A Secular Death

Almost no event shatters the confidence of the secular world like death.
Regardless of a person’s achievements, fame or wealth, death not only destroys but threatens to mock. Many older funeral customs evolved in a relatively non-secular context. It is not surprising that funerals in the secular world are changing quickly: their content speaks volumes about the nature of secularized religion.

A 2009 article states:

Nearly 50 years ago, only 5 percent of the funerals in North America involved cremation. That percentage increased to 20 percent 30 years later, and in the past 15 years that percentage is pushing past 40 percent, which amounts to about 1.5 million cremations by next year.

I have served as a pastor in the American Southeast since 1980. Over the past 32 years I have seen a vast change in popular thought about funerals. Orthodox tradition and practice is quickly being viewed as too expensive, too focused on religion, and too concerned with the body.

Contemporary funerals (frequently termed a “celebration of life”) often have no “body” present. As memorials, the emphasis is on remembering the past – and in the most positive manner. Some celebrations have the feel of a “production,” complete with large projection screen and digitally produced music. Most funeral homes are glad to provide the production work.

In contrast, an Orthodox funeral concentrates on a different memorial. It is God’s eternal memory of those who have fallen asleep that is asked. Our own memory is weak, and biased, itself destined to fade within less than a life-time.

I have often been told that a funeral is “for those who grieve.” This is a deeply secular understanding of death. Secularism thinks that those who have died have need of nothing – they are gone as if they never were. Those who remain have the burden of guilt and grief – it is their needs that should be our present concern.

Death challenges the secular world at its weakest point. Secular life is essentially meaningless. There is an old phrase which describes those who fear something so much that they seek to ignore its presence as “whistling past the graveyard.” It is even easier to whistle past the graveyard if you never go near one.

Iron and Wine (2004) offered the world perhaps the first love song about cremation:

She says “If I leave before you, darling
Don’t you waste me in the ground”
I lay smiling like our sleeping children
One of us will die inside these arms
Eyes wide open, naked as we came
One will spread our ashes round the yard

The song has the honesty of recognizing that death at least yields something tangible.

The inherent meaninglessness of an existence that has no transcendence – nothing beyond itself – offers the modern world great temptation. If we will have no God, then we will invent lesser gods and serve them instead. Radical environmentalism has become a growing substitute for God. Some lessen their “carbon footprint” by extreme measures – limiting family size by any means possible. Of course, the ultimate lessening of our footprint is to remove ourselves from the planet – to what purpose? Indeed, what purpose the planet itself? Who would laud such noble sacrifice?

The transcendence of a two-storey world – one in which this world only has meaning because of the “next” world – is equally flawed. The world in which we live is not only transcended – it is positively devalued (except in those accounts in which eternity itself is determined within the short span of life on earth). In traditional Western Christianity, this two-storey account of life and death predominates. The world in which we live has no connection to the world in which God dwells, apart from moral concerns. There is no sacramental union, only the token appearances that appear magically in churches from time to time.

In the traditional theology of the Eastern Church, this world and the “next,” are not two worlds. We use the language of place (heaven and earth) for lack of language not for accuracy. There is more to the created order than we see (“all things visible and invisible”). But that which is not seen is not inherently separate from that which is. Sacrament (mystery in the East) is a way of describing the relationship between what is seen and what is unseen. Everything is sacrament, icon and symbol.

In such a setting, death is a change, but not an end. That which we see, the body, remains important and worthy of honor. A funeral, the service of remembrance, is a sacramental gathering in the presence of God. The body is honored, even venerated. The life of remembrance, eternal remembrance, begins.

My wife and I have a fifth child, one who died in the 5th month of his gestation. I held him at the time of his still birth. We mourned his loss, and gave him a name. We entrusted his life to the good God who gave him to us. The only relationship I have had with him has been one of remembrance. Each day in my prayers he is remembered along with my grandparents, my parents and in-laws who have gone before. They are not a part of my past, but a part of my present, particularly when I am awake and stand before God, seeing the world as it truly is.

The fiction of sentimentality and the emptiness of secular mourning quickly fade before the great presence of God. The proclamation of Christ’s resurrection is no pious notion about the world to come. It is the triumph here and now over death – the presence of Life pressing in on us – lifting up the world into the fullness of its meaning – gathering together all things in one.

