Kh. Frederica Mathewes-Green: I’m at Holy Ascension (OCA) Church in Mount Pleasant, South Carolina, right outside of Charleston. We’re sitting in the pastor’s study where it’s a little quieter, because it’s a little noisy in coffee hour, and I’m with Deacon Mark Barna and they call you “Matushka” Elizabeth, is that right? We have a different name for the deacon’s wife in the Antiochian Church. She’s called “Shamassy.” There’s the “Khouria” and the “Shamassy,” but I guess the Russians just use the one word for both.
What I wanted to talk to you about, I guess you could say is a ministry, really, that the two of you began practicing quite some time ago. I guess it goes back to when three of your four elderly parents came to live with you. Fill in a little bit of the background of that. I kind of led into the topic of your book.
Dn. Mark Barna: Yes, it actually goes back before that. I’ve always been really disturbed by the American funeral industry. It goes way back to my 19 years as grandparents were dying and what-not, and I was just really disturbed by all that. And for many years, I’ve collected information about funerals and just ideas, and I remember, years and years ago, friends getting together, and we’d say, “Yeah, if I die tomorrow, don’t go through all that. Just roll me in a sheet and tuck me under the roots of a big oak tree and let that be the marker. That’s what I want.”
Kh. Frederica: I had a friend who used to say, “Just put me in a Hefty bag and set me on the curb.” Not quite to that extreme.
Dn. Mark: And then, a few years ago… Well, actually, it goes back about 20 years ago now, as time flies, I was working in a hospital and ran across a training video for nurses on how to treat Jewish patients who’d die in the hospital.
Kh. Frederica: [What does] their religion not allow?
Dn. Mark: They have very specific requirements for Jews who die in the hospital, how the body is to be treated after they die. So I took the video and watched it and said, “That looks an awful lot like the way we should be doing it as Orthodox Christians.” And it sparked me to do a little more research, and that is pretty much the way we should be doing it. We believe that the body should be in contact with the earth, which is the way that the Jews see it, and should be returned to the earth as quickly as possible, with all respect that’s due to the temple, and, as I said, as quickly as possible and as simply as possible, too, without a lot of hoopla. Just the services, and tuck them in the ground, and that’s it.
Kh. Frederica: Would you call this “natural funeral preparation”? Is there kind of a phrase you use to [refer to this practice]?
Dn. Mark: We call it ancient Christian burial, but the catch-phrases today are obviously “green burial” and “natural burial.” People all over, who are not Christian, are coming to the same conclusion, that embalming is actually antiquated.
Kh. Frederica: Really?
Dn. Mark: Yes. Embalming was invented in the Civil War as a way to transport officers’ bodies from the battlefield back to their homes.
Kh. Frederica: So they could be buried at home, in the home cemetery.
Dn. Mark: And that was actually before the invention of formaldehyde. Then formaldehyde brought it into the real scientific age, but then the next development was in the late 19th century, early 20th century: refrigeration was invented.
Kh. Frederica: So you didn’t need chemicals anymore.
Dn. Mark: Refrigeration literally made embalming obsolete.
Kh. Frederica: So we’ve only been doing it a little more than a hundred years for no reason.
Dn. Mark: Unnecessarily, yeah.
Mat. Elizabeth Barna: Besides the fact that it pollutes the soil. It’s not good for the environment.
Kh. Frederica: That was really shocking for me, reading in your book—the title of your book is A Christian Ending. What’s the subtitle?
Dn. Mark: A Handbook for Burial in the Ancient Christian Tradition.
Kh. Frederica: A Christian Ending is the title. Reading all the precautions that funeral directors are supposed to take because the chemicals they’re dealing with are so toxic, and then we’re putting it in the ground. How good can that be for the enivironment?
Dn. Mark: Not at all.
Mat. Elizabeth: Right.
Dn. Mark: It’s not good at all. OSHA lists something like 280 chemicals that embalmers have to have in their MSDS, in their sheet that they know what they can do to them. They have to be aware of them.
Kh. Frederica: If you’ve got a refrigerator of the right size, then it’s totally unnecessary anyway.
Dn. Mark: Yes. And most funeral homes do, and all morgues do, have refrigerators.
