A Fragrant Legacy
By Fr John Parker
Originally published in the Post and Courier on Sunday, October 26, 2008
It was on Miodrag’s account that he and Drazen visited our church on this sad day. Miodrag’s brother, Aleksandar, a long-time resident of Mt. Pleasant, had died—alone—and Miodrag had just arrived from his home in Europe to tend to the affairs of his departed brother.
I had not known Aleksandar in this life. Still, it is our custom to care for the dead and their survivors, the weeping and the grieving, who are looking for the consolation of Christ. We put a plan together and agreed to meet at the morgue on that Monday, in order to wash Aleksandar’s body.
The traditional Christian preparation of a corpse for burial is quite a moving, beautiful, and holy experience, even in the sterile environment of a morgue. After the first few Psalms, one really doesn’t take much notice of the room. In this case, our parish deacon and his wife, with the ever gracious assistance and direction from the head of mortuary services, humbly, delicately, carefully washed Aleksandar’s body, all the while I chanted Psalms, prayers and hymns for the departed, in addition to reading relevant passages on death and resurrection from the Epistles and Gospels. We finished our sacred philoxenia (biblical Greek for “hospitality”—and literally “love of strangers”) by anointing Aleksandar’s body with fragrant Myrrh, one of the three beautiful gifts given to Jesus at his Nativity—precisely with reference to his impending death for our sake. Our last act in preparation for his memorial service was to clothe him in white. It is what he would have worn at his first, and more eternally significant death: his baptism. The Panikhida (memorial service) was simple and beautiful—a small gathered choir and a few dozen of Aleksandar’s coworkers and friends, in addition to his brother and sister-in-law.
The same day that we sang our funeral service for Aleksandar, I learned of the falling-asleep (as it is referred to in the Scriptures) of our beloved brother priest, the Very Rev. Nicholas Trivelas, who pastored the Orthodox Church in Charleston for nearly half a century. The preparation of the body of a priest is similar to that of a layman, though a bit more specific. We were kindly welcomed, in this instance, by the folks at Stuhr’s, a few of whom knew Fr Nicholas when he was a young priest and they were children. Fr John Johns, the current pastor of Holy Trinity had invited Fr Anastasy Yatrellis (himself a son of the parish) and me to meet him for these holy preparations. We shared the prayers, washings, and anointings—we washed his face, hands, and feet, and anointed each with Myrrh. What joyful sadness—to wash the face of a perpetual smile, to anoint the hands and feet of one who served so many. Finishing our prayers and the anointing, we vested Fr Nicholas’ body in his brightest Paschal Vestments—a priest is buried as a priest. Fr. Nicholas’ funeral was a more sizeable service. His whole family was there, in addition to his parish family—including surely the children’s children of folks he himself had baptized.
The preparations for the burial of these to men caused me also to reflect on my time in the Holy Land. Not far outside of Jerusalem, we visited the Judean desert, and specifically the Great Lavra, a living and ancient Orthodox Christian monastery founded in 485AD. Within the nave of the katholikon (the main monastery church) is a glass case about 6 feet long and three feet deep and high, which contains a human body vested similarly to Fr Nicholas. The body is that of St Sabbas, the founder of the monastery. His incorrupt relics (non-embalmed, non-decomposing body) are laid in state for pilgrims to come and venerate. (Incorrupt relics, which often exude the scent of myrrh or roses—even 1500 years after death—are a sign of sanctity in the Orthodox tradition. It is one way we recognize a saint.) The preparations made for St Sabbas’ funeral 1500 years ago would have been the same as those we made for Aleksandar and Fr Nicholas. It is the way our tradition teaches us to treat the corpse of any departed soul.
The body of a deceased layman, the body of a departed priest, and the incorrupt corpse of an ancient monastic saint. You and I each share two vocations with Aleksandar, Fr Nicholas, and St. Sabbas. The first is that not a single one of us escapes death. Psalm 49:7ff is a reminder: “Truly no man can ransom himself, or give to God the price of his life, for the ransom of his life is costly, and can never suffice, that he should continue to live on for ever, and never see the Pit.” We will all die.
The second shared vocation is also highlighted in this Psalm: “Yea, he shall see that even the wise die, the fool and the stupid alike must perish and leave their wealth to others” (verse 10)—the call to “leave our wealth to others”—the eternal memory of a holy, self-denying life, which in turn gives life to those with whom we come into contact. And we have a limited number of breaths in this world to be perfected in such holiness. God help us not to squander those precious few!
As the Western Church prepares to celebrate the feast of All Saints (Nov 1) and All Souls (Nov 2), let us remind ourselves that life is but a breath, and ask the Lord that after our own death, we leave a truly holy legacy—alive, as fragrant as roses—15 days, 15 months, even 1500 years from now.
Fr John Parker is priest-in-charge of Holy Ascension Orthodox Church in I’On. He can be reached at email@example.com. To read more visit www.holyascension.blogspot.com.