief corporal works of mercy which is to bury the dead. It’s not a disconnected thing. We take care of the body and soul in the Church from the moment of conception, God willing, through the end of the road. I have a call from Tabitha; she’s been faithfully holding. Tabitha, are you on the line?
Tabitha: Yes, I am.
Mr. Allen: Thank you for calling Ancient Faith Today. It’s great to have you from Alaska. What’s your question for Dn. Mark Barna?
Tabitha: It regards organ donation. On the surface at least, it seems like that would be a great service, to leave your heart or your liver or whatever to somebody, but then I’ve heard that in the Church that we don’t do that. Also, is there a difference between donating your heart and donating kidneys?
Dn. Mark: I’m not sure what you meant by the last part, the difference between donating a heart or a kidney.
Tabitha: If it is okay, see, I don’t know for sure; I’ve heard different views on that. Is the heart special, and you might donate kidneys but not your heart?
Mr. Allen: Let me just jump in there and say that Fr. John Breck on this program mentioned that there are some within the Orthodox world who feel that the heart is something that should not be donated, but he himself didn’t have a problem with it. Fr. Dn. Mark, maybe you have a different view on that.
Dn. Mark: No, not at all. I agree with Fr. John. I know him well, and we’ve discussed these things. I myself am an organ donor. It’s on my driver’s license, but I have to be honest with you. In some of the reading I’ve been doing here of late, I’ve learned that organ donation is almost completely unregulated. There are all kinds of abuses that are taking place regarding organ donation, and just based on that alone, I’m thinking about having my driver’s license changed and not being an organ donor any more until there are some rules and regulations in place that regulate that industry, and it is an industry. Where there’s money involved, there’s going to be all kinds of problems. I don’t believe there’s a moral or theological problem with it, but at the moment it’s an unregulated industry that I’m seriously considering just staying away from.
Mr. Allen: Tabitha, thanks for your question. Appreciate it very much.
Tabitha: Thank you.
Mr. Allen: You’re welcome. I’d like to take a call—this will be the first of several this evening—from our voice mail service that we now have. This one is going to come from Stella. Could we run that, please?
Alma: This is Alma from Florence, California, and my question is for Dn. Mark. Is a traditional Christian burial still honored outside of the United States? Was it ever practiced in the U.S., and if so, why did we stop? Thank you.
Dn. Mark: Yes, certainly. You can call it natural burial, traditional Christian burial. It’s still practiced all over the world. In fact, my daughter-in-law is from Russia. She’s from Bulgograd, the former Stalingrad, and she read our book and said, “What’s so special about this? This is the way we do it at home all the time.” As far as America, certainly. Natural burial was all there was until the Civil War when chemical embalming was invented. It was a way to get officers from the battlefield back home to get them buried. They found out very quickly that it was a profitable thing to do. So natural burial wasn’t stopped. The funeral industry as we know it took over and promoted their way of burying people to the point where, in the last 150 years, we’ve forgotten that there’s another way to do it.
Mr. Allen: Father, let me just follow up on this, Fr. Dn. Mark Barna, who is my guest this evening. We’re talking about Christian burial. When you speak about natural, traditional burial, just to get very clear here, and you’re contrasting it with some of the modern funereal services, what are we actually talking about? We’re talking about what: embalming, refrigeration, certain types of clothes, burial vaults, coffins of certain types, etc., etc.? What are we actually talking about by way of contrasting natural and traditional burial from that which you are not advocating?
Dn. Mark: The main contrast is chemical embalming. What we do is embalm; it’s a matter of applying balms to the body of a deceased person, fragrant balms, but chemical embalming is the process of draining the blood and replacing it with caustic chemicals that then leach into the soil and do all kinds of nasty things, and they really don’t do a thing to preserve a body. Chemical embalming will only preserve a body for three to four days. You can preserve a body indefinitely with refrigeration, and refrigeration is fine, and that’s what we do. You either have them refrigerated at the morgue or at the funeral home or we use dry ice. It’s a very simple process.
Mr. Allen: So natural burial and green burial, then, is doing nothing unnatural to the body. Is that what I’m hearing?
Dn. Mark: Yes, absolutely.
Mr. Allen: Is that what you find most objectionable, undignified, dehumanizing in funeral industry practices that we need to redeem? Are these chemicals that are being used for embalming—and you mentioned in your book that they’re dangerous and unnecessary…
Dn. Mark: There’s about 263 chemicals that OSHA listed that embalmers need to be aware of that they deal with and that they need to be protected from. Certainly chemical embalming is the number one problem that we find. I just never wanted to be embalmed; that’s how I ended up studying these things. I wanted to find a way that I could be buried without being embalmed. I always said, “Just roll me in a sheet and tuck me under the roots of a big oak tree and let that be my marker.”
Embalming, like cremation, does terrible violence to the body. To us, the human body is sacred. It is the temple of the Holy Spirit, even in death. It’s been sanctified. It’s been blessed over and over and over again. We’ve received the Body and Blood of Christ. It’s very precious to us, and embalming does tremendous violence to the body. It’s poked and prodded and drained, and organs are broken, and all the bodily fluids are drained out and then replaced with chemicals. It’s just not something that we can tolerate as Christians.
