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November 08, 2005


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DP, how do you keep coming up with such great topics? I look at my blog an my brain waves go flat.....(no pun intended)

I just thought of this during the "Halloween Season." In our movies, and in our halloween "celebration," there is more and more a macabre desire to view death and destruction. Ever hear of the "Faces of Death" video?

Yet at the same time, we don't even let children come to their grandparents funeral, as it might "disturb them." We keep the casket closed." Instead of waking our dead in the homes and keeping vigil with them, we have them in nice cheery funeral homes. Instead of loving freinds and family washing the body and preparing, we pay strangers to do so. WE pay them to pump the body full of chemicals, and comment on "how good they look." INstead of buring them at the church, so we are reminded of the unity of the Church militant and triumphant, we burn their body and keep the ashes on the fireplace (in the manner of the pagans, not the Christians)

Even many of us in the Orthodox church have adopted this "death denying" mentality, and departed from the healing practices of our Tradition.

Anyone who wishes to retain within him continually the remembrance of death and God’s judgment, and at the same time yields to material cares and distractions, is like a man who is swimming and wants to clap his hands. St. John Climacus

And BTW if yoru interested, here's some of the traditions asociated with death in the Orthodox church...

A few thoughts-
Some people who visit the casket have already said their "goodbyes" while the person was still alive. I encourage this whenever possible. It seems to make the death process (more about that in a sec) "pass" easier.

Some people who visit the casket may not have actually know the person but are there to show their love and support for one or more of the family members.

With those thoughts in mind, American culture has treated death (as well as just about everything else) as an event rather than a process. Several times I have had the honor of being with people who are in the process of dying. On two occassions, the breathing kept getting slower and slower. At the very end, the breaths were almost a minute apart. Finally after many long seconds one person asked, "Is that it?" I have wondered when it was that the person died. What moment did it occur? Doctors "pronounce" the death only to make it official for documentation. It is sort of like asking when is the "present moment?" Is it now? Or now? How about now?

I recently attended one of the most powerful memorial services. For two hours family members and friends expressed their love and gratitude for the live of man that impacted their lives not by the things that he achieved but by the meaning that he poured into their lives. And the body wasn't even there!

Some psychological studies have indicated that the hardest time for grieving family members (on average) is actually two weeks after the death of the person. I have found that those who grieve openly and share memories with family and friends during the days surrounding a person's death will usually have an easier transition to live without their loved one. It is rarely easy (if it is then there are probably other issues). Sadly, however, I have found that the "church" fails miserably in supporting people once the "event concludes." And you know what? I have often failed miserably because of whatever excuse is convenient. But maybe that is my Wesleyan belief in being totally depraved coming through (written with sarcasm though true).

This is an interesting topic. I have been to many funerals and it never once bothered me to go and look in the casket. As a matter of fact I have kissed most of them when saying goodbye.

When my father passed away suddenly, my brothers and sisters wanted to have an open casket just for me because I hadn't seen my father for almost two years thinking that it would give me closure. I wasn't sure that I could go to the viewing. I really struggled. I felt like if I had seen him in the casket that I would always remember him like that. That was the amazing part it because that was not true at all. I never remembered him laying in the casket on that day, I just thanked the Lord for the years that we had together. By the way, I was just a new Christian when this happened, but God revealed Himself in an amazing way after the funeral.

So, I believe that part of us as human beings is the fear of always remembering them in the casket.

This isolation you talk about, DP, of death from the living is catching on in other parts of the world too. We like to dress death up in consumer packaging and keep it sterile. Like you said, we don't want to be reminded of our immortality. So, I wonder, is it possible to take baby stepst towards having an open casket and even kissing the body good bye?

Is it possible to put a veil over the face of the body? Is it possible to kiss one's hand an place it on the forehead of the dead (instead of kissing directly). I've found it helpful to show people how to do it, be the first to pay my respects and stay close. I've also found it helpful to talk with the relatives about this saying goodby beforehand and suggest that the kids attend, maybe leave a letter or a toy or something meaningful in the casket as a way of saying goodby (and realizing that that life is over for good).

And here I thought I had done good by taking my kids to their step-grandmother's funeral last week, instead of just leaving them home (she was cremated, by the way, so casket-viewing wasn't an option).

You always make me think, DP! It's a good thing... :)

Both my parents were funeral directors, and from when I was 7 until a couple of years before my mother retired, my family lived on the premises of the mortuary. So it has never been "creepy" for me to be around dead bodies, but I have also never been with anyone "at the moment" of death. I am amazed by hospice workers- God bless them.

