Understanding Death: Part One

July 16, 2013 Length: 26:54

Dn. Mark presents the Orthodox Christian perspective on death.





Glory to Jesus Christ! Glory forever! This is Dn. Mark for A Christian Ending. Christ is risen from the dead, trampling death by death, and upon those in the tombs bestowing life. This is the good news. This is the Gospel message. Sin and death are defeated and no longer have any hold on us. Glory to Jesus Christ! Glory forever!

If this is so, and we believe this, why then do you suppose that we still fear death so much? This series of podcasts, A Christian Ending, is about recovering and restoring a truly Christian perspective on death and dying and the ancient traditions of the preparation of the dead for burial in a Christian community.

Death is the last truly taboo subject in America. I’m old enough to remember when we didn’t see ads on TV for feminine hygiene products, condoms, and erectile dysfunction. Honestly, I can’t think of any other subject that Americans are as reluctant to talk about as death. The funeral industry and the traditional American funerals themselves are a calculated denial of death.

In our first podcast, we talked about cremation because of the sense of urgency that we have about that subject in the Church today. Now we’d like to start at the beginning, and in that spirit let me start the way we start all of our workshops and retreats: by encouraging you to, please, get your paperwork together. Have everything in line. If anything should happen, your family doesn’t have to worry about it. The pieces of paper that you’re going to need, of course, are your last will and testament.

You’ll also need to have a healthcare power-of-attorney, and you’ll also need to have a living will. The healthcare power-of-attorney assigns someone to make decisions for you if you’re incapacitated and unable to make those decisions. The living will is the instructions that you leave for that person, to make decisions in the way that you would want them to be made. These are generally pretty well spelled out in the forms themselves. These forms are particular to the state in which you live, so you should probably go online. They’re usually readily available online. Attorneys have them, of course; perhaps your doctor, but they’re usually readily available in all states.

We have also developed a couple of forms that are in our book which we highly recommend, especially for converts, but they’re good for everyone to have, and hopefully you’ll see why. For lack of a better term, one of them we consider a “deathcare” power-of-attorney. This form, too, in some states now is becoming available a state-particular form, but this is a form that assigns power-of-attorney to someone over your remains in the event of your death, to make decisions over funeral preparations. The second form that we have is then also instructions for that person. They go into great detail in whom should be called, whom should be notified, where your papers are, and all of the things that need to be done.

We’ll talk about these forms in detail later on in this series of podcasts, but I want to mention it right up front, because we always do that in our workshops, and then we mention it again at the end. I can’t emphasize how important this is, particularly the deathcare power-of-attorney and the final wishes forms to be filled out. No one likes to think about these things, and no one wants to do this stuff, but once it’s done, it’s done, and you don’t have to worry about it again.

Why is it important particularly for converts? Well, I’ve had people come up to me and say, “Dn. Mark, I know for a fact that if I die tomorrow, my family will not allow me to be buried in an Orthodox manner,” and that’s pretty important to them, and it’s pretty important to me, obviously; I’ve spent a lot of time working on this stuff. Perhaps it’s important to you; perhaps it’s not. But if you’re listening to this, I assume that it’s probably fairly important to you and that you would like to have these things in order in case anything should happen. It also takes an awful lot of stress off your family, trying to guess and determine what it was that Mom or Dad may have wanted or didn’t want, and it just clears up… doesn’t leave a lot of room for arguments among the family, and it just helps things go much more smoothly.

With that out of the way, I think it’s important to begin with—that we look at and hopefully gain a more traditional patristic understanding of our subject—death, hopefully to help us deal with the subject better as we progress in this series and in our daily lives.

Death is a powerful and awesome mystery. There’s no doubt about that. Nothing we say here will change that, but if we’re going to actualize the Gospel message and make it real in our lives, we need to understand what it means as it relates to my life and my death. My mother died early one afternoon in April. She lived with us for over six years, having been bed-ridden for the last five of those years. We called hospice and our priest and began reading the psalms by her bed.