Mr. Allen: I had no idea.
Dn. Mark: Number two to that would simply be the enormous amounts of money that are spent on burials in the United States. Dare I say, it’s an obscene amount of money that is spent that can much better be spent feeding the poor or beautifying our churches. St. John Chrysostom railed against ostentatious burials extensively, as did St. Basil the Great. He said, “Why are going to bury those beautiful clothes in the ground to rot? You can feed the poor. If you want to build lasting memorials to your beloved, build memorials in heaven. Feed the poor. Decorate the churches. Do acts of mercy in their name, and you will be building them lasting memorials in heaven.”
Mr. Allen: I love that. Part of what you’re promoting in addition to simply natural burial which is part of it—I read your book, so I know this is the case, but I wanted to give you the opportunity to amplify if necessary—part of what you’re talking about is, again, simplifying the burial service, reducing the costs, and making it very very natural and non-chemical. But my question is: are there any services like embalming, refrigeration, whatever the case might be, that are actually required by local or state laws? Are there minimum burial rules or requirements or regulations in most or all cities or states? I’ve had that question come up several times pre-doing this show.
Dn. Mark: The short answer is no.
Mr. Allen: No?
Dn. Mark: None of these things are required by law. You’ve touched on a couple of different things there. You have state law, which none of these things—embalming, refrigeration, or certain clothes, burial vaults—none of that stuff is required by state laws. Then you have local regulations. Remember, I’m not an attorney. State laws, local regulations change all the time, and they change without notice, so anyone who’s listening, they need to be familiar with their own state laws and their own regulations.
Mr. Allen: Where do they get that, Fr. Deacon?
Dn. Mark: Well, I have anyone who wants to call in and ask about their state, I have some reference material here, and Elizabeth is here handy to open to their state, and we’ll try to answer whatever questions they have. There was one embalming law on the books. That was in Minnesota. You had to be embalmed to have a public viewing. That law was repealed in 2010. There are no federal laws regarding burial or transport of bodies across state lines. None whatsoever.
Mr. Allen: Really? So your deceased can be buried the next state over, and you can put them in the back—I don’t mean to be crude, but you can put them in the back of your pickup truck and transport the body of the reposed?
Dn. Mark: It’s not crude at all. We’ve done it. In trailers and in cargo vans. It’s totally dependent on the laws of the two states. It has nothing to do with the federal government. It’s totally dependent on the laws of the two states. There are only eight states in the United States that require any sort of involvement of a professional funeral director, only eight. In all of the other states, it’s legal to perform your own funeral, church or family.
For instance, in our state, in South Carolina, I read through every statute and every regulation, and after all this reading, I get to the bottom and the very last thing it says is these regulations do not apply to church and family funerals.
Mr. Allen: How interesting. So we can actually do this?
Dn. Mark: Funerals on church and family property, excuse me. On church and family property. In our state there are only two regulations that apply to church and family property, and that is that the top of the container, either the coffin or the vault, whichever it may be, must be twelve inches below the surface except in the low country of South Carolina, where we are here in Charleston, and the top of the container can be level with the surface of the ground. That’s the only two regulations in the state that apply to churches and family burials.
Mr. Allen: What’s interesting is the contrast. Here in California, you’re not even allowed to bury your dog in your backyard. I’m serious! People do.
Dn. Mark: You have local and you have state regulations. Now, generally when it comes to vaults and those kinds of things, vaults are required by commercial cemeteries. There are two reasons for that: one is additional profit, and the other is that it makes lawn maintenance easier. The ground doesn’t subside when the casket collapses, and they can run the lawn mower over it easier.
Mr. Allen: Fr. Deacon, I’ve got a caller from Washington, D.C. John, are you on?
John: Yes, I am.
Mr. Allen: Great to have you on Ancient Faith Today. What’s your question for [Fr. Dn.] Mark Barna?
John: Thank you, Kevin and [Fr. Dn.] Mark. I have a question about—I’m a convert, so I don’t know a lot of this stuff—three-day burial. I understand there’s a tradition of three-day burial in Orthodoxy, and I guess that’s not very much followed today. I just wondered to what extent is that followed?
Dn. Mark: I’m not sure what you mean: that a body must be buried within three days?
Dn. Mark: I’m not aware of that. Three days is fairly normal in the United States today, and sometimes it can go even longer. I know I was asked to come to Dallas, Texas, last year, to prepare the body of Archbishop Dmitri for burial. He lay in repose in the cathedral there for five days. There was no problem at all.
Mr. Allen: Thanks for your question.
John: Thank you.
Mr. Allen: Our pleasure. I have a caller from New York. Dorothy, are you on the line?
Dorothy: Yes, I am.
Mr. Allen: Great to have you on Ancient Faith Today. What’s your question for Dn. Mark Barna, please?
Dorothy: Something that sparked my interest when he was talking about the laws of the different states, and I was wondering if he could tell me what the laws are in New York for the natural burial.
Dn. Mark: Unfortunately, you are in one of those eight states, where you’re required to use the…
Dorothy: I was afraid you were going to tell me that.