Memory eternal!

54 Responses to “A Secular Death”

  1. Bill M Says:

    I’m near-astonished at the timeliness of this post. Today at noon my uncle was “laid to rest” with his family gathered around. Methodists, Presbyterians, Episcopalians, Mennonites, and who-knows-what, warbled their way through “He Walks With Me” and “The Old Rugged Cross”. My newly-minted Baptist minister cousin read the story of the Raising of Lazarus, and told us all that Uncle Bob would tell us, if he could, to have a personal relationship with Jesus. Another uncle told me, breaking down, as the box was lowered into the hole, “I hate this part. It just seems so final.”

    So here at the end of my day, I check your blog and find this word. Some of what you describe I saw first-hand today. I wonder if there was anything deeper, more Real happening too. But my eyes are dry, and I don’t see very well.

  2. PJ Says:

    It seems an unfair generalization to say that all secular people have some cheap, sentimental, and gimmicky relationship with death and the dead. There are some people — my mother comes to mind — with a profound understanding of the wonder of life and the mystery of death . . . nonetheless, despite their feel for the “numinous,” they cannot bring themselves to believe in God.

  3. Firemaker Says:

    This entry is especially smart and wonderful in my opinion. Thank you.

  4. Orthodox Collective Says:

    […] and to make peace."- Saint Theophan the Recluse, Letter to a Young Girl ☆ ☆ ☆ 10) A Secular Deathhttps://fatherstephen.wordpress.com/2012/05/18/a-secular-death/By fatherstephen on Friday, May 18th […]

  5. Margaret Says:

    Thank you, Fr. Stephen! This is a subject that needs to be written about and pondered. I appreciate the comments posted so far and I look forward to reading comments by others and more by you!

  6. fatherstephen Says:

    PJ,
    I don’t think I said “all secular people have some cheap, sentimental, and gimmicky relationship with death and the dead.” I wrote about secularism. It creates great difficulties for everyone who lives within its culture, Christians included. We are very confused about death, very divided within ourselves. Your mother is blessed to know the “wonder of life.” Wonder is the beginning of understanding. She may be much further down the road than many Christians who refuse to wonder.

  7. handmaid leah Says:

    Wonderful post Father Stephen, 17 May was the third anniversary of my Daddy’s repose. He was cremated, I think mostly because of the expense. The annual private Panikhida that my spiritual father does for my husband and I is an incredible comfort. It gives me a way to pray for my Dad that makes sense to my heart. Something his funeral didn’t.

  8. fatherstephen Says:

    Leah,
    The prayers of the Church are like breathing to me when it comes to the departed. There are so many…

  9. Taras Tikhomirov Says:

    Coming from a country swept by an open atheism at one time I see the fundamental difference in the attitude towards funerals. If there is no belief in the Resurrection and the fact that a human being is a psychosomatic organism, where the immortal soul has ownership of the body for eternity, there is no real respect towards body after death. There is a certain respect, “remembrance” of the person’s achievements. But, the body is “finished” and has no value. This is what the secular mindset dictates. We, Orthodox Christians, respect the body of a person as still belonging to an immortal soul, and as a temple of the Lord. Just like one of the prayers to St. Sergius of Radonezh says: he “left us his body overflowing with the Grace of God”. Note, that we are speaking of a dead body. Yet, it is until this day overflowing with the true Grace of the Living God.

  10. John Says:

    I am sorry about the loss of your child.

  11. fatherstephen Says:

    Thank you, John. It is hard to believe that he would be nearly 18 now.

  12. Petru Says:

    Father, this post is awesome, thank you! Since this is my first comment here I shall say that I’m 16 1/2 years old and I live in Romania. I would like to confess some sort of a fear of mine. If possible, please answer my question or send me to further research this issue. I spend fairly long periods of time praying for my loved ones, family and friends. I’m happy that I live in Romania, a country where 80% of people declare themselves Orthodox. Many of my friends, though, have lost any connection with the Church whatsoever, many of them were raised in families where faith is seen as fanaticism and have created their own ideas about God. I’m extremely concerned about their future, that is their future eternal life. In other western countries the situation is worse – the mere idea of God is “deprecated” and people live a completely faithless live. My question is, what will happen to these people? I believe that to some extent it isn’t their fault for the situation they are in. I’m very concerned about this, I have a friend I care very much about, but how is he going to understand the joy of faith when his own parents are divorced?

