Malankara World Journal - Christian Spirituality from a Jacobite and Orthodox Perspective
Malankara World Journal
Theme: Aneede Sunday, Christian Death
Volume 8 No. 461 February 2, 2018
III. Featured Articles: Death

The Christian Concept of Death

by Fr. Alexander Schmemann

Indeed "if Christ is not risen, then your faith is in vain." These are the words of the Apostle Paul, and they remain fundamental for Christianity to this day.

"He suffered and was buried. And He rose again…" After the Cross, after the descent into death there is the Resurrection from the dead — that principal, fundamental and decisive confirmation of the Symbol of Faith, a confirmation from the very heart of Christianity. Indeed "if Christ is not risen, then your faith is in vain." These are the words of the Apostle Paul, and they remain fundamental for Christianity to this day. Christianity is a belief, first of all and above all, in the fact that Christ did not remain in the grave, that life shone forth from death, and that in Christ's Resurrection from the dead, the absolute, all-encompassing law of dying and death, which tolerated no exceptions, was somehow blown apart and overcome from within.

The Resurrection of Christ comprises, I repeat, the very heart of the Christian faith and Christian Good News. And yet, however strange it may sound, in the everyday life of Christianity and Christians in our time there is little room for this faith. It is as though obscured, and the contemporary Christian, without being cognizant of it, does not reject it, but somehow skirts about it, and does not live the faith as did the first Christians. If he attends church, he of course hears in the Christian service the ever resounding joyous confirmations: "trampling down death by death," "death is swallowed up by victory," "life reigns," and "not one dead remains in the grave." But ask him what he really thinks about death, and often (too often alas) you will hear some sort of rambling affirmation of the immortality of the soul and its life in some sort of world beyond the grave, a belief that existed even before Christianity. And that would be in the best of circumstances. In the worst, one would be met simply by perplexity and ignorance, "You know, I have never really thought about it."

Meanwhile it is absolutely necessary to think about it, because it is with faith or unbelief, not simply in the "immortality of the soul," but precisely in the Resurrection of Christ and in our "universal resurrection" at the end of time that all of Christianity "stands or falls," as they say. If Christ did not rise, then the Gospel is the most horrible fraud of all. But if Christ did rise, then not only do all our pre-Christian representations and beliefs in the "immortality of the soul" change radically, but they simply fall away. And then the entire question of death presents itself in a totally different light. And here is the crux of the matter, that the Resurrection above all assumes an attitude toward death and an concept of death that is most profoundly different from its usual religious representations; and in a certain sense this concept is the opposite of those representations.

It must be frankly stated that the classical belief in the immortality of the soul excludes faith in the resurrection, because the resurrection (and this is the root of the matter) includes in itself not only the soul, but also the body. Simply reading the Gospel leaves no doubt about it. When they saw the risen Christ, the Apostles, as the Gospel says, thought that they were seeing a ghost or a vision. The first task of the risen Christ was to allow them to sense the reality of His body. He takes food and eats in front of them. He commands the doubting Thomas to touch His body, to be convinced of the Resurrection through his fingers. And when the Apostles came to believe, it is precisely the proclamation of the Resurrection, its reality, its "bodiliness" that becomes the chief content, power and joy of their preaching, and the main sacrament of the Church becomes the Communion of bread and wine as the Body and Blood of the risen Christ. And in this act, says the Apostle Paul, "proclaiming the death of the Lord, they confess His Resurrection."

Those who turn to Christianity turn not to ideas or principles, but they accept this belief in the Resurrection, this experience, this knowledge of the risen Teacher. They accept faith in the universal resurrection, which means the overcoming, the destruction, the annihilation of death as the ultimate goal of the world. "The last enemy to be destroyed is death!" exclaims the Apostle Paul in a sort of spiritual ecstasy. And on every Pascha night we proclaim, "O Death, where is thy sting? O Hell, where is thy victory? Christ is risen, and not one dead remains in the grave. Christ is risen, and life reigns!" In this way the acceptance or non-acceptance of Christ and Christianity is essentially the acceptance or non-acceptance of belief in His Resurrection, and in the language of religious representations that means belief in the union in Him of body and soul, of which the dissolution and ruination is death.

