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Obsequies

 

According to my dictionary the word obsequious means to be promptly obedient, submissive, compliant, servile and condescending. These definitions take on a pejorative air today. They come from the Latin obsequor, meaning, to comply with and, by extension, we have the word, obsequies, referring to funeral rites. In other words, it is understood that the performance of accepted ceremonies and customs around someone's death is, at the very least, a binding social duty. We might debate whether a funeral is for the good of the departed or the comfort of those left behind. Orthodox Holy Tradition is very clear on the importance of the Church's prayers for the departed, looking forward to the glorious resurrection, and at the same time we are comforted in the knowledge that the souls of our departed loved ones are in the mind of God.

 

Historically, people have often desired to leave a legacy behind them seeing in their memorial a certain kind of immortality. The great and the powerful, situated differently from the rest of mankind, have always been anxious to leave behind a mark of their existence, so that the world might remember them. Pity then, the tyrant Mausolus (obit. 353 BC) who had his great Mausoleum, as it was called, constructed for his own mortal remains, at Halicarnassus. It was listed among one of the great Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. But alas, all that remains of it now are a few fallen pieces of masonry (see below) in the Turkish town of Bodrum, though a few sculptural parts were taken to the British Museum. For most people now, the old ruler's name only lives on in the term for an over-ornate sepulchral monument.



 The idea that funeral rites are a social duty is very ancient indeed. Palaeo-anthropology has revealed that the Neanderthals buried their own dead with care, interring grave good, objects that might have been used by the deceased. Ancient Egypt, as is well known, had a whole civilisation and indeed, an economy, based around monumental burials. In mediaeval Britain an ecclesial economy ran on the provision of chantries, where people made financial provision in the wills for a priest to say requiem masses for their souls, a system swept away at the Reformation. Of course, as in all places, such customs as these were based around clear beliefs. In Ancient Egypt, their love of this life and the desire for it to continue in the next drove the care taken around mummification; in Britain, in the Middle Ages, the belief in the western doctrine of purgatory (not accepted in Orthodoxy) and the idea that the pains of purgatory brought upon the believer by his sins, could be lessened by indulgences and by grace, created by the prayers of the Church.

 

What has actually been done with the bodies of the dead has varied throughout time. The ancient Romans and Greeks tended towards cremation, but burial is also found at times. Indo-European peoples have favoured cremation, as is still practiced among Hindus. Traditionally, at such obsequies, it was the duty of the eldest son, to set fire to the funeral pyre. The general belief being that the flames release the atman (soul) for its next reincarnation. In the Parsee (Zoroastrian) tradition, originating in ancient Persia, the practice was so-called, sky-burial, where the corpse was exposed on a platform to be disposed of by the vultures. It is intriguing that in age of advanced technology like ours, human remains have now been launched into space, in itself, an interesting echo of that primeval spatial metaphor, earth below and heaven above.

 

Then, of course, we can read in the book of Genesis (chapter 23) how Abraham bought the cave of Machpelah to bury Sarah. We observe here one of general differences between the tendency in the old Indo-European cultures towards cremation on the one hand, and on the other, the Middle-Eastern habit of burial. Indeed, as Orthodox Christians we only bury our dead, This, of course, is not only because our faith originates in the Holy Land or that we are following the traditions of the Old Testament: It is the fact that Our Lord Himself was buried, and we have been buried with Him already in Baptism. Burial, together with the funeral rites and memorials that surround it, possess a very powerful symbolism and eloquently express our firm belief in the resurrection of the body.

                               

Given that, according to Benjamin Franklin, the only certainties in life are death and taxes, the provision of funeral services must, under normal circumstances, be a very steady business indeed. However, what has evidently shifted in post-Christian Britain (apart from certain self-contained communities) is the way in which funeral directors and providers have strategically adapted their business model. The rise of secularism in Britain, where the majority now claim no religious affiliation of any kind, has, in recent years, seen the rise in popularity (for want of a better word) of non-religious or humanist funeral ceremonies. There was a time when it was assumed that most people in this country would expect to have a funeral according to the rites of the Established Church of England; when even the majority of those interred or cremated under her pastoral care, might not have darkened the doors of their local parish church for years, if ever. Not so now, of course: a situation which is, we might suppose, at least more honest. This would, after all, follow the survey of historical and cultural practices mentioned above: that funeral rites express beliefs about death and what lies beyond. Humanism, as a view of our existence, posits the idea that upon death we are dissolved; no more consciousness of anything with the ending of our brain function. At such a ceremony one would expect that the obsequies be led by a competent master of ceremonies, unrelated to the deceased (ie. not emotionally invested in the process) and that the funeral would be relevant and personalised, yet clearly, respectful of the dignity proper to the occasion.