  13. dinoship Says:

    Petru,
    God has unlimited ways to save people that seem “un-saveable”, while human perception is extremely limited, as well as deluded and influenced by the enemy. Someone, for instance, who lived as an atheist, a satanist, a heroin addict, or an unrepentant sinner might even be saved at the end of his life -like the thief on the cross (Saint Dismas)- he might become God-centred instead of self-centred in his death bed when humbled by months of cancer, for example. This is something that we might not enjoy the satisfaction of witnessing for the entire time we have lived next to that person…

    A very common advise to novices (as you said you are 16 and 1/2 years old) in mount Athos who undergo this pain for others’ possible salvation is to also see it as being a bit of a self-driven distraction (rather than the God inspired urge of someone like Saint Silouan who prayed for the whole world with great tears).
    Elder Porphyrios’ advise to continue saying the Jesus prayer as it is i.e.: “Lord Jesus Christ have mercy on me” (rather than “us” or “have mercy on them”) knowing that “me” contains all of us can eventually, be very very helpful.
    You do everything you can do for them this way, without forgetting (something the enemy would like you to do…) that God loves them more than we ever could and will do, in good time, everything possible to save them, without us necessarily witnessing this…
    His ways are not like our ways, and he wants that all will be saved, respecting everyone’s freedom.

    may God be with you.

  14. Steve Says:

    In my experience quite a number of people have been drawn to the Orthodox Church by attending Orthodox funerals. On one occasion a funeral was followed at the following Pascha by 13 baptisms.

  15. dinoship Says:

    Petru,
    your friend for instance, can understand the joy of Faith through your example and see the lack of it through his parents’ example.
    One of my favourite quotes:
    “A Christian who is not overflowing with unshakeable Joy in all situations is a defamer of God” (Elder Aimilianos of Simonopetra)

  16. Petru Says:

    Thank you dinoship!

  17. dinoship Says:

    Petru,
    Another favourite and very relevant quote from Father Stephen himself (quoting Scripture) is: “with a secret hand the Lord fights Amalek”.
    When granted that ‘vision’ of His secret providence for all, one’s trust for the salvation of others takes on a completely different flavour:

    “I need to move closer to unity with Him, while all others belong to Him and are to be found in Him” – (the 2nd commandment ‘fuelled’ by the 1st commandment).

    may that vision become yours!

  18. Henry Says:

    I know this is not central to the thrust of your argument but it is important enough to merit some comment. Very recently we buried my mother in law at a cost in excess of $18,000. This included a visitation at the funeral home and a grave side funeral service. This did not include the price of the gravesite, since she was buried in her family plot. It also did not include the cost of a gravestone. Not yet having any facts, I would guess a stone similar to her husband’s will run in the $5,000-$10,000 range.

    We are blessed. Our family was well able to honor my mother in law’s final desires for a very traditional, very Christian, American funeral. Her minister preached an excellent, though provoking sermon. The singer, an operatic baritone, performed two of her favorite hymns with skill and emotion. From the time her body was removed from the hospital until it was lowered into her grave, the details of this process was handled with utmost professionalism by all involved.

    But the question needs to be asked. How many American families can or should spend that kind of money on a funeral? In cities like Detroit, the local government has a serious problem storing bodies of the indigent until such time as the budget allows for their burial. Personally, I told my wife, “Don’t you dare spend that kind of money on my funeral!” Cremation at the same funeral home that handled the arrangements for my mother in law cost $3,500, not cheap, but certainly more affordable than a traditional American funeral. Somehow I suspect there is a better use for the approximately $20,000 that I hope will not be spent on placing my remains in the ground.

  19. fatherstephen Says:

    Henry,
    Your point is quite germane. I know you’ll understand this – that the price of funerals to a great extent is driven by the fact that there is an “outside payer,” – insurance (at death) – or the estate. Families can thus consider funerals at a cost they would never consider otherwise. This doesn’t mean that they have chosen anything extravagant – but that the “market” has discovered the ability to charge extravagant prices.