When the others arrived, my wife, Elizabeth, her primary caregiver, and I washed her body there in her bed, just as we had done so many times before. We gave her a manicure and a pedicure. We washed her hair. We anointed her with fragrant oil and dressed her in one of her Sunday dresses. Fr. John and I then carefully carried her body into her living room where her casket was waiting. We held vigil in our home that night.

In the morning, our sons came to the house to transport their grandmother to the church. After the funeral service, we carried her casket back to the rental van and drove her in procession to the grave-site at Saints Mary and Martha Monastery in Wagener, South Carolina, about two hours away, and we buried her there.

It was an intimate, beautiful process, hearkening back to the customs and traditions of Christian communities for 2,000 years. It is still the way death and burial is handled in most of the rest of the world. America has adopted a very different type of burial tradition over the past 150 years. It’s an aberration in the history of sacred Christian burial traditions, which our church, here in South Carolina, and many other churches across America, are trying to correct.

In contrast with my mother’s burial, Elizabeth’s mother, Ella, her burial was more what we’ve become accustomed to in America. Ella was not a Christian, and she insisted on being cremated. Thanks to the wonderful volunteer hospice that we had 20 years ago, she was able to live and finally die at home. We called the funeral home, they came to pick her up, and that was the last we saw of her. We had a memorial service, but she wasn’t there. She was already cremated. For Orthodox Christians accustomed to an open-casket funeral, with a final kiss, it was a strange experience.

Orthodox Christianity addresses the whole of human existence, from the genesis of mankind as the crown of creation, destined to live forever as a close companion of a loving God, through the trials and suffering of an often overwhelming and tragic life, to our death and burial in the earth, the Church celebrates, rejoices, comforts, and mourns. Orthodox Christians live their lives in a universal community of believers and worshipers, dedicating ourselves and each other and all our life unto Christ our God.

God is love. I’ve known love; I’ve experienced love, but God is love. Just as God said, “Tell them I am,” and in our services we call him “the Existing One,” we know that what we experience as love, even in its greatest intensity, is a very faint echo of what God is in reality. Love is a tremendously creative force. Just look at all the books, poetry, and music that have been created for love—not to mention all the children! Still, even all this human history is a faint reflection of the love that God is. In God, love is so abundant and so forceful that it quite simply and naturally overflows in an incredible outpouring of creative force that we experience as creation. That’s not to say that creation is God; it is to say that creation is a very natural outpouring of who God is. Creation itself is an outpouring of the grace of God.

God created mankind to top off all of his creative energy. He put us right at the very pinnacle of creation, the pinnacle of his love. Genesis tells us that God breathed life into Adam’s nostrils. This is a picture of the very intimate relationship we were created to have with our Creator. It also shows that nothing has life in itself. God alone is the Source of life. Woman was created from a rib taken from Adam’s side. This, too, is an indication of the extremely intimate relationship created between man and woman.

We were created as persons, body and soul, in one unity of person. Each person is unique, individual, and whole. It is this person that is created and loved by God. He knows and loves each of us as a person. This person—each and every one of us—from the beginning, has infinite value to God. We’re so valuable to him that he has numbered every hair on our head. He has done everything that can be done to restore our intimate relationship with him.

We were created for an ultimately close, intimate relationship with God and with each other. It is very hard even to imagine how close this relationship of love was intended to be. Again, the closest relationship you have ever experienced is just a poor shadow of the closeness we were created to have to God and to one another. This was a relationship of love, in love, living within the very grace of God.

Fr. Alexander Schmemann said that in the beginning, all of creation was transparent to the grace of God. In other words, the grace of God shone through every atom and molecule, and man lived in this incredibly intimate relationship with him. The relationship of love between man and woman was equally as intimate. Obviously, the grace of God is all-good and all-love, so nothing bad could happen to man in this state of penetrating grace. This is why the Fathers say that man was not created immortal, but that he had the potential for immortality, because as long as we live within the grace of God, death was not possible. This was our natural created state.

