My uncle Frank died last week. And yesterday we buried Maria, a sister of the Rosens and a cousin of the Burjas. And, as Father Deacon Lawrence mentioned last week, Rick, the Deacon and Doctor and Carpenter who was making some new tables for our holy place, also died recently. Death is all around us, occurs regularly and inconveniently, and comes for us all. We know not when.
In a Byzantine funeral, we read several Gospels. There may be a gospel read at the home (or, these days, at the funeral home) just before the body is taken to the Church. Actually, I am told that in the old village churches, the custom was to walk and to carry the body in procession from the home to the church and to stop three times on the way and each time to read a gospel. When the body arrives in the narthex of the church, there in the narthex, before we carry the body into the nave, we read a gospel. Then, after we sing the Beatitudes, there are readings, including a gospel. Then, when the funeral in the church is ended, we recess back to the narthex and there, before the body is taken from the church, we read a gospel. Then, at the graveside, before the interment itself, we may read a gospel.
By my count, that makes up to seven gospel readings over the body of a departed Byzantine Catholic. Perhaps this is the reason that our funeral books provide seven gospel readings to choose from. I do not know. Now, you may say that you have been to a Byzantine funeral and you do not recall hearing so many gospel readings. True. Many of these readings are listed as optional and we do not always choose to read them. And because of the realities of modern life, we now seldom-to-never walk in procession from the home of the departed person to the church with their body and so the opportunity to read gospels during this procession is lost. Nonetheless, if you have been to a Byzantine funeral, I expect you have heard at least three gospels read over the body of the departed. Why so much Gospel reading to the dead? Can the dead hear the gospel? And, make no mistake, these proclamations of the Gospel are addressed to the person in the casket or the coffin every bit as much as they are addressed to those who have come to mourn and pray.
The departed one is a participant in the funeral. They are with us in the church not only in spirit but also in body one last time. The funeral is the last service they attend in the body until their Resurrection. This is one reason why we do not encourage cremation and, even if the body is to be cremated for unavoidable reasons, that we would have the funeral in the church with the body before the cremation.
With regards to the cremation question, please do not mistake me. This can be misunderstood in superstitious ways. So let me tell you something clearly. When God says to ashes, “Become a living man,” they do. It wouldn’t be the first time, remember, that God made a man out of dust. He can do that sort of thing.
When the dead are reduced to dry bones, the Lord knows that even then they can live. The Lord told Ezekiel to prophesy to dry bones in the valley and say, “O dry bones, hear the word of the Lord… Behold, I will cause breath to enter you and you shall live. And I will lay sinews upon you, and cause flesh to come upon you and cover you with skin and put breath in you and you shall live; and you shall know that I am the Lord.” And when Ezekiel had thus prophesied, “there was a noise, and behold, a rattling; and the bones came together, bone to its bone. And… there were sinews on them, and flesh had come upon them, and skin had covered them… and the breath came into them, and they lived, and stood upon their feet, an exceedingly great host.” (Ez. 37:1-14) We read this from Ezekiel at Jerusalem Matins, which is the funeral of Christ and my favorite service of Holy Week.
The word of God is mighty over all creation. Even dry bones hear the word of God and stand up. And there is no question or fear that the cremated will not rise. They will rise as surely as any will rise. They will rise first before the living to meet the Lord in the air (1 Thess 4:16-17). So please do not mistake what I have been saying. Rather it is a question of sensibility and symbol. A symbol by the way is a presentation of reality and not merely a signpost. If we really believe that this person will arise as surely as did the son of the Widow of Nain in today’s gospel, and we really understand and meditate upon that for a long time, I don’t think our instinct will be to burn their body until it is reduced to ashes. It just doesn’t make a whole lot of sense from a resurrection perspective to do that to a body. It’s not going to stop the hand of God from raising them. We have no fear. And if you have cremated your loved ones, you have done no evil. Sometimes there is no other way and the Church understandingly permits this. It’s only that burial is a better way, as the Church has always recommended.
And it is better for the departed one to attend their own funeral in the body.
If you read carefully the prayers of the funeral, you will notice that many of them are written in the first-person singular. Not “we” but “I.” For example, we pray, “I am the image of your ineffable glory even though I bear the scars of my transgressions…. Grant me the homeland for which I yearn, and again make me a citizen of paradise.” Not all, but many of the prayers of our funeral are written this way. These are the prayers of the departed person lying among us, to which we give voice because they have lost the power to sing in the church. So we sing for them. We give voice to their prayer for them.
What’s the use of all of this? Do the dead hear the gospel? Can the dead pray to the Lord? Will the shades stand and praise you? (Ps. 88:10). Yes! And again I say yes. That is indeed the whole point.
We are not innovating when we proclaim the gospel to the dead. Rather, we are imitating Jesus Christ who proclaims the gospel to the dead. Today, he proclaims the gospel to the departed son of the Widow of Nain. He says to that young man, “Young man, I tell you, arise!” And the dead man sits up and begins to speak. That’s the gospel. That’s the good news. That, though you will die, Jesus will say to you, “Arise!” And you will sit up and begin to speak. That’s the gospel. That is what we’re praying for the person who lies among us at every funeral.
By the way, Jesus said this to the young man as he was being carried out in procession. And this is the gospel that we read as the body is being carried out of the church in procession at the end of the funeral. It is, for me, one of the most poignant moments of the funeral when I proclaim to the person as we are carrying them out, “Arise!” For I know that I am proclaiming, in that moment, the gospel. And the words coming out of my mouth are not my words but the words of Jesus Christ. And they will be obeyed. That person will arise. So, yes, we proclaim the gospel to the dead. The gospel is for them and the gospel is that death will have no dominion over them.
We often hear the expression, “I hope I live to see it.” And I think we know what we mean by that. I used to have some friends who would say, “I hope I live to see the Cubs win the World Series.” I grew up not too far from Chicago, you see. Well, as you may know, people don’t say that anymore. They might say “I hope I live to see the Cubs win the World Series again,” but that’s a whole other issue. Just the other day, Judy said to me that she hopes she lives to see the reunion of the Orthodox and Catholic Church. Amen. But I responded then, because I’m kind of a smart aleck, “You will! Because you will live forever.” That is the whole point. Death for us is no longer death. Death for us is, as Paul intimates, a sleep from which we will awaken (e.g. 1 Thess 4:13-16).