    I counseled with a younger priest yesterday who was meeting with a family to make funeral plans (there was as yet no death – but a prudent planning for one that is eminent). The question – what is required from an Orthodox perspective. There are things that are desirable from an Orthodox perspective – the body at the Church, the services, etc. I pointed out to him that every transport of the body to a new location for an event will likely add another $5,000 or more to the cost of the funeral.

    The Orthodox “requirements” are respect for the body (we do not cremate), and the prayers of the Church. I have done simple graveside services, with a small choir on occasion. The services of the priest and the choir cost nothing. All of the cost was (and is) from a funeral home.

    Interestingly, my citing of the growth of cremations…many people choose this simply because it is less expensive. But, oddly, as the popularity of cremation has increased in the US, so has the price. Strangely, in other areas of the “market,” increased popularity would often drive the price down. But as the demand has increased, so have the facilities for it, and so has the profit. The industry remains profitable.

    There are alternatives. Knowledge of local laws are required. But family and friends are able to do more than they realize and funeral expenses can be much lower. But this requires a willingness by the family and community (probably the church) to take the time and effort. Wooden caskets are not unknown among American Orthodox, and there are places that make them. My Archbishop was buried last year in such a manner. One of my Sons in law (a priest) has a wooden casket in his office, that I think current is used as book shelves.🙂

    Cost will drive many things – but like medical costs – we all have to be buried, and the industry has a strong hold on burials. Of a time, there were burial societies in which the poor paid money along and along to insure they could be buried properly. Such things will likely arise again, except for the fact that we are so individualized. But since it is a necessity (we must be buried or something like it) it will not go away. We’ll like invent ways to find the money rather than ways to not be buried (as noted, even cremation now costs thousands). Your mother-in-law’s wishes were (to you) worth what you paid.

    Writing on this topic has been a small way to help people think about the topic – one that we avoid – and to think about it in the context of our religious faith (or at least from an Orthodox perspective). Blessings this good morning!

  20. Michael Bauman Says:

    There are always alternatives. An indigent friend of mine recently died. My wife and I paid for the funeral. He was not Orthodox so we had him cremated at cremation service in a Mennonite town close by. The cost was $500.

    There are funeral societies in every state that can help plus many locations have funeral activists who will work with families who want to take care of their own dead (including back yard burial depending on the state).

    Correct me if I am wrong Father, but the Orthodox preference is not to embalm. While this can be difficult in some jurisdictions to avoid, many places it can be if the is a plan in place prior to death. Almost all state provide for less expensive alternatives to the commercialized “American way of death”

    While the cost can certainly be a driving force, many of those whom I have encountered cite the cost, but there is an underlying attitude of indifference to both the body of the dead and what comes after.

    My parish is beginning a Funeral Guild. I have no idea what the plans are, but it seems like a good idea to develop resources, both practical (including money) and spiritual as a form of care for our people and a witness to the Truth.

    A close friend of mine died a few years ago. An associate of his (quite deaf) who had never attended an Orthodox Church said quite loudly as we were coming out of the Narthex: “I couldn’t hear a lot of what they said, but they really DO something”

  21. Henry Says:

    If the clergyman or somone on his staff would take the lead for families dealing with death, it would be a very great service. Believe me, the bereaved are in no condition to do comparison shopping, research funeral regulations in a jurisdiction over 600 miles from their home, or negotiate hard bargins with a funeral director as though he was a used car salesman. I think this might be an opportunity for the church to be the church.

  22. Michael Bauman Says:

    Henry, I agree wholeheartedly. This gives me some extra impetus to get involved at my parish.

  23. Karen Says:

    In the interests of supporting a more distinctively Orthodox Christian approach to end of life, there was an Ancient Faith Radio podcast I listened to not long ago with a couple who are the authors of a book recently published as a resource for planning Orthodox funerals (also helpful for non-Orthodox Christians and others). Here is a link to their website:

    http://www.achristianending.com/about-us/

  24. fatherstephen Says:

    i just noticed that in the photo, “atheist” is misspelled. English!

