Friday, January 20, 2012

Memorial Customs and Prayers

Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,

This past Monday, when I went to the gravesite of my brother together with presvytera Deborah and other members of my extended family; in addition to the traditional text of our memorial service, I took along with me a prayer that Mother Paula shared with me in the past. This prayer, I further discovered from Mother Paula, was written by St. Nikolai (Velimirovich) of Zicha, a twentieth c. saint known for his prolific writings, many of which are in the form of meditations, reflections, and actual prayers. I thought to incorporate this prayer into the service, for it teaches and reveals, as well as it speaks directly to God, a great deal about the meaning of death, and of our ultimate hope in God’s mercy, care and love. This could be of great benefit to those participating in the service through their presence. At funeral and memorial services, the prayers that we offer to God speak on behalf of the departed; but they also speak to the living so that at moments of crisis and grief we can hear about the consolation of Christ, and be reminded about our faith in the saving presence of Christ; a faith that not even death itself – the “last enemy” - can frustrate. This, then, is the prayer written by St. Nikolai:

O Lord, we pray for our departed __________. We believe, Lord, that whoever believes in you shall never die. Our loved ones are now with You in a special place You have prepared for them. We thank You for the years they were with us. Now, they cannot come to us, but we will go to them. The separation is only temporary. We look forward to the day when we shall be reunited in your Kingdom. We loved them, but you love them infinitely more. We relinquish them to your greater love and care. May they rest safe in your gentle bosom, safe in Your gentle arms. Grant us, the survivors, the strength each day to endure and overcome the pain of grief. It is a pain we cannot escape but with your help we shall pass through it and come away with greater empathy, understanding and sympathy. Amen.

I find this prayer to be reassuring, but not sentimental; consoling but not cloying; filled with a certain pathos, but not bathos. It acknowledges our grief, but also our faith that God is stronger that death: “For I am sure that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (ROM. 8:38-39).

In addition, to the prayer above, Mother Paula also sent me this concise explanation of one particular practice surrounding our memorial services for the departed, under the title A Meaningful Custom:

It is customary among Orthodox Christians to bring a tray of boiled wheat kernels to church for the memorial service. The wheat kernels express belief in everlasting life. Jesus said, “Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone, but if it dies, it bears much fruit” (JN. 12:24). Just as new life rises from the buried kernel of wheat, so we believe the one buried will rise one day to a new life with God. The wheat kernels are covered with sugar and raisins to express the bliss of eternal life with God in heaven. St. Paul writes: “So it is with the resurrection of the dead. What is sown is perishable, what is raised is imperishable. It is sown in dishonor it is raised in glory. It is sown in weakness, it is raised in power. It is sown a physical body, it is raised a spiritual body” (I COR. 15:42-44).

Memorial prayer services which affirm the reality of physical death and also the reality of resurrection into life eternal play a vital role in the healing of grief for the Orthodox Christian.

Actually, various “customs” exist among Orthodox Christians when it comes to death, burial and memorial services. Dostoevsky records the Russian custom of serving pancakes following a funeral, in his last great novel, The Brothers Karamazov. The novel ends with the death and funeral service of a twelve-year old boy named Ilyusha (sometimes the more endearing Ilyushechka). The youngest of the Karamazov brothers, Alyosha, has gathered together the friends of the young boy and is trying to console them in their grief, and plant the seeds of faith in their young and impressionable hearts. The final dialogue of the novel between Alyosha Karamazov and a precocious boy, Kolya, closes the novel on an ecstatic note concerning resurrection and eternal life. This is profoundly meaningful, for The Brothers Karamazov is filled with tormented characters who have lost their faith in God and thus who exist in a kind of restless agony. Here is the closing dialogue –with even a mention of the pancakes of the memorial meal!

“Karamazov!” cried Kolya, “can it really be true as religion says, that we shall rise from the dead, and come to life, and see one another again, and everyone, and Ilyushechka?”

“Certainly we shall rise, certainly we shall see and gladly, joyfully tell one another all that has been,” Alyosha replied, half laughing, half in ecstasy.

“Ah, how good that will be,” burst from Kolya.

“Well, and now let’s end our speeches and go to his memorial dinner. Don’t be disturbed that we’ll be eating pancakes. It’s an ancient, eternal thing, and there’s good in that, too,” laughed Alyosha. “Well, let’s go! And we go like this now, hand in hand.”

“And eternally so, all our lives hand in hand! Hurrah for Karamazov!” Kolya cried once more ecstatically, and once more all the boys joined in his exclamation.

“Memory eternal” to all of our departed loved ones!

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