Dn. Mark: Yes. In fact, the body becomes the hostage of the funeral industry in New York and in New Jersey. The others are Connecticut, Illinois, Indiana, Louisiana—very sorry for the South—Michigan, Nebraska, and we already mentioned New Jersey and New York. You have to go through a funeral director there in New York, but you can find cooperative funeral directors. You need to do some shopping. Hopefully you can find a good Orthodox funeral directors up there in New York; there’s a lot of Orthodox up there. We would not be able to do that as easily in the South, but up in the Northeast, hopefully you could find a good cooperative funeral director who understands what you want to do. There is a quite a movement toward natural burial in all segments of America. It’s a phenomenon of the Baby Boom generation and the whole movement towards organic and natural and all things green, but it also fits in beautifully with the Orthodox concept of care for the body and care for our brethren in Christ.
Dorothy: Thank you very much.
Mr. Allen: Sorry about the answer you got, Dorothy, but thanks for your call.
Dorothy: Thank you.
Mr. Allen: You’re welcome. I’d like to run a voice mail we received from Trenna next, if I could, for Fr. Dn. Mark Barna, please.
Mr. Allen: Hi, Kevin. Hi, Dn. Mark. I’m Trenna from Norba Linda, California, and I hope that this question makes sense. Death and how we approach it or deal with it in our country has been a subject I’ve really been interested in for many years. I read your book, and I loved it. In fact, I emailed you a while ago about how to start such a ministry at our parish in the future, and you graciously and thoroughly responded, so thank you very much for that. My question for you today is based upon a theory that I’ve had for a long time. Do you feel that what seems to be a general cultural disdain for the body in our country is perhaps a result of the Evangelical Protestant theological influence over a long period of time? What I mean is the development of “the body is just a corrupt shell and not the true person” theology. I hope that makes sense. Thanks.
Dn. Mark: It does make sense, Kevin, but I have to confess my own ignorance here. I’m not that familiar with Evangelical Protestantism. That could come from any number of places. That’s also, as you mentioned, very common in the Eastern religions, so that it could be coming from there as well.
Mr. Allen: I think what Trenna means, just to follow up on that, is that there’s a little bit of a Gnostic emphasis going on, where the body is kind of an earth-suit according to many Evangelicals, and the person is not really body, soul, and spirit. There’s kind of a disconnect there. I think that’s where she’s coming from. We kind of covered that to some extent.
Dn. Mark: I’m sure that may be true, and if it is, I’m very sorry about that. It’s certainly not an Orthodox understanding, but we live in a disposable society, too. Our secular society worships youth and throws away the old, and it’s going to get worse for our generation I’m afraid, and having disposable bodies doesn’t surprise me a bit.
Mr. Allen: Our number is 1-855-AF-RADIO, 1-855-237-2346. Our chat room is ancientfaith.com/ancientfaithtoday, and I’m speaking with Rev. Dn. Mark Barna. He’s the author of A Christian Ending: A Handbook for Burial in the Ancient Christian Tradition. Fr. Deacon, we’ve been talking around this, but I want to make sure that we cover it—walk us through, briefly, if you can, because we’ve got a lot of questions to come—what are the traditional burial customs of the ancient and Orthodox Christian Church? What is the ideal traditional burial preparation and burial look like?
I remember, just as an aside, being on Mount Athos, which I’ve been blessed to visit twice, and I was somewhat scandalized a bit, but please maybe wrap this into your question if you can, by the fact that they would simply put the monks’ bodies in a baptismal cloth, drop them in the ground with no coffin whatsoever—not “drop” them; they would put them in very very carefully and solemnly in the ground—and they would cover them up. After a while, because some of these properties don’t have tons and tons of land, and you’re talking about monasteries that go back to ninth century, so a lot of monks have reposed there, when a new monk reposes, they’ll actually pull the bones out of the ground at that point and put them in an ossuary, and then they’ll show you the ossuary, and you’re kind of really freaked out if you’re coming from an Evangelical background, and there’s even a cross on some of them as well. So walk us through all of that if you would.
Dn. Mark: You say you were scandalized by that?
Mr. Allen: I was a little bit. I was scandalized mostly by seeing a room full of bones. That kind of freaked me out a little bit.
Dn. Mark: Aha. Personally, I think that’s a wonderful tradition. St. John Chrysostom taught his people to go pray in the cemeteries, to go pray with the understanding that tomorrow this will be you.
Mr. Allen: I had heard that.
Dn. Mark: You will be here. Whether tomorrow is 24 hours from now or 80 years from now, tomorrow this will be you, and understand: we all die. St. Theophan the Recluse—I love what he said—said, “We have to keep the reality of our death on the very tip of our nose, always in front of our face.” An ossuary is a very potent reminder of that, that all these people lived once, and now they’re bones, and this will be you as well.
Mr. Allen: And what do we do about it between now and then, I’m presuming, is the point.
Dn. Mark: Exactly. Spend your life in repentance. That is exactly the point. We’re here to spend our lives in repentance and in service to God and one another.
Mr. Allen: So walk us through the traditional burial customs now, if you please.