We are not speaking here about those who reject the Resurrection of Christ because they reject the very existence of God, i.e. convinced (or think that they are convinced) atheists. The discussion concerns a quite different area. Of much greater importance is that strange "obscurity" of faith in the Resurrection, which I just mentioned, among those very believers, those very Christians who connect in a peculiar way the celebration of Pascha with the actual, perhaps often subconscious, rejection of the Resurrection of Christ. There has occurred in historical Christianity a sort of return to the pre-Christian concept of death, which consists of, first of all, a recognition of death as a "law of nature," i.e. a phenomenon inherent in nature itself, with which, for this reason and no matter how frightening death might be, one must "come to terms," which one must accept. Indeed, all non-Christian, all natural religions, all philosophies are in essence occupied with our "coming to terms" with death and attempt to demonstrate for us the source of immortal life, of the immortal soul in some sort of alien world beyond the grave. Plato, for example, and countless followers after him teach that death is a liberation from the body which the soul desires; and in this circumstance faith in the resurrection of the body not only becomes unnecessary, but also incomprehensible, even false and untrue. In order to perceive the entire sense of Christian belief in the Resurrection, we must begin not from that belief itself, but from the Christian concept of the body and death, for here lies the root of the misunderstanding even within Christianity.

Religious consciousness assumes that the Resurrection of Christ is first of all a miracle, which of course it is. But for the average religious consciousness this miracle is even greater: the miracle of all miracles remains "unique" so to speak, pertaining to Christ. And since we acknowledge that Christ is God, this miracle ceases to be a miracle in a certain sense. God is almighty, God is God, God can do anything! Whatever the death of Christ signifies, His divine power and might did not allow Him to remain in the grave. Yet the fact of the matter is that all this comprises only half of the age-old Christian interpretation of the Resurrection of Christ. The joy of early Christianity, which still lives in the Church, in her services, in her hymns and prayers, and especially in the incomparable feast of Pascha, does not separate the Resurrection of Christ from the "universal resurrection," which originates and begins in the Resurrection of Christ.

Celebrating one week before Pascha Christ's raising of His friend Lazarus, the Church solemnly and joyfully confirms that this miracle is a "confirmation of the universal resurrection." But in the minds of the faithful these two inseparable halves of the faith — faith in the Resurrection of Christ and faith in the "universal resurrection" initiated by Him — have somehow become disconnected. What remains intact is the belief in the rising of Christ from the dead, His Resurrection in the body, which He invites the doubting Thomas to touch: "Reach hither thy finger, and thrust it into My wounds: and be not faithless, but believing."

Now as for our mortal and final destiny and fate after death, which we have begun to call the world beyond the grave, this destiny and fate has gradually ceased to be interpreted in the light of the Resurrection of Christ and its relation to it. As far as Christ is concerned we confirm that He rose from the dead, but as far as we ourselves are concerned we say that we believe in the immortality of the soul, in which the Greeks and Jews believed ages before Christ, in which to this day all religions believe without exception, and for which belief the Resurrection of Christ (however strange this may sound) is even unnecessary.

What is the reason behind this odd bifurcation? The reason lies in our concept of death, or better in a different concept of death as the separation of the soul from the body. All pre-Christian and extra-Christian "religiosity" teaches that this separation of the soul from the body should be regarded as not only "natural" but also positive, that in this should be seen a liberation of the soul from the body, which prevents the soul from being spiritual, heavenly, pure and blessed. Since in human experience evil, disease, suffering and the passions arise from the body, the goal and meaning of religion and the religious life become naturally the liberation of the soul from this bodily "prison," a liberation precisely in death which allows it to attain its fullness. But it must be most strongly emphasized that this concept of death is not Christian, and furthermore it is incompatible with Christianity, manifestly contradictory. Christianity proclaims, confirms and teaches, that this separation of the soul from the body, which we call death, is evil. It is not part of God's creation. It is that which entered the world, making it subject to itself, but opposed to God and violating His design, His desire for the world, for mankind and for life. It is that which Christ came to destroy.

But again, in order not so much to understand, but rather to sense, to feel this Christian interpretation of death, we must begin by saying at least a few words about this design of God's, as much as has been disclosed to us in the Holy Scriptures and revealed to its fullness in Christ, in His teaching, in his death and in His Resurrection.

This design may be simply and concisely outlined thus: God created man with a body and soul, i.e. at once both spiritual and material, and it is precisely this union of spirit, soul and body that is called man in the Bible and in the Gospel. Man, as created by God, is an animate body and an incarnate spirit, and for that reason any separation of them, and not only the final separation, in death, but even before death, any violation of that union is evil. It is a spiritual catastrophe. From this we receive our belief in the salvation of the world through the incarnate God, i.e. again, above all, our belief in His acceptance of flesh and body, not "body-like," but a body in the fullest sense of the word: a body that needs food, that tires and that suffers. Thus that which in the Scriptures is called life, that life, which above all consists of the human body animated by the spirit and of the spirit made flesh, comes to an end — at death — in the separation of soul and body. No, man does not disappear in death, for creation may not destroy that which God has called from nothingness into being. But man is plunged into death, into the darkness of lifelessness and debility. He, as the Apostle Paul says, is given over to destruction and ruin.