Kh. Frederica: Do you think they continue the pattern of embalming, though, because it looks like they’re doing something? Just using a refrigerator doesn’t make them look like professionals with a skill?
Dn. Mark: Yes, exactly. That is part of it. And profit. It’s not a huge percentage of the cost of the funeral, the embalming itself, but it is almost pure profit.
Kh. Frederica: Wow. And did you begin to get into this in a practical way because you were caring for your elderly parents and the first time one died, you knew you didn’t want to go in that direction?
Mat. Elizabeth: More than that. About the first writing of the book, the first draft, a friend of ours, a parishioner, passed away fairly suddenly, and left three teenage children. He was a single father. His wife had died previously; he was a widower, with very little resources. So we followed the book and ended up burying him out on Wadmalaw Island, and we got a pine casket for him and prepared his body, and that was the first one. The parents did have something to do with it, but it wasn’t the focusing factor. We knew that they were going to have a natural burial. That was not the reason.
Kh. Frederica: Maybe because of the idea that a funeral director has skills and uses chemicals and things like that, I think the ordinary person feels very intimidated with dealing with: “Here’s a body. What next?” I imagine a lot of people in OCA got to learn something about that, because you were honored to be able to prepare the body of Archbishop Dmitri just this past August. People must have gotten a chance to see how very simple it can be, dignified, and you take your time and you do it right. But it’s not complicated. Say some more about that.
Dn. Mark: It’s not complicated at all if you think about it. People have been on the earth a long time, and we’ve been dying for a long time. And this is the way that basically it’s the way it’s always been done. And we’ve put it back into a Christian context. The “traditional American funeral” is really a cult of body preservation and a cult of science, and all of these things that came out of the Civil War era, that whole era of man against nature rather than man in nature. And we’re simply going back to the way it always was done before we changed it a hundred years ago. And it also became very profitable, and any time anything is profitable, it’s going to be tough to change.
Kh. Frederica: And the “customer” is so vulnerable, is collapsing and saying, “Choose for me. I can’t deal with this.” I remember when my grandmother died, one of my cousins said, “Granddaddy’s position is: I don’t care about the quality, just give me the most expensive!”
Dn. Mark: That happens all the time. It happens all the time. We talk about that in the book, about how to prepare ahead of time. I’ve always one to prepare ahead for everything that I can, and I think we all are as Christians. It amazes me, personally, how many people don’t even want to think about their own death or a parent’s death or a loved one’s death. How many people here in our own church don’t have a will or…what’s the other?
Mat. Elizabeth: A living will.
Kh. Frederica: If you deny it, it’ll never happen. We know how well that works in other areas of life!
Dn. Mark: Yes, that’s right.
Kh. Frederica: Never fails. Can you say anything, just in general, about natural burial preparation? It’s natural and it’s simple. It involves washing the body. I remembered from your book, you stress how important it is to be reverent, so the body’s on a bed or a table, and you have a helper across from you. I remember you advised: don’t even pass something, even a bottle, over the body; go around. If you can have another person there reading psalms in the background, that would be great. Tell me something more about what would be the ideal way a natural preparation would take place.
Mat. Elizabeth: Ideally it’s at home, but there are people that have to use a funeral home, and we’ve done a few funerals where the funeral home was used for refrigeration and transporting the body to another state, though it’s not necessary to have a funeral home involved. Usually, well, we’ve always had somebody there to read the psalms. And you go in and very reverently wash the body, and then you anoint the body with essential oils. Do you want to tell a little bit about the essential oils that we use?
Dn. Mark: There are a number of scents, and essential oils are very concentrated scents. And we take them and add them to olive oil and use that for anointing. Perfumers don’t like olive oil because it has its own scent, but of course we as Orthodox Christians love olive oil, so we use olive oil. We actually have a kit that we keep just in case we get that three-o’clock-in-the-morning call, and that is very often when the call comes, particularly with the elderly, because that’s the low ebb of our biorhythms, is about three-o’clock in the morning. And we’ve seen it many times that that’s when most people die naturally, is at three-o’clock in the morning.
We have the essential oils blessed by the priest, and we keep them in our kit so that we’re ready to go at any time if something should happen.
Kh. Frederica: It takes two people? You went alone to Dallas, but you had somebody else help you once you were there?