Dn. Mark: The real essence of death and burial is the same as our Christian life. It’s simplicity and humility. When we have new people who are coming to help us prepare a body, and this is basically what we’re talking about, is preparing a body for burial. That’s what our book is about: how to do that. I always try to meet them, I always do meet them—I usually get there first—outside the room, whether we’re going to a mortuary or a home or into the end of the morgue, which is not a very happy place, but we’ve done many preparations of bodies at the morgue. I always meet them outside and explain to them what they’re going to see when they go in there so there are no surprises, and then I ask them to imagine they have been called to greet the King.
You’ve been called to greet the King. What will you do? You’re going to take a shower. You’re going to wash your hair, wash your body. You’ll probably get a manicure; you’ll do your nails, make sure that everything’s clean and crisp. You’ll comb your hair and probably even put on some fragrance, put on your best clothes—and go to greet the King. That’s what we’re going to do for your loved one who is in that room. We’re going to go in. We’re going to wash them, wash their hair. If they need a shave, we’ll give them a shave. We’ll give them a manicure, a pedicure. We do every little thing to get them ready to greet the King. After we’ve washed them, we’ll dry them, and then we’ll anoint them with fragrant oils, which is a mixture of olive oil and natural essence oils. We anoint the entire body with oil, and then we dress them. Traditionally and ideally, the traditional garment is a baptismal garment, and it has no pockets. St. John Chrysostom wrote about this. He said, “There’s no pockets in the baptismal garment or in the burial garment because you can’t take anything with you.”
All the time that we’re there, we have a service in the book. It was one of the surprising thing about this. It took us almost ten years to write this book, and we couldn’t find a service for this very important process. It was so important it was even codified by Emperor Justinian, but we couldn’t find a service for this. We have a service that’s really basically just the reading of psalms, the reading of prayers. It’s typical to any liturgical service in the Orthodox Church. We always ask forgiveness of the person before we start, and when we end we ask their forgiveness again. Then we place them in a casket. You mentioned that in Mt. Athos they don’t use them. Well, they weren’t used for a long, long time. For thousands of years, people died and they were put in the ground, even in America, all over, we have family graveyards right out back of the house. Folks were just carried out back and put in the ground. Then when they got a little further, sometimes they would be placed on a board or take a door down off the house and place them on a board and carry them out that way, but when churches grew up and cities grew up, it was further to get them to the cemetery, so that’s when boxes came around. That is the tradition today. My personal preference—and it’s just my personal preference—as I said earlier, just roll me in a sheet and tuck me under the roots of a big oak tree.
Mr. Allen: I have a question from John from the chat room. He writes, “Doesn’t the Bible prohibit contact with the dead?” My question to you is: that’s not a New Testament commandment, that’s an Old Testament one?
Dn. Mark: There’s no prohibition. As I said, early Christians risked their lives to go and collect the bodies of the martyrs and give them an honorable burial. Christ was anointed with fragrant balms for his burial. No, there’s no prohibition against touching a dead body.
Mr. Allen: We’re going to take our second break at the top of the hour, and when we come back we’ll continue this fascinating conversation with Dn. Mark Barna. He and his wife Elizabeth are the authors of A Christian Ending, so stay tuned and we’ll be right back. Our number is 1-855-AF-RADIO.
Mr. Allen: Thank you for staying with us. This is Ancient Faith Today. We’re having a fascinating conversation with Dn. Mark Barna on the subject of a Christian ending. Dn. Mark, I have a call from Georgia from Quentin. Quentin, are you on the line?
Quentin: Yes, sir, I am.
Mr. Allen: Welcome to Ancient Faith Today. What’s your question for Dn. Mark Barna?
Quentin: I would just like to see if I can get a definition of the Orthodox understanding of death. Is it the loss of physical vital signs, is it the loss of mental faculties, or is it the loss or lack of personhood, as I believe Peter Singer put it?
Mr. Allen: Peter Singer, the contemporary bioethicist from Princeton, you’re referring to?
Mr. Allen: Right. Okay. Father, would you like to respond to that one?
Dn. Mark: Well, that’s a difficult one. That’s really on the level of bioethics. That’s a better question for Fr. John Breck than it is for me. My understanding is there’s never really a loss of personhood. In the first place, even when we die, we still revere the person. They’re still with us. They’re still alive, though the body is dead. The question of when death occurs, that’s a medical, physical question, which is probably better suited to a medical doctor than to me.
Quentin: Okay. I just wanted to see if you had a stance on it. There were four different criteria or understandings on what death might be, and I cannot remember the fourth, what it is.
Dn. Mark: Well, I’m not familiar with those. I know there’s a lot of talk and things going on out there, but I think the Orthodox definition of death is separation from God, and that occurs through sin, not by the death of the body.
Mr. Allen: Because there are clearly many scriptural references to the continuity of personhood in Scripture. Otherwise, number one, we couldn’t stand before the King and be judged if we didn’t have a personal identity any longer. But thank you very much, Quentin, for your call. Appreciate it. Thanks for listening.
Quentin: Thank you. Thank you very much.
Mr. Allen: I’d like to take Fr. Anthony’s voice message question now, if we could.