Here, I would once more like to repeat and emphasize that God did not create the world for this separation, dying, ruin and corruption. And for this reason the Christian Gospel proclaims that "the last enemy to be destroyed is death." The Resurrection is the recreation of the world in its original beauty and totality. It is the complete spiritualization of matter and the complete incarnation of the spirit in God's creation. The world has been given to man as his life, and for this reason, according to our Christian Orthodox teaching, God will not annihilate it but will transfigure it into "a new heaven and a new earth," into man's spiritual body, into the temple of God's presence and God's glory in creation.

"The last enemy to be destroyed is death…" And that destruction, that extermination of death began when the Son of God Himself in His immortal love for us voluntarily descended into death and its darkness, filling its despair and horror with His light and love. And this is why we sing on Pascha not only "Christ is risen from the dead," but also "trampling down death by death…"

He alone arose from the dead, but He has destroyed our death, destroying its dominion, its despair, its finality. Christ does not promise us Nirvana or some sort of misty life beyond the grave, but the resurrection of life, a new heaven and a new earth, the joy of the universal resurrection. "The dead shall arise, and those in the tombs will sing for joy…" Christ in risen, and life abides, life lives… That is the meaning; that is the unending joy of this truly central and fundamental confirmation of the Symbol of Faith: "And the third day, He rose again according to the Scriptures." According to the Scriptures, i.e. in accordance with that knowledge of life, with that design for the world and humanity, for the soul and body, for the spirit and matter, for life and death, which has been revealed to us in the Holy Scriptures. This is the entire faith, the entire love, and the entire hope of Christianity. And this is why the Apostle Paul says, "If Christ is not risen, then your faith is in vain."

by Protopresbyter Alexander Schmemann
Translated from Russian by Robert A. Parent

Source: Russkaya mysl', Nos. 3299, 3300, March 13, 20, 1980.

On the Fear of Death

by Msgr. Charles Pope

For the faithful, the day we die is the greatest day of our life on this earth. Even if some final purifications await us, the beatific vision for which we long lies just ahead; our exile in this valley of tears is ended.

Is calling the day we die the greatest day of our life too strong a statement? I have seen some fellow Christians wince at this statement. In this age of emphasis on worldly comforts, medicine, and the secular, we rarely speak of Heaven—or Hell for that matter. I wonder if we have lost some of our longing for Heaven and cling too strongly to the trinkets of this life.

At the funeral of a relative several years ago, I was approached by a friend of the family. She was an unbeliever, a self-described secular humanist, and she made the following comment to me: "Perhaps there is Heaven for the faithful who believe that there is life after death, and perhaps, then, for them the day they die is the greatest day of their life, but I do not observe that Christians live as if they believe this. It seems to me that they are as anxious as anyone else about dying and earnestly seek to avoid death just as much as anyone else."

It was a very interesting observation, one that I found mildly embarrassing even though I quickly thought of some legitimate explanations. Even after giving her some of those explanations, some of the embarrassment lingered as to the kind of witness we Christians sometimes fail to give to our most fundamental values. Based on her remark- and I've heard it before - most of us Christians don't manifest a very ardent longing for Heaven.

There are, of course, some legitimate reasons that we do not rush towards death; there are also some less legitimate ones.

Here are some legitimate and understandable reasons that we may draw back from dying and may not at first think of the day we die as the greatest day of our life:

There is a natural fear of dying that is part of our physical makeup and, it would seem, hard-wired into our psyche as well. Every sentient being on this planet, man or animal, has a strong instinct for survival. Without this instinct, strongly tied to both hunger and sexual desire, we might not only die as individuals but as a species. It also drives us to look to the future, as we work to ensure the survival, even thriving, of our children and those who will come after us. It is a basic human instinct that we ought not to expect to disappear, because it has necessary and useful aspects.

We would like to finish certain important things before we die. It makes sense, for example, that parents would like to see their children well into adulthood. Parents rightly see their existence in this world as critical to their children. Hence, we cling to our life here not just for our own sake, but because others depend upon us.

The Christian is called to love life at every stage. Most of us realize that we are called to love and appreciate what we have here, for it is the gift of God. To so utterly despise this world that we wish only to leave it manifests a strange sort of ingratitude. It also shows a lack of understanding that life here prepares us for the fuller life that is to come. I remember that at a low point in my own life, afflicted with anxiety and depression, I asked the Lord to please end my life quickly and take me home out of this misery. Without hearing words, I felt the Lord's silent rebuke: "Until you learn to love the life you have now, you will not love eternal life. If you can't learn to appreciate the glory of the gifts of this life, then you will not and cannot embrace the fullness of eternal life." Indeed, I was seeing eternal life merely in terms of relief or escape from this life, rather than as the full blossoming of a life that has been healed and made whole. We don't embrace life by trying to escape from it. A healthy Christian attitude is to love life as we have it now, even as we yearn and strive for a life that we do not yet fully comprehend: a life that eye has not seen nor ear heard, what God has prepared for those who love Him.

