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Let's Talk About Death

by a Nun of the Orthodox Church

A DEATH IN THE CONVENT is a very important event. Any disagreements, personal problems, any unpleasantness whatsoever—all is immediately forgotten. All hurry to help a sister who can no longer help herself and is in great need. After cleaning the face and hands, the nun is dressed as for church. She is being prepared to meet her Bridegroom. Having clothed her in her rason [over-cassock with wide sleeves], her mantia [monastic cloak] is partly cut to form two long strips. These are wound round the body, crossing over the breast, the waist and the legs, thus symbolising not only the cross of Christ, but also the swaddling bands in which He was wrapped as a baby, since the death of the body is for the soul a birth into a new life. Into the hands of the deceased are placed a cross and an icon. Then, summoned by a special bell, everyone leaves her tasks and comes to join with the priest, all holding lighted candles, in singing the Canon for the Newly Departed. All thoughts are concentrated on the departed sister, intense prayer is offered up on her behalf; everyone is united in their desire to express their love at this very special moment. Then the sisters quietly carry her to the chapel, and from then on, until after the burial, there is continual prayer for the departed. Following the traditional practice, everyone takes a turn in reading the Psalter, usually standing beside the body. Besides this, a pannikhida [memorial service for the departed] is served everyday. The body is reverenced as being holy, it has so recently received the Body and Blood of Christ. No tears are shed, because this is the moment for which the nun has so long prepared; this is the end of her struggle against the demons; now others must do their part.

Why does the Church feel it necessary to offer so many prayers during the first few days? The soul does not lose its consciousness; it is aware of what is going on, but is unable to communicate with the living in any way. Being perhaps bewildered by the strangeness, the prayers must be a great comfort. Moreover, it has to face a great trial. Accusing demons will come and try to find some unrepented sin, even a forgotten one, and if their accusations are not outweighed by the virtues presented by the angels, together with the prayers offered up by the faithful, then the unhappy soul may well be dragged away by the demons.

The funeral service is long and beautiful, full of deep prayers for the newly departed. In one place, verses are chanted in all the eight tones in succession, as if recalling the nun's participation in the whole life of the Church. At the end, everyone makes three prostrations and gives her the final kiss of farewell. The nuns walk to the cemetery before the coffin, singing all the way, led by a sister holding a large cross. After the final brief service, and the lowering of the coffin into the grave, everyone throws three handfuls of earth onto the coffin with a prayer.

But that is not the end. For forty days the newly departed is prayed for by the priest at the Liturgy, and particles of the prosphora sent up to him are placed in the chalice, the rest being cut up and shared by the sisters, who then remember her prayerfully. It is a custom to serve a pannikhida on the ninth day, and more importantly on the fortieth, when, by popular belief, the soul is conducted to the habitation prepared for it, where it will stay until the Dread Judgment.

Every year on the day of their repose, their names are sent up to the priest before the Liturgy with a prosphora, for his and everyone's prayers. Thus is expressed the Christian love that we bear for others. This can be done by anyone at any time for any Orthodox deceased loved one, with or without a prosphora.

For the souls of those departed outside the Church, only private prayers can be offered and candles lit. Prayers are needed just as much as for the Orthodox and God is merciful.

Editor's note. The above article tells us much about the prayerful concern shown for the newly departed and is based on the practice of the Convent in which our writer is a nun. However, similar prayerful remembrance is offered for all departed Orthodox Christians, and this should he the first concern of the faithful when a loved one dies—see this month's Practical Tip. The article mentions particular commemorations of the departed on the third, ninth and fortieth days after death. Popularly these commemorations are often attributed to the perceived progress of the soul after death. However, in his work, 'Novaya Skrizhal', "Archhzshop Benjamin of Nizhegorod and Arzamass, draws us onto firmer ground, when, quoting the witness of the early Fathers, he tells us that commemoration is made on the third day both because the departed was baptized in the Name of the Three Persons of the Trinity and to recall the third-day Resurrection of the Saviour; that on the ninth day recalls the nine orders of the heavenly hosts, with whom we pray the departed might find a resting place; and that on the fortieth day is made both as following the example of the Hebrew people, who mourned Moses forty days, and to assure us of the truth of the bodily resurrection by reminding us of our Saviour's abiding with the disciples in the body for forty days after His Resurrection, before ascending into Heaven.

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OUR LEAD ARTICLE this month is about death, yet was given the rather cheery title "Let's Talk About Death" by its authoress. This might seem inappropriate to some, but that is because by and large we have abandoned a Christian attitude to death and adopted the attitudes of the world around us. Death is a natural part of our existence; indeed it might be said that the whole point of our being Christians is to prepare for death. And yet, so often we try to hide it and hide from it. This causes two deep hurts. First of all it can hurt anyone in our immediate circle or family who is dying. They can he made to feel that somehow they are failing, that they are causing embarrassment, and the like. And very often because they are not given an opportunity by their loved ones to accept their impending death openly, they are denied opportunities to prepare for it. Rather, as Christians, we should strive to help people approach death openly and give them opportunities to prepare for it—by spiritual reading, prayer, going to church if possible, by receiving the Mysteries, by talking about what they are going through. Secondly our faithless attitude often hurts those who have died, because, having tried to hide from the reality of the approaching death, we are spiritually thrown off balance when they die. We have lost an opportunity to do some little preparation (albeit always inadequate) for it ourselves, and so we are taken by surprise. We throw ourselves into a host of things which profit little and often completely neglect the needs of the soul that has departed from us. We think of flowers and types of coffin and the like, and forget that at that moment that what the departed needs is our prayers and those of the Church, that we should have memorial services chanted, commemoration made at the Liturgy, that we can give alms in remembrance of our loved one, and that above all we should show obedience to the teachings of the Church with regard to the funeral rites for the departed—(cremation and embalming, for instance, are never permitted Orthodox Christians)—and thus bring them and ourselves another blessing. If in any doubt, as most assuredly most of us are at such times, we should immediately contact our parish pastor so that he can guide us and help us.

Both of these articles were taken from The Shepherd, Vol. XVI, No. 2 (November, 1995), pp. 2-4, 24.