Fr. Anthony: Glory to Jesus Christ! This is Fr. Anthony Perkins from St. Michael’s in Woonsocket, Rhode Island, and I sure do appreciate your show, Kevin, and Fr. Dn. Mark, I appreciate you taking on this topic for us. I have a couple of related questions. One has to do with the green funeral movement. I was wondering if you could address that within the context of Orthodoxy. Related to that, if you could talk about what it might take to set up a sort of funeral guild in the local parish. It seems to me that these are things that were done two or three generations ago, but that we’ve lost the muscles for, and I’d like to get them back. I appreciate all your work. God bless.
Dn. Mark: That’s a really good question. I’m not sure exactly how he means to address the green burial. That is actually one of the ways that we got a good bit of our information early on, was for the movement toward green burial. It is just about precisely what we’re talking about. It’s natural burial. Of course, we do it in an Orthodox Christian context. The preparations that we do are very much the same, except they’re done with prayer. They’re done in an Orthodox context, whether we’re in a morgue or someone’s home, preparing the body in the bed that they died in.
As far as starting a funeral guild, we go into some detail in A Christian Ending about ideas for that, but of course that’s going to be different in every parish. Every parish is different. You have different people; you have different gifts; you have different talents. All it really takes, though, is people with love and a sense of service to their brothers and sisters. God provides everything else. It’s a very simple thing to do. It’s a very powerful thing to do. As far as just organizing it and doing it, that’s different for every parish.
When it comes to a funeral, there are many things to be done. A family, depending on the circumstances, you can make phone calls, we can drive to the airport, we can pick up people who are coming in. Just a plethora of things we can do to help. When it comes to the actual preparation of the body, that only requires three people. In fact, our experience is that we prefer to limit that to no more than five. We have had some dearly beloved people in our parish die, and we ended up with 12, 13 people in the room, and it’s just too cumbersome. We just want to keep it small and quiet and take care of the things that need to be done. The rest of it, there are plenty of things for other people to do.
Mr. Allen: Thank you. Fr. Dn. Mark Barna, let me just follow up for a brief answer on this one. Does traditional or natural or green burial in any way impact our environment in a plus-or-minus fashion?
Dn. Mark: It’s definitely a plus, or a neutral at worst. Compared to cremation or embalming, it’s definitely a plus. The human body is 98% water; whatever that percentage is, it’s mostly water. We actually have the breakdown in the book. The first thing that happens with a body that is not embalmed, that is just put in the ground, is the water drains out. What you’re left with is the natural building blocks of the universe: oxygen, nitrogen, all the chemical building blocks of the universe. There is nothing there to pollute, and soil is a great filter anyway.
Mr. Allen: From dust. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust.
Dn. Mark: Ashes to ashes, dust to dust, and there’s nothing there to pollute the environment. Probably the worst thing would be the clothing and the box that the person is in. In fact, there have been some reports here lately about the metal boxes that are traditional in America, we’re finding all kinds of leachates and things that are coming from these boxes that are in the ground.
Mr. Allen: Interesting. As a follow-up to that, this is a great segue for a call, a voice message from Mike. Could we run that one, please?
Mike: This is Mike from Huntington Beach, California, with a question for Dn. Mark about caskets. My wife’s mother came to Orthodoxy very late in life, in part from reading a brochure about the simple wooden burial caskets made at the time by the monks at the Monastery of San Francisco in Manton, California. She had long talked about not wanting to be embalmed, and she wanted the simplest burial casket possible, nothing costly or ostentatious. She never bought a casket from the monks because she didn’t have a place to store it. At the time her illnesses were disabling but not life-threatening, so we didn’t think this would be an issue very soon. But in April of 2010, just a few months after her chrismation, a hospitalization went from fairly routine to very serious, and two days after being brought back to her home for hospice care, she died.
We needed a casket quickly, within three days, in order to have her funeral and burial before one of her daughters and a granddaughter had to fly home. The mortuary was very antagonistic about our requests for a wooden casket. They showed us all sorts of extensive caskets made of everything but wood and told us these were all they had. Finally, after nearly an hour, they showed us two that they called the “Jewish caskets” that were made only of wood. They told us that they could provide one of these without the usual Star of David, so my mother-in-law got her wooden casket, but without the Orthodox cross she had wanted it to bear.
My question for Dn. Mark is: since mortuaries don’t stock Orthodox caskets, how can families have an appropriate Orthodox casket at the time of a family member’s death?
Mr. Allen: That’s actually a great question.
Dn. Mark: It is, and I’m very happy to hear it, because today in just about every region of the country we have Orthodox casket-makers. I’m very sorry for his experience with funeral homes. It’s very typical, but there are a number of Orthodox casket-makers. I hope they’re listening this evening, because we have several of them listed on our websites, with links to their websites or information, and if the Orthodox casket-makers are out there listening, please send us your information. We’ll be happy to link to you from achristianending.com, and most of these casket-makers can ship overnight. You can order a casket off the internet from any of the casket-makers and have it shipped in overnight. Our Orthodox casket-makers, many of them are doing the same thing. They’re literally in just about every region of the country.