We seek to set our life in order to some degree before we face judgment. While it is true that we can procrastinate, there is a proper sense of wanting time to make amends and to prepare to meet God.

We fear the experience of dying. Dying is something none of us has ever done before and we naturally tend to fear the unknown. Further, most of us realize that the dying process likely involves some degree of agony. Instinctively and understandably, we draw back from such things.

Even Jesus, in His human nature, recoiled at the thought of the agony before Him - so much so that He sweat blood and asked that the cup of suffering be taken from Him if possible. Manfully, though, He embraced His Father's will, and our benefit rather than His own. Still, in His humanity, He did recoil at the suffering soon to befall Him.

Despite this hesitancy to meet death, for a faithful Christian the day we die is the greatest day of our life.

While we ought to regard the day of our judgment with sober reverence, we should go with joyful hope to the Lord, who loves us and for whom we have longed. That day of judgment, awesome though it is, will for the future saint disclose only that which needs final healing in purgation, not that which merits damnation.

We don't hear much longing for our last day on this earth or for God and Heaven. Instead, we hear fretting about how we're getting older. We're anxious about our health, even the natural effects of aging. And there are such grim looks as death approaches! Where is the joy one might expect? Does our faith really make a difference for us or are we like those who have no hope? Older prayers referred to life in this world as an exile and expressed a longing for God and Heaven, but few of today's prayers or sermons speak this way.

Here are some of the not-so-legitimate reasons that we may draw back from dying:

We live comfortably. While comfort is not the same as happiness, it is very appealing. It is also very deceiving, seductive, and addictive. It is deceiving because it tends to make us think that this world can be our paradise. It is seductive because it draws and shifts us our focus away from the God of comforts to the comforts of God. We would rather have the gift than the Giver. It is addictive because we can't ever seem to get enough of it; we seem to spend our whole life working toward gaining more and more comforts. We become preoccupied by achieving rather than working toward our truest happiness, which is to be with God in Heaven.

Comfort leads to worldliness. Here, worldliness means focusing on making the world more comfortable, while allowing notions of God and Heaven to recede into the background. Even the so-called spiritual life of many Christians is almost wholly devoted to prayers asking to make this world a better place: Improve my health; fix my finances; grant me that promotion. While it is not wrong to pray about such things, the cumulative effect, combined with our silence on more spiritual and eternal things, gives the impression that we are saying to God, "Make this world a better place and I'll just be happy to stay here forever." What a total loss! This world is not the point. It is not the goal, Heaven is. Being with God forever is the goal.

Worldliness makes Heaven and being with God seem more abstract and less desirable. With this magnificent comfort that leads to worldly preoccupation, longing for Heaven and going to be with God recedes into the background. Today, few speak of Heaven or even long for it. They'd rather have that new cell phone or the cable upgrade with the sports package. Some say that they never hear about Hell in sermons, and in many parishes (though not in mine, thank you), regrettably, that is the case. They almost never hear about Heaven, either (except in some cheesy funeral moments that miss the target altogether and make Heaven seem trivial rather than a glorious gift to be sought). Heaven just isn't on most people's radar, except as a vague abstraction for some far off time—certainly not now.

This perfect storm of comfort and worldliness leads to slothful aversion to heavenly gifts. That may be why, when I say that the day we die is the greatest day of our life, or that I'm glad to be getting older because I'm getting closer to the time when I can go home to God, or that I can't wait to meet Him, people look at me strangely and seem to wonder whether I need therapy.

No, I don't need therapy - at least not for this. I'm simply verbalizing the ultimate longing of every human heart. Addiction to comfort has deceived and seduced us such that we are no longer in touch with our heart's greatest longing; we cling to passing things. I would argue (as did my family friend) that we seem little different from those who have no hope. We no longer witness to a joyful journey to God that says, "I'm closer to home. Soon and very soon I am going to see the King. Soon I will be done with the troubles of this world. I'm going home to be with God!"

There are legitimate, understandable reasons for being averse to dying, but how about even a glimmer of excitement from the faithful as we see that our journey is coming to an end? St. Paul wrote the following to the Thessalonians regarding death: We do not want you to be like those who have no hope (1 Thess 4:13). Do we witness to the glory of going to be with God or not? On the whole, it would seem that we do not.

The video below features a rendition of the hymn "For All the Saints Who from Their Labors Rest." Here is a brief passage from the lyrics:

The golden evening brightens in the West,
Soon, soon, to faithful warriors cometh rest.
Sweet is the calm of Paradise most blest. Alleluia!