Lots of good thoughts here. Yes, we Americans have been enculturated to avoid death; I find that the "higher" one goes up the church spectrum (liturgically speaking) the more likely it is that ideas about death and dying are spoken about, to whatever extent. I really wish we Christians could talk about it more, and more deeply, than we do.

And yes, my own teenage children were afraid to see my mom in the casket two years ago, for fear of that being their last memory of her (my dad died before I was married). I went along with this, though we had the option of it being open, because they got to see her so infrequently. However, she looked better after being "pumped full of chemicals" than she did the last few days of her life, and the sight itself wouldn't have been that bad. They were at the funeral, which was actually about two weeks after she died (in another state) and it did help them grieve.

I have many memories of my parents besides them being in the casket, or being ill at the end. The most important and immediate ones are of being in their loving embrace. I am so grateful for that.

So, like a lot of things, it really comes down to "it depends"...


Folks, when we don't do what we need to do in order to properly grieve loss, we find ourselves with a persistent (seemingly ambiguous) low grade depression or anxiety. This is not good for our health, our immune system, or emotional well being.

We will never factor out death. We must weep, cry, lament, wail and do what ouyr bodies were made to do when someone we love is ruipped from us by death.

This whole American fixation with a deathless society is going to (already is) cost us so much.

"I've found it helpful to show people how to do it, be the first to pay my respects and stay close. I've also found it helpful to talk with the relatives about this saying goodby beforehand and suggest that the kids attend, maybe leave a letter or a toy or something meaningful in the casket as a way of saying goodby (and realizing that that life is over for good)."

Excellent insights, Carlos. I've heard some of these suggestions before, but had forgoten them. What you've got me thinking about is that we need to recognize and take advantage of those "teachable moments" that surround a person's, funeral, and internment. I mean, who in our society actually takes time to teach people what they can do, what they should do in such instances? I suppose some parents do, but that's extremely rare I fear.

leadworshipper -- you pointed out that:

"Sadly, however, I have found that the "church" fails miserably in supporting people once the "event concludes." "

So true. You mentioned some studies that pointed to the toughest times being two weeks after. That may be, although my own reading and experience has shown me it's more like 2-3 months (when the shock has worn off).

One of the worst cruelties is when people are told to "move on with their lives" after the first month. Those who say such things obviously don't have a clue!

How do you raise the awareness of a community (i.e. church) to the needs of traumatized and/or grieving people? You might want to sponsor a grief-club, letting people who have dealt with their loss and are ready to share their experiences with those who are still hurting. You might want to sponsor an event for those who grieve from distance, do not have the grave of loved ones nearby, once or twice a year, typically just before major holydays. Meet in church or meet outside, at a memorial.

You might even sponsor a course in psychological first aid (something the Danish Red Cross developed, try to Google) and teach rudimentary skills of comforting and enable the church to put it's feelings of sympathy into a helpful channel.

Finally, people usually don't say insensitive things because they're insensitive to other people but because they don't know better. Put together a "do's and don't" list for people who want to comfort the grieving, you might ask those who have come to terms with their grief to help in making that list. You may want to post this list online or put it into a Writeboard and invite a group of people to add to it.

I have attended the funeral of my mother (as a twelve-year old) and the viewing my father (as an adult). Both were open casket. My mother was made up and did not look like herself; nor did she look dead. My father was mostly untouched because he was to be cremated. He looked dead. It may seem creepy to some, but I wish my mother had looked dead. It would have helped the mourning process. Yes, I was a child, but I think I needed to be disturbed by her death. Death warrants some disturbance and as long as loving adults surround the child, the disturbance can be handled by most.

Hey Dana, I realize what I wrote was kind of insulting. Just so you know I have the highest respect for members of the "funeral director" proffesion. As i am sure DP and the other ministers will validate, if your in the ministry you end up getting to know the Funerla directors in your town very well...comes with the territory!

The folks in my town are the best, doesn't matter which parlor your talking about. The courtesy, respect and proffesionalism they carry, as wel as their compassion is amazing. They do a tough job, and it is much appreciated by me for one.

I have personal ideas about whats best for our people of course, and my frustration is stems from the fact that our Holy Tradition is so easily put aside for something that seems easier.

But I had not wish to cast aspersions on the funeral home industry. Please forgive, and thanks for the graceful way you ignored my rudeness.

Yur servant in christ,
Fr. Dcn. Raphael

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