The Funeral of Archbishop Dmitri: A Sacrament of Love

Archbishop Dmitri

The following reflection on the life and ministry of the late Archbishop Dmitri, written by Archpriest Basil Zebrun, rector of Saint Barbara Church, Fort Worth, TX, on the day after the Archbishop’s funeral, was sent to the OCA web team on September 6, 2011. Having grown up at Saint Seraphim Cathedral, Dallas, TX, and having assisted the Archbishop in the diocesan office after his ordination, Father Basil knew him for most of his life.  During the Archbishop’s last days and through his funeral and burial, Father Basil was at his side.

It is the day after the funeral for His Eminence. As I think about the last few weeks of his life and what many experienced during that period, I am led to share some personal thoughts concerning death generally and the Archbishop’s repose in particular.
We sing in the Paschal troparion, “Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death.” We are called as Christians to live in such a way that our Lord’s victory over death becomes ours as well. That triumph may be manifested particularly at the time of our repose. The martyrs (a term meaning witnesses) are venerated highly for this reason. They revealed the power of Christ by the way they approached their deaths in imitation of Jesus – with faith and love. Those who witnessed such acts were often inspired to offer their own lives for the Lord; many at the very least were converted to Christ because of the martyrs’ courage.
Archbishop Dmitri did not die as the ancient or modern martyrs. But in a most profound sense, during his final days, he provided a courageous witness to the power of Christ over death. That ability, that gift, was bestowed after decades of personal dedication. It did not miraculously occur overnight, but was a natural extension of how His Eminence approached everything – constantly in reference to Christ. Various reports tell of the quiet joy exhibited by the Archbishop as he communicated with those by his bedside. Weak and weary, yet ever the gracious host, he often cajoled his visitors to sit and make themselves comfortable during their stay with him. Turning attention from himself to the work of the Church, he asked priests about the progress of their parishes, and even spoke of future plans for the Diocese. During services for his health, he seemed particularly attentive and at peace when the Gospels were read. The characteristic twinkle in his eyes, though fading, was ever present.
The faithful at Saint Seraphim’s and nearby churches responded to the illness and witness of His Eminence by caring and praying for him twenty-four hours a day, at his home, during his last weeks. This they did happily, with no reservations. Their father in Christ needed them, and they him. A mutual, loving dependence could be strongly felt in the Archbishop’s room. For many, a unique experience was quietly yet powerfully unfolding before their eyes. Whether one thought about it or not, a procession toward death was being made by all. That procession bore a strong sacramental quality. God’s Presence was felt, and people were responding in faith. Personally, I can only liken the situation to a profound liturgical experience.
Vladika’s love for the people, their love for him, and God’s infinite love for man, transformed the home on Wycliff Avenue into a chapel. The quiet vigil at the Archbishop’s bedside became an offering every bit as beautiful as any liturgical celebration. Whatever His Eminence was facing, people desired to be present and to go through it with him, and their shared experience became a sacrifice of praise to the Lord.
Witnessing such things, a person has to declare that, “this is how our end is supposed to be.” If we are to undergo death, then let it be like this. A loving, cooperative work between God and man was being lived out before peoples’ very eyes, as the blessed founder of the Diocese of the South began to pray, “Into Thy hands I commend my spirit.” And even after his repose, it was the faithful and clergy who prayed over, washed, and prepared the body, who placed him in the casket, and who escorted him to his beloved Cathedral, next to which a final resting place for the Archbishop will be constructed in the months ahead.
Death, in and of itself, is tragic, a despicable intrusion into God’s creation. But in Christ, even death is miraculously, mysteriously, transformed. The power of that miracle – that sacrament – was assuredly seen at the Archbishop’s home during the days leading up to his repose on Sunday, August 28. For this precious gift we are thankful. For this gift we ourselves can pray, that Christ’s triumph over death will be manifest in our lives and our repose, as it was for our father in Christ, Archbishop Dmitri. May his memory be eternal!