Source: Archdiocese of Washington

Talking To Children About Death

By Albert Rossi & Fr. John Schimchik

The morning my wife died I had to make a very difficult decision. The nurse said to me, "Your wife isn't going to live until noon. You must get your son out of here." I said, "Thank you for your opinion." I wondered to myself, should I take my son, Tim, age 11, away from the deathbed scene of his mother, or not. Tim had "camped out" with the rest of us in the Hospice Room of the hospital for the last two and a half days. His mother had been in and out of hospitals for the past year, slowly dying of bone cancer. Tim had been part of the entire process. Should I take the nurse's advice, and "protect" him, or should I allow him to bring his experience to a natural conclusion with the rest of us? Would it help him, or harm him? Tough question for a man in his own agony. But, this is the way it sometimes happens, when we seem least resourceful.

Most of us, at some point in our lives, will have to make some decisions about how to treat children concerning the death of a loved one, or a friend, or neighbor, or a pet.

What guidelines can we use?

There Are No Magic Words

This article is an integration of Father John Shimchick's insights and a few of my experiences, all intertwined together as one article. We hope it comes out smoothly.

More important than the "right" words with the child is the right attitude. If we can be open to the child, then the child will help us know what he/she needs. Each child in the family is unique, and will have different needs of the moment. Our role is to try to assist the child express her/his feelings in his/her unique way. The first guideline is to be open and honest about how we feel. Crying, and being sad are quite appropriate at those times.

With my Tim, I decided to go one step at a time. I suggested that he and I take a walk outside. It was one of the most difficult four block walks I have ever taken. We walked around the hospital perimeter. After a few niceties, I said that I had something very important to tell him. I then said, quite simply and plainly, "Tim, the nurse said your mother is going to die this morning. I want to be the one to tell you so you know what's happening." I had promised each of my two children that I would not keep secrets from them about their mother's condition. Tim's reaction was stoic. I might as well have said,

"The nurse said it is going to rain this morning." I knew then that Tim needed to be part of what was coming later in the morning. He had been part of all that preceded, and to have him go home now would have been terribly incomplete. With another child the same age I might have chosen differently. I don't know.

At my wife's bed that morning was myself, my daughter, Beth age 16, my wife's mother, Father Tom Hopko our priest, and half dozen friends who had "camped out" at the Hospice Room with us this weekend. Father Tom led us in soft prayer as my wife breathed laboriously. After a while, she began to breath short, sweet "baby breaths." In a few moments she died. We were all holding hands. When she died, the doctor came in, listened to the non-heart beat, and said the perfect, non-clinical sentence, "I'm sorry." The doctor left. We all began to cry and weep. Tim wailed so loudly that I thought someone might come in to try to quiet him, because of the hospital atmosphere. Tim wailed louder than all of us combined, and wailed for a while. He needed the safety of the loving deathbed-scene to let his horrid feelings out.

It often happens that our most appropriate role is that of a loving, quiet observer who is near but unobtrustrive. We need to be available for what the child needs, not what we think we must "provide."

Listening often answers the deep needs of the child, and the adult as well.

Children Take Words Literally

How we talk about and react to death would seem to be related to how we experience and deal with any kind of loss: moving, divorce, death (not to mention all the countless other smaller losses), though varying in extremes, have much in common.

Fred Rogers (of Mr. Roger's Neighborhood) introduced an article by Hedda Sharapan on this topic. She gives some brilliant examples. One boy was told by his father that they were going to the funeral parlor to view the body of the boy's grandfather. The boy was very anxious -- until he saw his grandfather in one piece. He had expected his head to be missing and only his body to be there.


This literalness can cause difficulties with the concept of Heaven. Many words might be frightening, or confusing. "If Heaven is up, then why do they put my sister in the ground?" This is a legitimate misunderstanding of a child. Or, "If Heaven is up, then can

we take an airplane to see my Mommy?" Often the sentences about heaven are meant to be reassuring, but may or may not be. For example, "Your Dad is up in heaven watching over you," might be misinterpreted as, "My Dad is spying on me and I have no privacy."

How might an Orthodox Christian try to explain what or where is Heaven or Paradise? Though there are a number of images in the Scriptures, it would be appropriate to understand Heaven as not so much a place, as a relationship. At the time of the crucifixion the repentant thief was told by Jesus that "today you will be with me in Paradise" (Lk 23:43) and in Revelation it is said, "To him who overcomes I will give to eat from the tree of life, which is in the midst of the Paradise of God" (2:7). Paradise, as a word, means "garden." So, to be returned to the garden has all of the implications of life as relationship and communion with God that Adam and Eve had in THE garden before the fall.

This is emphasized throughout the Orthodox funeral and memorial services (the parastas or panikhida) by the use of the word, "with." The choir sings, "with the saints give rest" and "with the souls of the righteous departed." The epistle used most often for the funeral service ends with the words, "And so we shall always be with the Lord" (1 Thess. 4:17). Heaven is the place where we will know and be with God and with all of those who also wanted to know and be with God forever. We are reminded in the Gospel of St. John that "this is eternal life" to know God and Jesus Christ (17:3). To know and be known, to be with God always are what it means to be "remembered eternally" (thinking here of the final hymn -- "memory eternal").