Dn. Mark: Yes.
Mat. Elizabeth: The biggest thing is to be able to have enough strength to be able to move the body into the coffin.
Kh. Frederica: I hadn’t thought of that.
Mat. Elizabeth: And then, once the body is in the coffin, the way we keep it cool is dry ice.
Kh. Frederica: On the abdomen, right.
Mat. Elizabeth: Mm-hmm. And another nice thing is just to have a lot of natural fresh herbs to put around the body. It smells good and seems kind of more holy, too.
Kh. Frederica: What do you say to some ancient burials that have been discovered that they’re in a winding sheet wound around the body, that there’s sprigs of different herbs sort of tucked in, into the folds there?
Dn. Mark: Yeah, it is. It goes all the way back to prehistoric times. They’ve opened graves and found bodies, skeletons, of course, that were laid on a bed of herbs and flowers. So, yeah, it goes way back.
Kh. Frederica: Isn’t that nice? So the idea that is sold to us by the funeral industry that the body can be preserved really is a lie. It can be preserved for the short period of time. I remember somebody once told me that people want, that people are always trying to buy the coffin that will protect the body. I think it was my friend Joe Canby, up in Baltimore, another natural funeral director, and he said there is no coffin that will protect the body, because eventually, the body always destroys the coffin.
Dn. Mark: Yes.
Kh. Frederica: Yes, it’s just part of the natural process.
Dn. Mark: Well, the body’s full of bacteria, and there are two types of bacteria. There’s anaerobic bacteria and aerobic bacteria. And if a body is hermetically sealed in an airtight coffin, then the only bacteria that can do their work is the anaerobic kind, which is the nasty kind, but with aerobic bacteria, who need air—and you would find that in the soil; they’re naturally occurring in the soil—they’d do a much better job of decomposing the body.
Kh. Frederica: More efficient, more clean in a sense.
Dn. Mark: Way more efficient.
Mat. Elizabeth: One thing I wanted to point out, too, [is] that most of the laws are made for funeral directors, and there’s a big misconception about that, that a lot of this stuff you can’t do at home, you can’t legally do it at home without a funeral director. But the laws are made for the funeral industry, and there’s a very few—all state laws are different, but there are very few laws that are made for somebody doing a natural burial by themselves. Of course, there’s common sense laws. You’re not going to bury somebody in your front yard if you live in downtown. But there’s just a whole lot of misconceptions: that you can’t transport a body across state lines. Any number of things, but each state you have to research their laws.
Kh. Frederica: I was surprised to learn that in Maryland, there’s only one law which is: you’ve got to have 18 inches of dirt, and that’s all. It’s not very much dirt. Just as long as you’re under the ground at least 18 inches. The only other law that might concern you is if you have community restrictions or something.
Dn. Mark: Well, the whole idea of the funeral laws, as Elizabeth was mentioning, is they were to regulate the funeral industry, to protect the consumers from unscrupulous funeral directors. They weren’t…
Kh. Frederica: Now it works the other way! To protect the lobby.
Dn. Mark: They were not to keep people from burying their own dead. And most states are still that way. I haven’t done an extensive study of the different states. When someone calls me with a question, then I go and look it up, but most states’ laws are very easy to find. Most all of them are on the internet. Someone wanted to argue with me about a point in New Jersey, and in five minutes, I had the New Jersey funeral laws up, and I looked at it, and, sure enough, you do not have to use a funeral director in New Jersey as this person was saying, but you do have to have a funeral director present, which I thought was a pretty neat job of lobbying on the part of the funeral industry.
Kh. Frederica: Oh, for goodness’ sakes! It sure is! So you’ve got to pay for my time, even if I’m not doing anything.
Dn. Mark: You’ve got to pay for his time, exactly. He’s not doing a thing, but he has to stand there. And that’s something that, if this type of natural burial takes off as it seems to be doing all over the country, I look for the funeral industry to do more lobbying.
Kh. Frederica: Yes, they’ve got a lot to lose, don’t they?
Mat. Elizabeth: And if you do use a funeral home, when you go and you have to ask for your loved one to be… for them to do things the way the Jewish people would do, which is no embalming and some of the other restrictions, but you have to be very careful, because I have been told twice by funeral directors, that, by law, that they have to embalm, which is not true.