                               

What has happened recently, however, is the emergence of services that offer the disposal of human remains, without any ceremony whatsoever. These services are advertised frequently on television and must have proven popular, as a well as lucrative, given that such a medium for publicity does not come cheap.

                               

There is an old debate among scholars of ancient religions, as to which came first: the myth or the ritual; does the story give rise to the ceremony, or do ancient rites and custom give birth to beliefs?  When it comes to the truth of Orthodox Christianity, we are quite clear: lex orandi, lex credendi (the law of prayer is the law of faith); it is the liturgical forms that express the doctrines of the Church; the prayers, as inspired by the Holy Spirit, came first, containing what was understood by all. Only later, when it was necessary to contradict heresy, were creeds and formularies composed. It was three hundred years before the First Ecumenical Council was called to meet the challenge of Arianism. Part of the reason for the Great Schism between the West and the Orthodox came about by the rise of western Scholasticism, where philosophical ideas were imposed upon ancient rites, so that the old Latin tag was, as it were, reversed: lex credendi, lex orandi!

                               

Now, though, Secularism has not only disposed of belief, it has done away with ritual too. Apparently, the body may now be disposed of discretely, without traditional ceremony, without pomp, without the obsequies that once would have been dutifully fulfilled. One advert on television for these pre-paid cremation plans has a woman expressing the view that she did not want a funeral service because, 'nobody likes them, do they?'. This is the epitome of the post-modern approach to the difficulties of life, that anything unpleasant can just be ignored or 'cancelled,' as if it did not exist. Yet if our history teaches us anything, it is that no matter how painful, grief and mourning are stages we have to pass through, and it is the very performance of traditional rites and ceremonies (even if secularised) that assist us on that journey.

                               

To take the view that we do not need the 'fuss & bother' of a funeral service (of whatever kind) is surely the logical outcome of the abandoning of beliefs. If rites foster beliefs, then the ending our beliefs must then entail the abandoning of old rituals. So what is the post-modern, secularised and agnostic person expected to do in the face of death? It is to pay for someone to get rid of the evidence of death, after which one has the opportunity (the adverts say) to remember the loved one who has 'passed' (not died, we notice!) in ones own way. In other words, there is still a social expectation that there must be some form of ersatz occasion, usually referred to in the TV adverts as a 'celebration.' This is taken to represent a defiant and even brave face, but in reality, suggests rather, a denial of death itself; in fact, not wanting to face it at all. It replaces the ritualised expression of grief with mere conviviality. More importantly, it substitutes the broader social recognition of death through shared and recognised rituals, with an improvised and private wake for the atomised dead individual.

                               

Perhaps the most dubious aspect of this new approach to funerals is the way it illustrates how atomised western societies have become. With no shared assumptions, our relationships with our neighbours must be incoherent, lacking cohesive expectations, obligations and responsibilities. Accepted rites of passage, shared by a community, help us through all the stages of life in this world, whether joyful or painful. Proper mourning, left unexpressed, must at the very least, produce mental scars and deeper psychological damage, and one wonders what effect, over time, the demise of commonly observed obsequies will have on individual lives and society at large.

                               

Meanwhile, for us as Orthodox Christians, securely built upon the foundation of faith, we may only wonder at those with nothing to stand on. We cannot even, as the gospel says, leave the dead to bury their dead: now they just have them cremated on the quiet. We do, though, follow what Christ says at the end of that verse in St Luke, '…But you go and preach the kingdom of God.' [Lk.9:60] That is precisely what our funeral ceremonies proclaim: the vigil service, the burial, the memorials, they all testify to the life in God's kingdom. The song we sing over the grave, as the Kontakion in the Canon for the Dead makes clear, is, Alleluia! the song of victory over the death. While for the secular person, death is the end and that is all there is to it, we do not mourn as those without hope (1 Thess.4:13-14). For we know, that Christ has trampled down death by death and on those in the tombs He has bestowed Life.




                                                                                               

Fr. Chrysostom MacDonnell

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