This raises questions also about what we are destined to become upon death: Are humans meant to become angels? Our society has a current infatuation with angels, particularly as intermediaries or messengers between divine life and humanity. One is even given the notion that humans are called to eventually become angels (think here of the popular show about angels on TV or the famous Christmas movie, "It's A Wonderful Life" with Jimmy Stewart). Yet, though one will hear even within Orthodoxy the call, especially for monastics, to live an "angelic life" and during the liturgy to "mystically represent the cherubim" (literally to be "icons" of the cherubim), humans and angels -- as those "things visible and invisible" mentioned in the Creed -- are created by God for different purposes and are not meant to be the same. During the Feast of the Ascension one hears how the angels are "amazed" to see a man more exalted than themselves (Lord, I Call verses). There are a number of verses in the opening chapters of the epistle to the Hebrews that emphasize that Christ's human nature has "become so much better than the angels" (1:4). So, even though humans may strive for an angelic "life," to be truly human, does not imply literally becoming an angel.

Though we have offered some suggestions coming from the theological tradition of the Orthodox Church, realistically, a few words, born out of prayer, spoken to a grieving child are much more valuable than routine, "holy" clichés.

Images Of Rest And Sleep

How do we keep and respect the Church's language of "falling asleep in the Lord," giving "rest" to a servant, etc., without placing misunderstood imagery in our children's minds? For example, if we were to tell children that Uncle John (Father John's wife's uncle) will look like he's "sleeping" when they view him in a coffin -- how do they hear that and react from their own context of what sleep and being asleep means? If we tell children that the person is "asleep," is it any wonder that children think the dead person will, like themselves, wake up from the sleep.

Perhaps the best way to talk to a child about a person who has died is to say the person "has died," or "is dead." By being honest, straightforward and as literally accurate as possible, at least we reduce the possible confusion in the child's mind.

Value Of Intercessory Prayers/Rites Of Memory

In their evening prayers, Fr. John's children remembered their mother's uncle. On the first anniversary of his death, upon coming to church for his memorial service the children were reminded to light a candle and remember Uncle John in a prayer. Father Schmemann used to say that "to love is to remember." That might not be the case in every relationship, but certainly when we love another, we can FIND that person again in remembering them before God; we can, in a way, be with them again.

On the fortieth day anniversary of my (Al Rossi) wife's death, I drove to the cemetery, two and a half hours away, with my two children. At the funeral, there were many people, priests, incense, songs and flowers. At the fortieth day remembrance there were only the three of us, in the rain under one umbrella, with not another person anywhere to be seen. The sky was dark, the atmosphere was grim. Nothing had been done to straighten out the dead flowers atop the grave.

That particular moment is extraordinarily vivid in my mind. I felt puny. My faith in a living God, and a glorified Resurrection seemed to be folly. At that very moment, Timothy asked one of the most intimate questions of his life. He said, "Dad, Mom has been dead forty days. She's in the ground. What do you think her face looks like now?" I was horrified at the image which came to my imagination. No doubt, Timothy had a similar image, maggots and all. His beautiful mother was decaying, and he imagined something about it. He had seen horror movies. He knew. And I knew that he knew by the look on his face.

I don't recall what I said, exactly. Probably, in the long run what I said is not the important thing. What is vitally important is that we three were together, alone as a puny family, experiencing this ritual together. That moment was a terrifying test of my faith, and no doubt, the faith of my children. We had to face the reality of the fate of the woman we each loved so dearly, each in a different way. I drew solace and strength from my children. I really think they knew that, then. They drew strength from each other, and from me.

By human standards, that ritual can be questioned as scarring and unnecessary. By my understanding of the Christina faith, something profound happened, beyond words, that rainy fortieth day, something bonding and faith-giving for the three of us.

Would I do the fortieth day ritual over, knowing then what I know now? The answer is unequivocally YES. That was one of the darkest, most trying days of my entire life. And, that was one of the most memorable, most faith strengthening days of my entire life. A death/resurrection happened to me that day. And, I think, to my children.

When we love another, we FIND that other person in remembering the person before God.

Psychological Issues

Probably the most important consideration is the age and development level of the child. Some children who are eight years old are the emotional equivalent of eleven, and other eight year olds are the equivalent of a five year old. The cutting edge is empathy, the ability to get out of the "self" and understand the feelings of another, and the ability to accept and articulate feelings.

One primary issue for the child is abandonment. "Who will take care of me," is the implicit question in the child's mind. Children may not be as interested in where the dead parent went -- Heaven -- but in survival issues such as food, shelter and acceptable clothes. The child may even need to know that in the event of a future catastrophe, that provisions have been made to take care of them. They need reassurance that they will never be totally abandoned, no matter what.