  25. fatherstephen Says:

    Karen,
    I haven’t yet read the book, but I know of it. I am cautious myself about being too “Orthodox” in death and dying issues – treating as important the prayers of the Church and the minimum of what the Church requires. Embalming, for instance, is not forbidden, and should not therefore be a battleground in pastoral situations (just to use an example).

    We should teach people the heart of Orthodox concerns with the dead and those things that cannot be done (ashes brought into the temple, etc.) and encourage a good Orthodox view of death and dying. The more “sectarian” we become about issues that might be preferable, but not necessary, can easily result in people (especially converts) straining at gnats and swallowing camels in a very difficult pastoral time. I’ve seen this in more than one situation and have my thoughts on this based on some years of pastoral experience.

    The book does a great job of helping people to think about the topic. There still needs to be, it seems to me, a good general publication for Orthodox priests on funerals – customs, requirements, non-requirements, etc. Here in the South the vast majority of priests are converts – some of whom have had no previous parish or pastoral experience. It’s very hard to do your “first funeral” as a priest with only the existing information – most of which is just the services themselves.

    Some of the most detailed information out there on many topics is published by Old-Calendarist groups (not the Russians) and tends to be maximalist about almost everything – making for very confusing directions for those who are new to Orthodoxy – or that’s my experience of things. Of course, I’m an OCA priest on the New Calendar and thus qualify as a “revisionist” for some.🙂

  26. Michael Bauman Says:

    Father the reason that I brought up embalming is it can be a big part of the expense and if it is possible to do without it (the timeliness of the burial is the major concern) then it might help folks reduce the cost and maybe avoid cremation solely out of a cost crunch.

  27. markbasil Says:

    Christ is risen!

    Hello Fr Stephen. I hope you can here answer for me something I’ve been confused about for some time.
    When we have too many ‘icon prints’, or a cross gets warn down, or even (i have read) if some of the Eucharist were to spill on someone’s clothing, the proper thing to do with these holy items is to burn them.

    What, then, is inherently irreverent about burning our bodies?
    I understand the value of ‘dust to dust’ imagery- placing a body into the earth from which it came.
    I realize that current cremation praxis is inherently disrespectful and irreverent (bones are ground up, etc.).
    I dont understand why it is not theoretically possible to cremate in a reverent way, and then place the ashes in the grave? I guess this is disrespectful toward the ‘form’ of the body, but it is certainly “ashes to ashes”?

    I am curious because I wonder how much of this is rooted in our culturally shaped intuitions, and is really just custom?
    A friend of mine told me about an Orthodox Christian who was burning some old icons and ‘kitschy’ crosses, etc. His (Protestant) Christian housemate saw this and was appalled- for her it was deeply disrespectful and irreverent to burn crosses. The Orthodox person tried explaining this as a fitting disposal for holy things, but the Protestant was still disturbed and even suggested just burying the crosses!
    It puts the point of my own ‘puzzling’ home I think.

    Thanks for any help;
    -Mark Basil

  28. fatherstephen Says:

    Mark Basil,
    In Japan, where cremation is the cultural tradition, and where land is too valuable for graves, cremation is the norm, even for the Orthodox. It has been discussed in some Orthodox lands (such as Greece, but refused).

    Originally, the burial of the body followed Jewish custom, whereas Pagans burned (some of them). It seemed disrespectful of the body. There is no inherent reason that requires burial rather than cremation (or else Japanese Orthodox would do otherwise). But tradition teaches burial of the body with respect for the resurrection of the dead. To cremate because we think little of the body is considered a sin. The issue will likely not go away, and will, in the economy of the years to come, possibly adapt. Who can tell? But at present, the Church clearly teaches that cremation is to be discouraged. In some cases no service can be said in the Church when the body is cremated – though economia is often extended.

  29. markbasil Says:

    That’s helpful, thank you.
    The Jewish practice in contrast with Pagan practice helps explain the intended meaning. Still as you say, Orthodox in Japan have a different meaning and different context.
    A part of my question waits be be answered.

    Love;
    -Mark Basil

  30. DLW Says:

    I listened to the same podcast that Karen mentioned and gave a link for. The people who wrote the book handled Archbishop Dmitri’s funeral (which Father Stephen referred to). Instead of embalming, they use dry ice. It was a very informative podcast.

