The Liturgies Marking the Passing of a Loved One

9/16/2019 – One Year Later

It was one year ago this evening that I received an unexpected call from Life Alert saying that my mother had activated her button, thinking that she was having a stroke. Her own mother and sister had died of a stroke and she was always worried that this would be her fate as well. However, for some reason, I was not initially too worried. Perhaps, this was a false alarm or a mild stroke. She was active and in good health for her age. Plus, I reasoned, people can recover from a stroke, albeit not all do so fully. I immediately tried calling all of my parents’ phone numbers, but after receiving no answer on their respective mobile phones or the home phone, I called my brother to see if he could find out more information. Minutes that seemed like hours passed. No news. As more time passed, I began to feel more and more anxious. Then the phone call came and the voice of my brother on the other end of the line vocalized the possibility that I never really considered (or never really wanted to consider). My mother had indeed had a massive stroke, went into cardiac arrest, and died.

A liturgy of Virtual Consolation

What does one do when one hears such unexpected news? It was now late in the evening on a Monday night, but I could not sleep. I prayed and cried, but still could not sleep. My sister, who is in the military and stationed in Europe, posted the news on her Facebook page. Soon, the news would start to spread so I decided to do likewise, posting a brief notice and picture of the two of us together. Almost immediately, I received messages of condolence from friends and extended family. I was amazed at how many people were actually awake at (by this time) 2:00 am Eastern time! It was this “liturgy of virtual consolation” that allowed me to sleep.

A liturgy of Food

As anyone who has ever had to deal with the death of a loved one knows, there are a ton of details to which one has to attend. The logistics are made more difficult when the passing is sudden and unexpected and family is spread out over great distances. While people gather at the house to express their sympathies, there is often no time or energy to do any cooking. It was heartening that many of the neighbors brought casseroles, etc. I had never really given much thought to this “liturgy of food,” but it was greatly appreciated at the time.

The liturgies of the Funeral

My parents had retired to Florida, but still had many friends and family in the town in which they had lived for the majority of their lives, as my mother used to say, “up north.” As such, formal services were held in both places. We held a shorter memorial service in Florida with the actual funeral at our hometown parish. The Orthodox Church provides for a number of liturgies at the passing of a loved one—the service of the wake, the funeral/burial service, the service at the grave, blessing at the memorial meal as well as memorial services throughout the mourning period (including at 40 days and on the anniversary of the passing of the loved one.) At each service, the assembly prays for the departed, proclaims the resurrection of Christ which, we believe, foreshadows our own resurrection from the dead, asks that our loved one rest among the saints “where there is no pain nor grief nor sighing, but life which does not end” and that God keep our loved one in God’s memory, singing (often in an evocative tone), “Memory eternal.” The funeral, itself, is full of symbolism connecting baptism into the life of Christ on this side of death to the other side. Just as one is washed and anointed in baptism and, according to Cyril of Jerusalem, welcomed into the assembly with a kiss as they begin their Life in Christ so, too, one is ushered into the Kingdom with a final anointing of the body with oil and wine and one last kiss given by friends and family. The texts and ritual elements of the liturgies can be powerful and poignant.

For me, it was the “liturgy at the gravesite” that was most moving and an example of the power of liturgy, especially when done well, to heal and transform…

The liturgy of the Gravesite

Chapel, Holy Transfiguration Monastery, Ellwood City, Penn.

For me, it was the “liturgy at the gravesite” that was most moving and an example of the power of liturgy, especially when done well, to heal and transform, moving one closer to God. For most of the funeral gatherings and services during what was over a week of mourning, I was rather numb. However, this one allowed me to feel. My mother was buried at a nearby monastery. The liturgy began inside the small chapel where my mother’s body had been placed. It was an intimate setting with family and the icons of saints surrounding her as if to hold her in their arms—those of us on earth handing her over to those in heaven. The service began with a censing of the body, conducted with purpose and reverence. As the incense filled the space, the choir of nuns began to sing the music of the service. Their voices rang out beautifully. I could feel the tension in my body loosening, giving myself over to the beauty of the event. I was surrendering to God. Tears flowed easily now. Small waves of serenity were beginning to splash over my pain and sorrow. As the service ended, we gave my mother one final final-kiss and then escorted her out of the chapel and to the burial site, singing the same processional hymn that accompanied her entry into the church. The circle was completing. She was laid to rest on the monastery grounds with each of us tossing a handful of dirt over the casket. It was time to give her over to God—“To the Lord belongs earth and all it holds” (Ps. 24.1).  May her memory be eternal.

The liturgy of the Memorial

It is now a year later. I can hardly believe that a year has passed already. In the interim, time has seemed to both stand still and accelerate. We recently celebrated the one-year “liturgy of the anniversary” of my mother’s passing with the short memorial service. Here, we gathered once again to pray for her. As is traditional, we then asked God to bless the sweet bread and coliva—a mixture of wheat and honey (usually accented with raisins and, possibly, nuts and spices)—offered on this occasion. It reminds us that unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies it produces much fruit (Jn. 12:24). We pray that our sharing in it reminds us of these words of Jesus so that our lives may bring forth a rich harvest as well.

Memory Eternal, Mom.

2 comments

  1. Teva- there are so many people, regardless of their religious affiliation, or if they even believe in God, who are afraid to speak about death and the emotions surrounding such a difficult time. You wove a heartfelt tapestry bringing together your personal grief and how the Orthodox prayers and services provided comfort. It is eloquent and moving. thank you for sharing this with everyone. May your Mother’s Memory Be Eternal.

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