Another primary issue is guilt. It would not be uncommon for a child to genuinely believe that "if I had acted better, my Mommy would not have died." Magical thinking is part of the child's makeup. The child may think, "When I got mad, I wished my Grandmother was dead. Now she died. Maybe I did it."

Still another issue is that of anger. Children's anger can take the form of, "Why me?" or, "Why my Mommy?" This anger might be directed at God, or the surviving parent. Children need the freedom to shake their fists in the sky, and to express the absurdity of the moment. It can help to let the child know that he/she is not alone in these feelings.

The evening of my wife's death I was driving my son, Timothy, to buy a blazer for the funeral. In the darkness of the moving car I said, "Son, your mother and I didn't always agree. Is there anything you feel bad about that you could talk to me about?" Tim said, "No, you and Mom only had one fight, and Beth and I sat on the porch swing until it was over. But, there is something I want to say. You know how Father Tom came over every day and we prayed every day for her to get better. Well, today she died. All those prayers went down the drain." I felt inadequate, dumbfounded and helpless to say anything to make sense, or to take away his pain. I was quiet, then said something like, "I don't understand that either, son." The last thing he needed the night his mother died was a mini-sermon about how good God is, or how his mother was better off. Tim was angry with God, and that was his way of saying it. I'm delighted that he felt free enough to share his interior with me.

Children's psychological issues, like those of adults, are fundamentally issues with their deepest Self, the living God living within them. Adults are merely stewards, serving and not controlling.

Protection Or Overprotection

What kind of protection is warranted and what kind might not really be helpful? For example, there was a child who did not understand about the burial of her grandmother and had to make something up. She decided that they really put her body in the attic, and that's why the attic was someplace she was not allowed to visit.

Perhaps the best "protection" we can give our children is to give them plenty of opportunity to let us know what questions they have, and then give them straight, simple answers to their questions.

In her article, Hedda Sharapan gives some interesting examples of children's questions. Children want to know what death is like in terms they can understand. The child may ask if the dead person will get hungry, feel cold, make a "bm" or "pee-pee." The child may ask what position a person is in when he dies. One child helped a neighbor bury a pet fish. Some time later, the child was gazing into the fish tank and asked, "Which is the one that died?" By asking the same question over and over, the child is gradually absorbing the information.

Each child grieves in her/his own way depending upon age, temperament and experience. There is not a "unique way of grieving" for a child. Children cry, are silent, get into trouble, become better behaved, etc. Grieving and mourning take time and, again, there doesn't seem to be a pat sequence, or time frame. The best cues seem to come from the child herself.

There's a wonderful book called, When Dinosaurs Die -- A Guide to Understanding Death, by Laurie Krasny Brown and Marc Brown. The book is written for children. The book is helpful in placing death in the cycle of life (unnatural as death might in fact really be now from a Christian perspective!). It answers some serious questions in good ways. What does "dead" mean? (p.10). Feelings about death (p. 12). How can children express their feelings to the families of those who have died (p. 18). How do/can children say good-bye to a loved one (p. 20). The book also shows various funeral customs (p. 26ff).

This, then, takes the form of providing information about life. It is also best to talk about death in a "smaller" context, if possible, that is, the death of a plant, or animal, or bird.

Violent Or Sudden Deaths

There is absolutely no way to "protect" the child from mega traumas, such as the sudden, or violent death of a loved one. For example, one family of children saw their father shoot and kill their mother. Other, equally tragic, traumas happen all the time.

Children from such events suffer from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). These children need special attention. There is evidence that brain chemistry changes occur in children, and in adults, as a result of PTSD. The therapy is usually long termed, without necessarily a psychotropic medication, but with much tenderness and patience.

Horror gets frozen in memory. The child has a perilously lowered set point for alarm, leaving the child to react to ordinary life moments as if they were emergencies. Further information on PTSD can be found in the book, Emotional Intelligence, by Daniel Goleman, (p. 200ff.) These children can emit a genuine startled reaction to the sound of a fire truck, or a dog barking. Adults need to allow this as normative, perhaps for a long time.

The therapy often includes art, a medium to the unconscious. Sometimes metaphor, story, myth and the arts generally are helpful. Dr. Judith Herman in Emotional Intelligence summarizes the therapy in the following stages: First, the child must attain a sense of safety. Then the therapy is - 1. remembering the details of the trauma, 2. mourning the loss it has brought (emotionally), and 3. reestablishing a normal life. Dr. Herman points out that there is a biological order to this sequence, which seems to reflect the sequence of the emotional brain's relearning.

The therapy includes retelling, and reexperiencing as far as is possible, the sordid details of the trauma. This includes what was heard, smelled and felt, including the emotions of dread, disgust and nausea.