  31. fatherstephen Says:

    There is so much that can be done if a parish makes a commitment. It will be of increasing importance, I think. Vladyka Dmitri’s services and funeral were an ideal that will live in my heart for a lifetime. I look forward to the completion of the chapel being built, and the transferral of his body to that resting place. May he pray for us!

  32. dinoship Says:

    markbasil,
    your question had never occurred to me before so I cannot provide any (authoritative or other) answer. However, it instantly reminded me of the two practices in the Old Testament…
    Bodies were venerated, buried, relics kept.
    Sacred items that had been “offered” to God had to be burned they could not just be left there. There is a subtle difference between the two kinds of ‘veneration’
    I could be wildly wrong as this is just my own wild guess, but it makes some sense to me that there are two distinct practices that demonstrate the out-most respect in their respective contexts and (wether culturally conditioned or not), swapping them around would somehow seem inappropriate.
    This is no answer I know, sorry, just a thought…

  33. handmaid leah Says:

    Regarding funerals it seems to me that Americans (in general) prefer not to think about death, if they do the impulse is to hire someone else to deal with it.
    Being Orthodox helped me to handle my father’s death, spiritually and practically. I was blessed to be at his bedside when he took his last breath, my mother was there too. She was numb, at this point and could only make the phone calls to hospice and the funeral home.
    On the other hand, I was able to wash his face and hands and comb his hair and dress him to leave the house. Once dressed, I covered him in a blanket, his little terrier Jack jumped up and lay beside him, until the funeral home came for him. This was a very peaceful time that we spent with him, our last time together.
    After they took him, my Mama hugged me and said she would never have thought to do any of what I did. My actions are the result of being Orthodox and seeing and reading about how we handle death and venerate our dead.
    After this what occurred was out of my hands.

    At my grandmother’s funeral I placed a long stemmed rose in her casket as I gave her one last kiss, which freaked out all my cousins. No sooner was I done, my cousin and a funeral director blasted up to me and said that they would remove the rose. The reason? It would decay in the casket. My response is that SHE is supposed to decay as well, so what is the problem? The rose stayed. AS did the wax one that my cousin purchased at an exorbitant price because it would not decay. All of this was quite stunning to me and I still shake my head at the whole thing. American funeral homes are selling preservation (and wax roses) for an incredible profit because people just do not understand the process of death.

    One more thing, sorry for the length. Our priest, Fr Anthony Karbo, makes caskets. Perhaps seminary should teach some woodworking as well? (sarcasm alert)

  34. fatherstephen Says:

    Leah,
    Thank you for this sharing. I worked as a hospice chaplain the first several years of my Orthodox life. My Orthodoxy certainly helped me in what was a “baptism of fire” with regard to death. We averaged three deaths a week. Your caring and loving actions at your fathers death were deeply Orthodox – it begins to transform our instincts. The “last kiss” is interesting. In my Anglican past, the rubrics of the prayerbook actually forbid and open casket in the Church. This in contrast to the open casket and last kiss in a traditional Orthodox service. When I served with hospice, it was in the outback of Appalachia. There, much of the popular culture had failed to effect the folkways of death and burial. It was common to see people file forward at the funeral home, kiss the departed, and place items in the casket (baseball cap, tobacco plug, were among the more interesting items). Their funeral behaviors were fairly instinctual rather than driven by mass-culture. I learned a lot about the human heart.

  35. PJ Says:

    “In my Anglican past, the rubrics of the prayerbook actually forbid and open casket in the Church.”

    Why is this? Does it stem from a Reformation-era attempt to deter “Catholic” behavior like veneration, relics, etc.? Or is it a recent prohibition?

  36. Crossbuck Says:

    R.I.P.
    Here lies an atheist
    I’ve been and I’ve done
    And here I’ve come
    To find my final rest
    Leave me in peace!

  37. PJ Says:

    Our culture is in sad shape when the total obliteration of self is thought to be “peace.” Bishop Sheen was right when, fifty years ago, he warned of a rising storm of nihilism that would sap the human person of all dignity and drive the soul to seek its own dissolution. We can only take comfort that in the face of this bleak and consuming pessimism, the light of the Risen Christ will shine all the brighter, like a lamp flaming in the night.