Kh. Frederica: Right. I imagine it’s not true anywhere in any state.
Mat. Elizabeth: So I just ask them, “Just show me the law,” and they say, “We can’t. We’re sorry.” You have to really sometimes stand up for yourself with the funeral directors, because the ones that we’ve run across have been very pushy. Well, one that was very pushy has now been involved in several Orthodox burials, and he’s on our side now for whatever we need to do.
Kh. Frederica: I remember something else in the book that you ran into was that the hospital wanted to do an autopsy on your mother, I believe it was.
Mat. Elizabeth: My grandmother.
Kh. Frederica: You say in the book that hospitals usually have a quota of a number of autopsies that they’re supposed to do, so they’ll “nudge” people, and when you resisted, they suggested that you had some nefarious reason, that you were trying to cover your footsteps or something that you didn’t want them to find out.
Mat. Elizabeth: My grandmother was in her 80s and ill for a long time. She was discharged from the hospital. She had a stroke, pretty much packing up her stuff to go out the door, which I saw no reason for an autopsy, but this was several years ago. This was 30 years ago. I don’t know what they do now.
Kh. Frederica: But they tried to pressure you.
Mat. Elizabeth: They really laid a guilt trip on me, and they did “suggest” that maybe I was hiding something.
Dn. Mark: I don’t know that there’s a quote, but my understanding is the hospital she’s talking about was a teaching hospital, and university hospitals and teaching hospitals, of course, they have reason to need to train people to do autopsies, and they might have an incentive to try and do more autopsies than you would want them to do. But autopsies, unless required by law, are absolutely unorthodox. We don’t do that unless it’s required by law.
And I’ve spoken with our local coroner, and I would encourage anyone who’s interested to do their homework and to talk with everyone around, and our local coroner is very understanding and very cooperative with all religious traditions, and gave me tons of good information on what to do if someone dies of an accidental death, what happens if someone dies at home. And, of course, I was talking with her then about, well, we have three parents living with us. What happens when one of them passes away? What do we do to keep it legal? And she gave me, step by step, exactly what we needed to do. So if you have any question about the legalities, just go and ask, and at least ours are very helpful here.
Kh. Frederica: It sounds daunting at first, but as you say, ordinary people can do it. You don’t have to have a medical degree to do this. Anybody can learn to do it.
Dn. Mark: We’ve been doing it ever since people have been around. And also, the medical university morgue director here, I’ve learned so much from him, because we have prepared numerous bodies. I can count them right now; I’d say five or six at least. We’ve prepared in the morgue for people who died in the hospital. We’ve even prepared bodies of people whom we’d never seen before. There was a Romanian Orthodox fellow who died, and they called the local priest, and we came and we prepared his body and buried him. That’s happened a few times.
There’s a fellow right now who was an Episcopalian who’s dying of a long, drawn-out illness, and he’s an artist and knew he didn’t want to be embalmed, but it really threw [his wife] for a loop. She didn’t know what to do, so fortunately one of her friends had our book and said, “Hey, you need to read this.” So we’ve consulted with her, and we’ve offered to help her when the time comes.
Kh. Frederica: We want to promote your book, obviously. I’m crazy about the book. The title is A Christian Ending: Handbook for Ancient Christian Burial. Is that right? And the authors are Dn. Mark and Mat. Elizabeth Barna. You’ve also got a website? What’s the address?
Dn. Mark: AChristianEnding.com.
Kh. Frederica: AChristianEnding.com. The book was published by St. John the Wonderworker—is that the name of the monastery?
Dn. Mark: It’s Divine Ascent Press.
Kh. Frederica: Divine Ascent Press.
Dn. Mark: Yes, from St. John the Wonderworker of San Francisco Monastery.
Kh. Frederica: In Manton. And I think there are many people who read it, but they say, “What can I do? I can’t imagine myself doing this.” In some churches, they’re setting up circles, though. There’ll be a men’s team and a women’s team, and they get trained and they gradually feel they’re capable of doing this. So that’s something you would recommend, I guess.
Mat. Elizabeth: We have gone and spoken to churches and are willing to do that for groups, and just kind of give a background and set up and maintain. We’re always available, by internet or phone, with questions.