Also, people should be aware in their parishes that most any parish probably has a woodworker who can build a box. It’s a wooden box. Some of them are just really beautiful. We have several people who are making a living building caskets, Orthodox caskets. It’s a wonderful thing. Otherwise, anyone can build a box to bury someone in and make it look nice. What we like to do is we like to have one on hand. If the church can manage it, go ahead and build one or buy one and find a place to store it. Turn it into a bookcase, whatever needs to be done, and you have it there and it will be ready. We stored a casket for our beloved matriarch in our garage for, I don’t know, six months or so. We like to do that; we like to have one on hand.
Mr. Allen: To follow up on Mike’s question, though, there are resources that are on achristianending.com where people might go to find sources for the caskets?
Dn. Mark: Right. It’s achristianending.com, exactly. The other alternative, his mention of a Jewish casket? We recommend that. If you can’t get an Orthodox coffin-maker, you can’t make one yourself, if you get caught up short, ask for the Jewish casket. It is a plain pine box, beautiful, and has not a lot of frills inside. It’s still expensive, but it’s definitely something that we can use.
Mr. Allen: On achristianending.com, do you also have a directory, Fr. Dn. Mark Barna, for Orthodox funeral directors nationwide?
Dn. Mark: We don’t. We don’t have that. We would be happy to do that. We would like for achristianending.com to become a resource for authentic ancient Christian burial in the Orthodox tradition, yes. We’d love to do that.
Mr. Allen: And tied to that, as a follow-up to that, I’m sitting here thinking to myself there have to be people listening to this conversation saying, “Wait a minute. I’m not ready to go all the way on what I’m hearing tonight. I understand that it’s ancient, and I understand that they did it a hundred years ago, or they may do it in Greece or Russia, but I’m not sure I can do all of that. I’d like to do as much of it as I can, and yet also work with a funeral director and a funeral home.” My question to you is: can that be accomplished when working with a funeral director? We’ve talked a little bit about it. What instructions do you have to give them? What can you insist on? How does that dynamic all work?
Dn. Mark: It’s important to remember—certainly you can do that; we do it all the time. We’ve done a handful of funerals that were 100% done in-house. We had some difficult experiences with local funeral directors, and the key to that is they found out we’d understood the law. We know the law, and we know what we can do, and we know what we can’t do, which is really—there’s nothing we can’t do ourselves, in our state. Now, when we call our local funeral home and we tell them we’re from Holy Ascension, they say, “Yes, sir. What can we do for you?” They work for us, they work for you, and they will do whatever you tell them to do. It’s important to show them that you know what your rights are, that you know what the law is, and they’re not going to pull anything over on you.
It’s also important to get your papers in order. Everyone hearing this anywhere needs to have their final papers in order. Please do that. Our workshops, anytime we talk with groups, the first thing we tell them and the last thing we tell them is, “Please get your paperwork in order.”
Mr. Allen: Tell me what paperwork [it] is.
Dn. Mark: The papers that you need are the healthcare power of attorney and a living will. The healthcare power of attorney gives someone authority to make decisions on your behalf in a healthcare capacity. The living will then tells that person what it is that you want done. Of course, you need your last will and testament, and we have a couple of forms that we’ve put in our book. They’re in the back of the book, and we can send them out. For lack of a better term, we call one of them a “death-care power of attorney” where you give the authority—and this is legal in most states; many states actually define a form like this that you need to use, and you can check with an attorney in your state to find out if they actually have a form, but this form does the same thing as a healthcare power of attorney. It designates a person or an entity—it could be your church—to handle all of the arrangements for your funeral.
Then we have a funeral planning form that goes down the list, and I know this is difficult for a lot of people to think about, but I’ve filled mine out, and hopefully it won’t be used for a long, long time, but I’ve filled it out. It tells that person everything that you want in your funeral. It tells you if you want to use a particular funeral home, use that particular funeral home. If you want to be buried naturally, what clothes you want to wear. It goes through, step by step, everything that person would need to know to arrange your funeral.
But the first thing that a funeral director needs to know is do not embalm. In great big capital letters: “DO NOT EMBALM.” That’s often the default position. They’re in the business to embalm and to put people in the ground that way, and they will often, sometimes will go ahead and do that without being told not to. As far as telling the funeral director what to do, that’s the first thing you want to tell them not to do.
From there, it’s a matter of just making the arrangements, how you want it done. An important thing that we also want people to remember is that you can have it any way you want it. Just tell them what you want them to do, and don’t take no for an answer. If you don’t like the answer, go somewhere else. It’s just like any other business.
Mr. Allen: It sounds to me like, as with most of the Orthodox tradition, preparing is important. We don’t just sit around and wait for stuff to happen. We’re preparing for our end, and you’re advocating to do that all the way through, including preparing the paperwork and visualizing how you want your end to take to place. I appreciate that.
I have a question from Ron from Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. Be brief on this one if you can, Father, because I’ve got several other questions that I want to pose as well. He wants some clarity about the eight states including his state in Pennsylvania that you referred to. He says, “Eight states require funeral director involvement. In Pennsylvania, if you embalm or use cosmetic or dollars change hands, you have to use a funeral director. Please clarify how to work through that in those particular states where there is this requirement.”