  38. dinoship Says:

    Indeed, this nihilism you mention, when seen as some sort of ‘nirvana’ is pure madness. Even those poor atheist existentialists who recognised its ultimate futility and therefore committed suicide, were, in a way, more honest than those who “celebrate” (!!!) it nowadays…
    This type of atheism and its ‘philosophy’ are the eventual fruits of a Western world-view that started a very long time ago.

  39. Karen Says:

    Regarding the “A Christian Ending” book, I haven’t read it yet either. The podcast was wonderfully informative, giving insight into the history of the funeral industry as it now stands in this country (e.g., that embalming started because of the necessity during the Civil War), and loads of practical information for various alternatives. According to the authors’ experience and testimony, the information is as likely to be of interest to those outside the Orthodox faith as those within, with a wealth of practical information on how to do a more natural preparation of the body among other things (something my New Age sister-in-law would really appreciate). I found it helpful to know, for instance, that for most states, there is no legal requirement to use a funeral home if you don’t want to. It looks like it might be a good resource for Priests and pastors as well (based on the information in your comment to me above).

  40. markbasil Says:

    Thanks for your helpful comments dinoship, re. ancient jewish use of fire for things consecrated to good (in worship, as sacrifice, etc.).
    Fills in a bit of the picture for me.
    (now bonus points if anyone can explain really *why* exactly Jews had to burn sacrifices, etc…. I really understand this so very little. Obviously they were “offering their best” to God, but why some burnt ‘whole’ others, just the best parts… there’s probably loads of interesting ‘intuition-shaping’ nuggets that could be mined from this, but it’s well beyond my education🙂

    -MB

    (PS PJ, your thoughts re. this inappropriate use of “peace” as a euphemism for nothingness are spot on! I was thinking the same thing when I read that, but with less depth than you provided.)

  41. dinoship Says:

    Most ancient peoples, not just Jews, had a tradition of “Whole Burnt offerings”, i.e.: nothing was left to be eaten, it all was offered to God –
    in its entirety.
    St. Maximus the Confessor in his writings to Thalassius has a very profoundly deep explanation of how all those Jewish sacrifices were “types” and “icons” of Christ’s. As well as that of His Saints’ (sacrifice).
    Their sacrifice is a “whole burnt offering” with nothing left for themselves…
    May their prayers illumine us!

  42. PJ Says:

    Perhaps it is a foreshadowing of purgation. Doesn’t Saint Paul teach us that our whole self — all of our works and words — will be “tested by fire.” And God is a “consuming fire.” Just some thoughts.

  43. matushkaanna Says:

    I’m sorry for the loss of your child, Father. May his memory be eternal!

    A friend just sent me the link to this post. So appropriate as the due date for our seventh child is approaching in a few days. Only he was born at the tiny age of 13 weeks just before Christmas. We held him and mourned him, photographed his perfect little body and laid him to rest next to his brother who also died at 13 weeks just that previous April. Innocent and Andrew are remembered in our daily prayers.

    Finding out my grandmother was to be cremated was almost worse than hearing of her death. I just don’t understand what has happened with this huge emphasis on ‘thrifty’ cremation but giant multi-media productions in the “celebration of life”. We were content to quietly celebrate our sons’ short lives at their gravesides during the burial services, the 40 day memorials and recently the first year memorial of our sixth child. We know they are at the feet of Christ, part of his special battalion.

    I guess I don’t really have anything else to say! Just wanted to let you know I appreciate the post.

  44. fatherstephen Says:

    Matushka,
    Thank you for your kind words. Brant rest eternal and blessed repose, O Lord, to the vast, innocent ranks of the “special battalion,” and make their memory to be eternal!

  45. Jennifer Says:

    I miss my little boy who i lost at 7 months in my womb..sometimes I get confused on how to remember him, or how to go about the process of having lost him, nothing will ever replace him – technically I am Orthodox (baptized as Orthodox) but I never had an orthodox ceremony, his father is protestant and well right now I am in and was from the protestant church. Sometimes I think of having another memorial for him in the Orthodox church where I came from but then sometimes I think what’s the point. Why do we pray for those who sleep? – I like to think my son is almost three in heaven as he would be on earth. Hopefully I can have another child soon (in holy matrimony) – not with the father nor was married … if you have any insight on having memorial service etc let me know. thanks. Maybe my son met your child too already🙂

  46. Jennifer Says:

    I want to know why cremation is bad in the christian faith, my mom wants to be cremated, my grandmother was cremated.. not necessarily christian, however I am.