But we know what happened. We blew it. The first thing we did was blow it. In order for our love to be real, it cannot be coerced. Man had to have the freedom to love God or not to love God. You can force someone to pretend to love you, but you can’t force someone to love you. Love requires free will. God never did and never will violate man’s free will. That’s how much he loves us.

So when we chose to disobey God, to elevate our own wants above God’s love, we chose matter, represented by the fruit, and chose to elevate our self over God’s love. The bond of love was broken between God and man. Since man was the head of creation and transparent to the grace of God, the reverberations of this choice echoed like a shock-wave throughout all of creation. As the Apostle says, “Creation has been groaning ever since.”

At the beginning of Great Lent, we celebrate Forgiveness Vespers. We prostrate ourselves before others and ask their forgiveness. If you come to my church or I come to yours, we will do this even though we’ve never met. Why is that? It’s because we recognize that my sin affects you and everyone else, though I may never have met you. How much more significant was mankind’s fall from God’s grace?

It reverberated throughout all the cosmos, and still reverberates today. In an instant, man found himself outside the grace of God and clothed in flesh, subject to the matter we chose over love for God. Man chose to exalt himself above God and to disobey the commandment in an effort to become God on his own. Rather than ruling over it, we are now subject to our need for matter in the form of food, and we require shelter from the elements of matter that are now adversarial to us.

The practice of chemical embalming of the dead is directly related to our adversarial relationship with matter and nature. It grew directly out of the mindset of man against nature that was prevalent during the Industrial Revolution. Remember, God did not say he would kill Adam and Eve; he said they would surely die. He said it just as you would tell a child, “Don’t touch that hot stove. You’ll surely get burned.” It was a warning, not a threat.

According to the Fathers, separation from God is the only true death, because God is the Source of life. We are all subject to the separation from God, and we have all been suffering from it ever since. But this wasn’t true death. It’s wasn’t utter separation from God, because even after the expulsion from the garden in Genesis, we see that God fashioned clothes of skins for Adam and Eve, still showing his love and protection for them.

Physical death entered creation in an even more horrific way: One brother killed another. What could be worse than this? It is clear that God did not create death, not physical death. We did that ourselves. It was the second significant thing we did. Therefore, by our own definition of what is natural—in other words, those things created by God are natural, and man-made things are not natural—then death is not natural. I’ll say it again: Death is not natural. I know it goes against everything science, the world, and philosophy teaches us, so I’ll say it again: Death is not natural.

Death unequivocally is not part of God’s plan for us. In all of human history, only one man was created to die. That was the God-man, Jesus Christ, and he came to die for the very purpose of destroying death. According to the Fathers, physical death is actually a blessing from God. Even though he did not create it, he, in his infinite love and wisdom, has the ability to take even our worst nightmare and turn it to our benefit. Were it not for death, we would be cursed to live in the separation from God, with violence, disease, and strife forever. The rest of the Old Testament is simply God dealing with a rebellious and barbaric generation in terms that they could understand, until finally he came himself and straightened the whole thing out.

Of course, all options are open to God. He’d already used the flood, the tower of Babel, Sodom and Gomorrah, the Exodus, the Law, and the Prophets. He could have just turned the earth into a smoldering cinder and started over somewhere else, but God doesn’t work that way. Love doesn’t work that way. Love is long-suffering, merciful, and compassionate. Through all the Old Testament, God never violated man’s free will. Yes, he could have simply gone poof and restored man to his original state, but that’s not love either. Besides, we’d have just done it all over again.

No, he has something much, much better in mind. God would not accept anything less than total victory. He took on our own flesh. In doing this, he sanctified the very matter, the flesh we chose over his love, the same flesh we still choose over his love. He was born and grew up miserably poor. He had a mother and a father, a family. He worked with his hands. He knew hunger and thirst and every trial and tribulation we’ve ever known. He knew every temptation and worse, except that he triumphed and never gave into temptation. Even with Satan standing before him, offering him the entire world, he did not sin.