Dn. Mark: I don’t recall Pennsylvania as being one of those eight states that we mentioned. We’re trying to look that up right now to see. I hadn’t heard that. Let’s see what they’re saying here. “In Pennsylvania, families may care for their own dead.” What the law says is that “the funeral director or the person in charge of interment or removal shall within 96 hours file a death certificate” The key there is it says “funeral director or the person in charge of interment.” It doesn’t say that the funeral director must be the person in charge of interment. My understanding from this—and definitely check with a local attorney, and look on the internet. I’ve done this many times for people who have called with questions like this, and most of the states have their laws and regulations on the internet, and I can often find the answer to their question within about five or ten minutes on the internet.
In one of the eight states where this is a problem, find a cooperative funeral director. They still work for you. You’re still paying the bills. Just find a cooperative funeral director who will work with you and will do things the way you want it.
Mr. Allen: I’ve got a question from Chris who emailed this in. He asks, “With regard to green and natural burials”—and I’m assuming he’s meaning if you do them yourselves—“how do you preserve the body from decay and stench?” Again, sorry to be crude, but we’re talking about this in a dignified way. So how do you preserve the body from decay and stench if you want to take care of your grandpa or your loved one if you want to do it naturally and in a green manner?
Dn. Mark: Sure. I’m glad he asked that question. Generally, human bodies will last a day or two without odor, in normal weather. There are a lot of factors involved. The first thing we do is when we wash the body, we wash the body with a hospital-quality bacterial cleanser. That is simply to kill bacteria that is on the surface of the body. Then we anoint the body with fragrant oils, which gives a pleasing odor. By the way, olive oil just does amazing things for the skin. It’s almost miraculous, the transformation from the beginning of the process until the end, and all we’re doing is putting olive oil on. It’s really kind of amazing.
Mr. Allen: How interesting.
Dn. Mark: But the short answer to his question is: we use dry ice. All the instructions for that are in our book. We put a layer of dry ice in the bottom of the casket. We put the body on top of it. We put dry ice on the sides and on the chest. Then we remove the dry ice for services, and we’ll put it back on for transportation or in between services. I mentioned earlier the funeral of Archbishop Dmitri in Dallas last year. We did this process for five days, and it was remarkable. Everything was beautiful. Certainly there was no odor whatsoever, but we removed the dry ice for services. We’d put it back on in between services.
It’s become my custom, even in our church, that between services we’ll cover the body usually just with my vestments because they’re so convenient and they look nice, and just cover the dry ice with something that looks nice; it doesn’t have to be vestments, but it’s just easier for me to throw them on there.
The point of refrigeration or freezing is that it’s reversible. Embalming is not, and neither is cremation. You can’t take it back. A body will keep indefinitely with refrigeration.
Mr. Allen: What about the embalming oils? I’m sure people will be interested in learning which ones and where and so on.
Dn. Mark: The olive oil that we use?
Mr. Allen: You mentioned the embalming oils making it smell… I think you mentioned oils that smell nice.
Dn. Mark: Right. Well, we use simply—again, it’s all in the book—a mixture of essential oils. There’s 120 drops to a pint of olive oil. We use virgin olive oil, not extra virgin olive oil, because it has its own scent. We simply mix that. We take it to church, we have it blessed on the altar, and then we keep it in our kit, and we use it. A pint of olive oil will usually be enough to anoint two bodies.
Mr. Allen: Gotcha. So that’s in the book. Paul from Texas is asking the question: where can they get the forms that are in the book? Are they only available by buying the book? And then, follow-up to that, is there a directory of guilds across the country that provides preparation of the body if the Orthodox church does not?
Dn. Mark: I’m not aware of any directory like that. This is really fledgling. We’re not the first to do this. I do want to mention that. There are a number of Orthodox churches in the country who have been doing this for years before we were. They were a tremendous resource for us. We’re not the first; we’re just the ones that wrote the book.
What was the rest of that question? What was the first part?
Mr. Allen: The first part was: where can they get the forms that are in the book? Do they basically need to buy the book?
Dn. Mark: No, you don’t have to buy the book. Just send me an email at achristianending.com.
Mr. Allen: Okay. I’ve got a question from Jennifer, and it is: if you’re handling burial yourself, what about the call to the coroner, and who are the proper authorities for reporting?
Dn. Mark: That varies, and it depends on whether we’re talking about a natural, expected death or an accidental death. The thing to do there is what I did here. We had three parents living with us for a while, and I simply called the coroner and asked, “What happens if one of my parents die? What do I do?” And they were very helpful. She walked me through the whole process and told us exactly what to do. Then I said, “That’s very helpful. So what happens if I fall off a ladder and break my neck and die accidentally at home?” And she walked me through the whole process.
That would be my recommendation. Your procedures, your local regulations may vary, so just give them a call and ask them what to do.
Mr. Allen: Great. We’ve got two final questions as we’re kind of descending now, Fr. Dn. Mark Barna. Let’s go with the voice mail from Rob, please.
Rob: Hi, Dn. Mark. Rob from Costa Mesa, California. I’m curious about the communal effects within the parish of what you’ve been talking about. A parish caring for one of its own who has reposed and for the family. It strikes me as such a deep and impactful act of love and beauty, really, that I can’t imagine it doesn’t have an effect on the soul of the parish. We’ve all heard at times of pain and crisis and said to ourselves, “I wish there was something more we could do.” Does having something to do, a way to meet real needs in love, do something for us? What, if any, effect have you seen within the life and character of your parish since it’s undertaken this work? And is my intuition correct that despite the pain and grief, a parish caring for those reposed in its midst is something utterly suffused with love and beauty? Thank you.
