Resources in Preparation for Dying, Death, & Burial

By Prepared by St. Elizabeth Committee, St. Nicholas Orthodox Church, Portland, Oregon. Reviewed by Fr. John Shimchick.

Several years ago while at St. Tikhon’s Monastery, I became separated from the friend with whom I had traveled. Eventually he returned and announced that he now owned “property” in Pennsylvania. In other words, he had purchased a burial plot at the cemetery located on the monastery grounds. Some people are very careful and intent on planning for death, on putting “their house in order.” There are those who, not trusting the capabilities or motivations of their children, make everything clear—even to the point of having their headstone in place, only the final date needing to be inserted. All the details are in order. Others see discussions about death and the last things as being something too morbid. Sometimes people just don’t get around to it in time. I heard recently that more than 80 percent of the victims killed during the 9/11 attacks had not prepared wills.

As an aid to members within their own and neighboring Orthodox communities, the St. Elizabeth Committee of St. Nicholas Church in Portland, Oregon has prepared a “Resource Packet” of materials to create an awareness of “what medical, pastoral, and funeral resources are available.” In his introduction, Fr. George Gray, the parish’s pastor, states that the packet, consisting of a prayer book, resource guide, and emergency record guide, incorporated materials and suggestions from “the tradition, Liturgy and worship of the Church,” and “enlisted the expertise of clergy, doctors, nurses, lawyers, healthcare professionals, hospice workers, funeral directors, and cemetery staff.” As such, it really brings together, for the first time, probably all of the aspects that can guide an Orthodox Christian in confronting the reality of sickness, dying, and death.

The volume of RESOURCES includes the following topics:

  • Dealing with Death—Alive in Christ

  • Burial Practices of the Byzantines

  • The Priest’s Participation

  • Care and Preparation of the Body

  • Funeral Guidelines of the Orthodox Church in America

  • Why We Pray for the Dead

  • The Descent Into Hell

  • Practical Considerations: Communications—Starting to Talk About End-of-Life Concerns and Wishes

  • Discussing Your Own End-of-Life Wishes

  • Advance Directives (Oregon/Washington)

  • Healthcare Options for Those with Life-Threatening or Terminal Conditions

  • The Time of Physical Dying

  • Resources

  • Modified Checklist for Emergency Record Guide

  • Materials originally intended for local use

    It is important to note that these materials were originally “intended for use at St. Nicholas Church in Portland and reflect the medical, legal, and pastoral situation in Oregon and Washington.” Therefore they represent the information and experiences of ancient, national, regional, and local sources and practices. Some of the information will be generally useful; other parts, perhaps representative of a different experience. In particular, the local or common liturgical practice might be a bit different from those described in the section entitled “At the time of death” (p. 7) and “Care and preparation of the body” (p. 10), and those that describe the funeral services (pp 8-9).

    First, many people might not be familiar or even comfortable with the option of not embalming the deceased body or of washing and preparing the body themselves. The editorial remark that “the procedure that takes place in the ‘prep room’ of temporary American mortuaries is one that, quite simply put, is an offense to the temple of the Holy Spirit that our bodies are considered to be” (p. 10) perhaps should be explained more fully—maybe in a different form and way. Most parishes, at least in the eastern part of the United States, probably celebrate some version of what is called the “common practice.”

    It should be noted that funerals served during Bright Week do not have simply a “slightly different order of services” (p. 8) or the “addition” of Paschal hymnography (p. 7). The normal funeral service is nearly completely transformed into a Paschal service (all of the hymns of Pascha are sung), with the addition of just a few memorial litanies and hymns. It is the undiluted experience of Paschal joy, the essence of what it means to pass from death to life.

    Finally, I am not sure whether the main course at the “Mercy or Memorial” really needs to be limited to fish, regardless of the Gospel story of the risen Christ on the Shore of Lake Tiberias (John 21), assuming the funeral is not taking place during a fasting period.

    The RESOURCES include discussions of timely matters such as Cremation, Suicide, Autopsy and Organ Donation, and many other end-of-life concerns that should be discussed by families before the confusion and trauma of sickness and death overwhelm them. The CHECKLIST FOR EMERGENCY RECORD GUIDE at the end of the RESOURCES provides an organized way of noting issues (whom to call, etc.) related to “Preplanning, At the Time of Death, & Afterwards.” The collection of PRAYERS include those for illness, when sickness increases, for one who is terminally ill, in preparation for death, at and after the parting of the soul, for the departed, and assorted prayers and hymns from various services.

    Fr. Gray began his introduction to the RESOURCES with the words of Metropolitan Anthony Bloom that “death is the touchstone of our attitude toward life. People who are afraid of death are afraid of life.” These materials help us to prepare for death practically and spiritually over time, in ways that lead not to morbid fear, but to the recovery in our lives of “immediacy and depth.”

    We should be grateful to Fr. George and his community for the organization of these materials and for the gift of love, comfort, and support they represent.

    These RESOURCES are available and can be freely downloaded as PDF files from the Department of Christian Service and Humanitarian Aid’s page on the website of the Orthodox Church in America or from the list below.

    Items can be saved as PDF files by selecting the “save” icon (the picture of a disk at the left end of the screen, below the word “Address.”)

    Archpriest John Shimchick is pastor of Holy Cross Church, Medford, NJ, and editor of its diocesan publication, Jacob’s Well.