  47. Jennifer Says:

    I just read a post above. my background is Japanese so my answer was given – re: cremation.

  48. Bruce Says:

    Although an Anglican, I would like to leave a response for Jennifer. I would encourage you to have an Orthodox memorial service for your son if that is possible. My wife was five years old when her seven year old brother died. She was not taken to the funeral service and for many years had a gap or hole in her heart.
    A few years ago she approached our priest and we had a memorial service 45 years after her young brother had died. It was a very meaningful service for my wife and everyone else who was present.

  49. simmmo Says:

    I concur with your critique of secularism Father.

    But isn’t it true that the development of secularist government was to protect us from the hate of religious people – whether it be Islam or fundamentalist Christianity. Like it or not, Western Christianity and Islam have not done well in governance. And, to be honest, I’d prefer our secular government to having a cleric or some fundy in charge. Christians – both Catholic and Protestant – were burning people at the stake, going on witch hunts, forcing people to believe falsehoods (e.g. everything revolves around earth) and so on. This is hate, pure and simple. To be honest, I’d rather critique from within than to blame others for the current situation. We Christians have got to get our own house in order before blaming others for the state of things. In fact, I’d place the problem of secularism almost entirely at the feet of bad religion. And that’s the top and the bottom of it for me.

  50. fatherstephen Says:

    Simmmo,
    By secularism, I do not primarily have in mind a “secular” government, but rather the understanding of the world as existing independent of God. Governments come and go, good and bad and are to be prayed for. You’ll notice in the article that I didn’t mention government once. The point is that Christians live as “secularists,” in which their God is not part of their world in a truly integrated way – and that is where the fault lies entirely. My series of articles on Christianity in a One-Storey Universe is focuses on this (as is my book).

  51. simmmo Says:

    Father, yes I understand… My apologies for the rant.

    I am going to read your book!

  52. cappy1920 Says:

    I don’t know if this will help anyone, but my mother is 98. Because of a recent illness, I decided that I needed help in dealing with her (hopefully down the road) falling asleep. I googled “cheap funerals in Columbus” or something like that, and found a “funeral consultant”, someone who doesn’t work for a funeral home, but who works with all funeral homes in Columbus, Ohio. I already have a plot for my mom in the cemetery of an Orthodox monastery in Pennsylvania, which I purchased long ago. I always thought I’d put mom in my van and drive her there. But the closer it came to having to do this, I realized that when the time came, I wouldn’t be able to do it, even with the help of my family and friends.

    So I talked to this lady, who found a funeral home that would clean the body, not embalm the body, store the body in the freezer until all required permits are available, and would transport the body from Ohio to Pennsylvania, and do all this for under $2500, and this includes the wooden casket.

    When I talk to people at work, most funerals cost around $10,000, so I think I did well.

  53. A Secular Death | THE HOLY MOUNTAIN Says:

    […] Fr. Stephen’s blog, click here to read the article. Share this:FacebookLike this:LikeBe the first to like this post. This entry […]

  54. Drewster2000 Says:

    Cremation vs. Burial

    This issue could become sectarian – and should not. It shouldn’t be something that divides one group from another, similar to some other liturgical practices. Though the EO discourage the practice, grace should be given. As demonstrated by the Japanese situation, it is at least in that case.

    Having said that…the main reason for a funeral is the respect, honoring, and remembrance of the dead. I believe the reason burial is greatly preferred over cremation is that it’s much easier to dismiss/lose/ignore a small urn of ashes than it is a body. People’s conscience have a lot harder time with their actions toward a body than toward a small pile of ashes.

    Cost aside, it’s not true that the person cannot be honored when cremation is involved. But it is easier not to do so, or to not do it well. Thus, to keep ourselves “honest”, it’s best to keep the body intact. We are physical beings; we associate best with the physical.

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