Kh. Frederica: So people can go to your website. I was going to ask, before we sign off, about a tradition that somebody told me about when I was newly Orthodox, but I never heard of again, that on Holy and Great Friday in the Vespers service, we take the body, the corpus of Christ, down from the cross, and wrap it in a new sheet. And somebody told me the tradition is that the first person in that church to die in that year is wrapped in that sheet.
Dn. Mark: I’d never heard that.
Mat. Elizabeth: That’s wonderful.
Kh. Frederica: Isn’t that a nice [tradition]. Well, anyway, maybe we can get that tradition going again. Anything else you’d want to add about this?
Dn. Mark: Well, I would like to say that every conversation that we have with people about this topic, there are, I won’t say infinite, but there are many, many variations on how this can happen. It doesn’t have to be all done by the church. We, as Elizabeth alluded to, very often deal with funeral homes, and, depending on how much, whatever the person wants, how much they want us to do, how much they want the funeral home to do, it’s certainly within the possibilities of any church to do a complete funeral, from the moment of death through filling in the grave, and we’ve done it several times.
But there are all kinds of ways to include a funeral home in that, and the main thing, I think, to remember is: the funeral directors, commercial funeral directors, work for you. You’re the consumer. They will do what you tell them to do. You need to tell them what services you want, and what ones you don’t want, and how you want it to happen. And generally they’re very cooperative, once they understand you know what you’re talking about, that you know the law. And they’re not going to lie to you or pull anything over on you. tThey become very cooperative, and they’re happy to do whatever you need. So it really can happen any way you want it to happen.
Kh. Frederica: That’s good. That’s good to know. In a way, it’s a lot like natural childbirth, I guess. It’s just [that] if you get on the conveyor belt, the doctors and nurses will treat you like everybody else, but if you’re informed about the process of birth and how the body naturally works, and you can negotiate, kind of, up and down, how much do you want it to be a hospital experience, how much to make it your own unique experience.
Dn. Mark: Actually, I feel that we have less control over childbirth than we do over death. That baby’s going to come when the baby’s going to come. It could be in the back seat of a car, but when someone dies we have a whole lot of control over how they are treated, how their remains are treated. We even have forms in the book where you can fill out everything that you want to happen when you die, to tell everyone, “This is what I want.” That’s very important. We’ve had several people here in our parish who have told us as converts that… One fellow put it this way; he said, “Dn. Mark, I know for sure, for a fact, that if I die tomorrow, my family will not allow me to be buried in an Orthodox manner, so where is this form you’re talking about? Let me fill it out.” Because once he fills it out, they pretty much have to. It becomes part of his last will and testament.
Kh. Frederica: File a copy with your priest and with your lawyer if you’ve got one.
Dn. Mark: Absolutely, I recommend that. Give a copy to each of your family members who don’t want you to be buried that way, and keep one on file with the priest. I’d like to see the priest’s office keep everyone’s final information on file. Not the private stuff, not the will and all that; that doesn’t need to be there.
Kh. Frederica: But the part that the church does, they should be informed about that. I guess as also with childbirth, sometimes the motivator is knowing what the alternative is. We haven’t spoken in detail, and the alternative is rather appalling; you don’t want to speak in detail. But do a little research online: what does an autopsy actually do? What is the process of embalming like? It’s not as dainty as you might imagine.
Dn. Mark: We purposely did not get into that in the book, because it’s not. It’s not pretty at all.
Kh. Frederica: It’s quite a violation of the body.
Dn. Mark: It’s very much a violation of the body that we just can’t tolerate and shouldn’t tolerate, as is cremation. We don’t tolerate cremation, either, so this is really the right way to do it, and the thing we’re left with. Another question that I get quite a bit is: “Well, how long can you keep a body?” In refrigeration in the morgue or at the funeral home, it can be kept indefinitely, literally; they can be kept indefinitely.
Kh. Frederica: Do they do that? I was wondering. Like in Alaska, the ground is too hard to bury someone until spring or summer. Do they have a house that they keep them in?
Dn. Mark: I haven’t been there yet. I’ve heard that, but once the body is prepared and in the coffin, three days is routine, actually, can be, because we want to get the people in the ground as soon as possible. From what I’ve learned from doing this numerous times, that’s really for the family. I remember when my father-in-law died, we were held up a couple of days from actually burying him.