At the appropriate time, he sought out his cousin John to be baptized, but Christ’s baptism was not just a ritual cleansing practiced by the Hebrews. When he descended into the waters of the Jordan Rivers, the water didn’t cleanse him; he had created the water. No, he cleansed and restored the water to its original potential, thereby restoring the entire world, and by extension all of created matter, to its original sanctified potential.

He lived among us and taught us how to live, how to love. He healed every disease. He raised the dead. But that wasn’t good enough for us, was it? We had to beat him terribly and hang him on a cross outside the city, between thieves. Even then he didn’t sin. What’s more, he forgave us and prayed for us.

Any one of us at this point would have simply thrown up our hands in disgust and said, “Okay, they’re toast,” but God doesn’t work that way. In his godliness, he submitted to the hate, scourging, humiliation, and finally the most hideous death on the cross, outside the gates of the city, with thieves. We see in this God’s ultimate sacrificial love for mankind. In his humanity, he sinlessly submitted to the same degradation. In this we see mankind’s love for God perfected. Here the two are joined and revealed in victory. Here is revealed the same all-encompassing, overflowing love that created the universe.

In death he descended into Hades. All through the Old Testament, Sheol or Hades is known as a region far removed from God, a place of darkness, dust, and silence: a place of utter oblivion. Christ entered this region, no longer separated from God, as a great light: the light of life. He broke all the bonds that held the dead there, and to all who would accept it he offered a return to life in the presence of God. His own resurrection in the flesh, the same flesh he died in, signaled the defeat of death. Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death, and upon those in the tombs bestowing life.

He opened the Scriptures to his disciples and showed them how all of the Scriptures refer to him. After spending time with his disciples to assure them and emphasize that it truly was he in his same body who taught them and ate with them, he ascended bodily into heaven. He who bent the heavens and humbled himself without humiliation to take on all that man is then returned himself, and all that man is, now perfected, to be seated at the right hand of God the Father, in essence taking us with him, for he is the head and we are the body, and the one cannot be divided from the other.

With Christ’s final victory on the cross, the human soul regains its purity and beauty, its former glory, and is made resplendent with Christ. With his ascension, we are assured that, at his marvelous second coming, the body will also be resurrected, transfigured, and lifted up, much like our Lord’s glorified body. It will attain the same glorious and incorrupt form as his and will live, united with the soul, into eternity.

In Christ, death lost its power. It is fearful now in name only, not in reality. The new creation in Christ is much higher than the original one that fell. God did not simply restore us to the level of Adam before the Fall, but, through the resurrected and ascended Christ, our mortal human nature is honored more greatly than before. By incorporating man’s nature into his own Logos, the head of the Church, God places him very much above the angelic powers and makes him a partaker of divine glory.

Man who had fallen to such a low place that there was no lower place to fall, by God’s grace and loving kindness, has been raised to a place so high that there’s no higher place to rise. In the beginning the Creator made man in his image and likeness. Now he has united man to God. But for us to make the gifts of the ascended Christ our own, we must unite ourselves to Christ and live his life as our own. By the Passion of Christ, death is transformed. Now it bears only the name of death, no longer oblivion and darkness. It is now a rest while awaiting Christ’s return and our bodily resurrection unto judgment.

St. John Chrysostom says that by virtue of the Resurrection, the deception of the devils has been abolished, and we can laugh at death. Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death, and upon those in the tombs bestowing life. This is the good news. This is the Gospel message. If this is true, and we believe it is, then why are we so afraid of death?

In our next podcast, we’ll talk a bit about the fear of death and what the Fathers of the Church recommend as a cure for it. I hope you’ll tune in to it and to future podcasts, when we’ll address more of the questions we’ve been asked regarding natural Christian burial. Please send your questions and comments to us at our website: achristianending.com. You’ll find the email link at the bottom of the home page. Check out our blog while you’re there, and perhaps leave a comment. We’d love to hear from you. Thank you for listening. May God grant you many, many years.