Dn. Mark: Oh, it is very much.
Mr. Allen: Great question.
Dn. Mark: Yes. Yes, it is a great question, and it’s very true. The service is such a powerful service. By “service,” I don’t mean in a liturgical sense; I mean in the sense of people serving one another. The character of a parish varies from parish to parish, and it certainly can have an impact on the character of the parish. Ultimately, we would love to see it have that impact on an entire community. There’s no reason why churches of all different kinds can’t, in one community, come together to bury each other. We would love to see that. We would love to participate with the folks down at our local Greek church or the ROCOR church and have members of a society who are burying one another.
It can have a tremendous impact on the entire community, but mostly what I have seen has been the impact on the people who have done it. People who we never perhaps would have thought would want to do such a thing have insisted on preparing their loved one for burial, and then come away just… They can’t stop thanking us. It was the most wonderful thing; they tell us these things. It’s not my words. It’s the most wonderful thing they could have done for their mother or their father or their grandfather. We’ve had people who were not Orthodox just show up at the last minute and say, “What are we doing?” We’ll go through it, and they’ll come away going, “First I can’t believe that it was legal, and second I can’t believe that people are actually doing this.”
It has a tremendous impact on everyone who has done it. It is not for everyone, and don’t think that it is. Our very first preparation for burial… We have a wonderful member of our parish who will literally do anything. He’s always there; he will do anything. It was a tragic death of a mutual friend, and he was the first one there. He was there, ready to go, and after that, he came to me a few days later, and he said, “Mark, you know, if you ever need me again, I’ll be there, but if it’s all the same to you, I don’t ever want to do that again.” And, of course, you don’t ever have to do that again. It’s not for everyone, but there are many, many other ways to serve in the Church, and to serve one another, even in a funeral capacity. There are many ways to serve.
Mr. Allen: That’s a good segue to [these]. I’ve got two more. Let me segue into this, though, because you mention in your book that an additional benefit, in addition to keeping holy tradition and cost-savings, because there is a cost-savings, in doing traditional burials, it’s a way to communicate the Orthodox faith, even to funeral directors, health care workers, hospice workers. I think you had a really neat story that I think you told me off-air about one of your first times doing this. Maybe you could share that.
Dn. Mark: As I said, it has a deep impact on everyone who’s seen it, even funeral directors. The funeral directors that we deal with now respect what we do, and they’re very helpful with what we do. The hospice workers who were here taking care of our parents, long before the book was published, they all got a copy via Xerox. That’s the way we did it for years, and shared it around. They were amazed. One social worker from hospice said, “This is what I thought I was going to be doing when I was in school, but the reality is far different.”
The very first body preparation that we did, we did in the medical university morgue here in Charleston. When we finished, we placed our friend in the casket and took him out. The guys were taking him out to the Suburban to take him out to the cemetery. The director of the morgue called me in to sign the papers, and that’s the first time I signed on the line for “funeral director,” which is also a rather unique experience for the first time. He said, “Mr. Barna, we’ve had Muslims, Jews, Hindus, and Buddhists in here. You’re the first Christians.”
Mr. Allen: Wow. Boy, does that make an impact.
Dn. Mark: It made an impact on me. The first Christians.
Mr. Allen: As you say, it’s a way of sharing our faith.
Dn. Mark: Yes. And we’ve become very good friends. He’s been extremely helpful. We’ve learned a lot from him. He’s thanked in the dedication of the book, because he’s been so helpful to us. All of his staff has a copy of the book, too.
Mr. Allen: Nice.
Dn. Mark: Yes. It is a good form of outreach if people are willing to be open to it.
Mr. Allen: That’s all the time we have this evening. Thank you so much for listening. Dn. Mark Barna, thank you, and thank Elizabeth, first of all, for this incredible ministry. Thank you for the book which has changed my thinking, and we’ll continue on with a few closing remarks. Thanks again, Dn. Mark.
Again, if you want to make contact with Dn. Mark, he can be reached at achristianending.com. The drawing winner of our Legacy Icons Christmas icon ornaments tonight is Mark from Carney, Nebraska, I believe. Enjoy those.
Join me on November 25 with my guest, Joel F. Miller. He’s the author of the new book, Lifted by Angels: The Presence of our Heavenly Guides and Guardians. We’ll be talking about angels and their significance in salvation history and the life of the Christian believer. This is a book, by the way, that’s changed my personal prayer life and way of thinking, so you won’t want to miss that.
Remember to leave us a voice message. We’ve had many of them tonight. They’re very easy to do, and you can hear how we’re using them, so if you have a question about angels and you don’t want to call us live, check the AFT page, and it’ll show you how to do it. Don’t forget: next week, Orthodoxy Live with Fr. Evan Armatas. Same time, same station. Thanks to our production crew this evening. Our engineer, John; our producer, Bobby; our call screener, Troy; our chatroom moderator, Fr. John; and my production assistant, Jennifer. Thanks for listening. God bless. Have a great week.