Kh. Frederica: To get the family all in town.
Dn. Mark: It just kept going through my mind, “Frank’s in that refrigerator down there. Frank’s in that refrigerator down there.” And I could not get that out of my mind. It’s not my father, but my father-in-law. It really concerned me. But there’s something about when the last shovelful of dirt is on the grave, it’s over, and now you can begin to heal. You’ve done your mourning, and now you can heal. And if you don’t do that, it just drags it out and becomes interminable for some people, I think for anyone who has a loved one who’s died. But once the body’s in the coffin, three days is not at all unusual or difficult, and with Archbishop Dmitri, he lay in the cathedral for five days on dry ice.
Kh. Frederica: This is astounding. It was 105 degrees.
Dn. Mark: 113.
Kh. Frederica: 113!? That was just heroic, I think, and a blessing, that the Lord blessed him to be able to have that lengthy amount of time for people to get to Dallas and to pray before his body. I remember you said—I don’t know if these photos are still online, the whole photostream there—you wrapped up the dry ice in your diaconal vestments and left it lying right inside the coffin on his abdomen, and that was all it took.
Dn. Mark: Yes. We usually put a couple of pounds of dry ice in the coffin, and then lay the body on top of it, but of course, that is gone within eight or ten hours, and from that point on, we just put dry ice to the sides and on top of the abdomen, and remove it for service. And that’s what we did with Archbishop Dmitri. During the services, he was [lying] there just as naturally as could be. When the services concluded, I put the dry ice back on, and then just to keep it presentable. It’s become my custom, with people here in our church, that I just lay my vestments over top for insulation and to keep it presentable even when there’s no one here. It’s just me. I like to have things looking right all the time.
Kh. Frederica: All right. Anything else you wanted to add?
Mat. Elizabeth: One thing I wanted to mention is that every family that we’ve dealt with that has helped from the beginning to the end, say, somebody preparing their parents for a natural burial, that have been involved from the anointing of the body on, has just said what a powerful experience it was. I mean, everybody is a little nervous going in because their parents are dead and they’re going to be preparing their bodies, but after it’s over, they’re like: “Thank you so much. That was just such a wonderful experience, and it was beautiful.”
Kh. Frederica: It gives you a way to process it and forces you to go slow. You don’t drive to the funeral home, drive away. But it takes you through, step by step, as you do.
Mat. Elizabeth: Our kids helped with their grandparents.
Dn. Mark: We’ve had people assist whom we really would not have thought really wanted to do this, and then they’ve come away, just couldn’t thank us enough for that opportunity. What I always do when we have new people who do want to help is I always take a moment before we go upstairs at the funeral home, or before we go into the morgue, because most people have never been into a morge.
Mat. Elizabeth: Or into the bedroom, like at Bobby’s.
Dn. Mark: Or into the bedroom, if they’ve died at home and they want to do it at home, which we definitely recommend. I always tell them, “This is what we’re going to do. We’re going to prepare him or her to meet the King. Think about what you would do if you were called to meet the King. You’d wash your hair, you’d wash your body, you’d get all clean. We’re going to do a manicure; we’ll do a pedicure.” If a man needs to be shaved, we’ll shave him; we’ll wash the hair. We don’t use any cosmetics or anything like that, but we’ll wash the hair and comb it, dry it, and we trim all the nose hairs. We do everything just as you would if you’re going to meet the King. And then we’ll finally clothe them, traditionally in a baptismal garment, a white baptismal garment with no pockets—can’t take anything with you—and that’s it. That’s the way we think about it. We’re preparing our brother or sister to meet the King.
Kh. Frederica: That’s wonderful. And now is the time to think this through. Order your coffin, order your natural-wood coffin. Think about your winding sheet and what your details would be like, and get it all written out and on file in the priest’s office. And your book will be a help in thinking all this through, because if you’re not prepared, I’m sure it’ll just hit you like a ton of bricks and you can’t think straight. The title again is A Christian Ending: A Handbook for Ancient Christian Burial, and the authors are Dn. Mark and Mat. Elizabeth Barna, and you can find it online: http://www.achristianending.com. Thanks so much.
Dn. Mark: Thank you.