There is a brain architecture which underlies emotional relearning, and dictates the speed and the progress of the recovery. There is no way to short circuit this process.

If there is no way to get the child of PTSD into professional therapy, then the parent would do well to seek short term professional therapy for her/himself, to receive a bibliography and to receive personal direction to help the parent help the child.

Emotional circuitry can be relearned. PTSD can heal.


Should children attend funeral services, or go to wakes? Are they too young? Will it scar them? In general, it seems that children, even the very young, can benefit significantly by sharing at least some of the rituals surrounding death, if the child has been prepared for what to expect, and we have been open to questions.

Wakes and funerals provide a social structure, a safe place, to express grief and receive support. Children need to express grief, and receive support. Funerals provide a sense of finality, and closure, otherwise difficult to attain.

Whether a child is allowed to see the dead boy in a casket can be a serious decision for a parent to make. Again, in general, the actual experience is probably less traumatic than the vivid imagination the child might otherwise provide. When bringing children to a funeral home, especially when the departed is a family member or close friend, try to get there early and allow the children enough time to look and ask questions. Children might even ask what the dead body feels like. Many funeral directors are well schooled in handling the questions and concerns of children.

Many parents will attest that being together with the child at the wake, and funeral, was a growth experience, precisely because it was done "together." Funerals and wakes can provide a common fund of experience, which can be shared then, and later.

Precisely in the efforts to share, to listen, to reach out to the child is the child provided with the answer that someone does "care." And that, in the last analysis, is all that matters. And, that is a gift from God, freely bestowed upon the imploring adult who wants to do it God's way.

There are no magic words. But, there is an all providing God who does, and will, fill up in us the "right words at the right time," if we but ask Him.


In moments of death impacting a child, the adult will feel inept and without the "right words." These are special, grace filled moments precisely because the adult is keenly aware of human inadequacy. Enter God. This is a "moment of opportunity" for the adult to turn to God, beg for help, and rely upon His infinitely wise guidance. No two situations, no two "moments of opportunity" are the same.


Brown, Laurie K. & Brown, Marc. When Dinosaurs Die. New York: Little, Brown and Company, 1996.

Goleman, Daniel. Emotional Intelligence. New York: Bantam books, 1995.

Sharapan, Hedda B. "Talking With Young Children About Death," Family Communications, inc., 4802 Fifth Avenue, Pittsburgh, PA. 15213. (412-687-2990).

Readings That Present An Orthodox Approach To The Subject Of Death

Coniaris, Anthony. Introducing the Orthodox Church.

Hopko, Thomas. Worship. Section on the "funeral"

The Living God, vol. 2 (Crestwood: SVS Press, 1989), 352-381.

Schemmann, Alexander. For the Life of the World. (Crestwood: SVS Press, 1988), 95-106.

Ware, Kallistos. "'One Body in Christ': Death and The Communion of Saints," Sobornost/ECR 3:2 (1981), 179-191.

Questions For Discussion:

1. What has been your experience in sharing the death of a loved one with a child? What has helped you? What has been difficult?

2. How can we help a child to remember a loved one who has died? What can we discuss with him/her from the Church's rites of remembrance?

Examples: remembering the departed at the Proskomedia (the preparation of the bread and wine before the Liturgy), lighting candles and vigil lights in memory of the departed, memorial services at appropriate anniversaries during the year, Memorial Saturday services for the departed, the blessing of graves.

What other "rites" might be appropriate for remembering?

About The Authors:

Dr. Albert Rossi is Professor of Psychology at Pace University, Pleasantville, NY, and has a private practice in family counseling. He is a consultant to the OCA Unit on Education and Community Life Ministries.

Fr. John Schimchick is pastor of Holy Cross Orthodox Church, Medford, NJ. He is also a member of the OCA Unit on Education and Community Life Ministries.

Taken from the OCA Resource Handbook for Lay Ministries

The Sorrows of Death Surrounded Me
The sorrows of death surrounded me,
the sorrows of hell encompassed me;
and in my affliction I called upon the Lord,
and He heard my voice from His holy temple.

Ps. I will love Thee, O Lord, my strength:
the Lord is my firmament, my refuge, and my deliverer.

(Introit of the Mass of Septuagesima Sunday,

Psalm 18: 5–7, 2–3

Psalm 18 (NKJV)
God, the Sovereign Savior

To the Chief Musician. A Psalm of David the servant of the Lord, who spoke to the Lord the words of this song on the day that the Lord delivered him from the hand of all his enemies and from the hand of Saul. And he said:

1 I will love You, O Lord, my strength.
2 The Lord is my rock and my fortress and my deliverer;
My God, my strength, in whom I will trust;
My shield and the horn of my salvation, my stronghold.
3 I will call upon the Lord, who is worthy to be praised;
So shall I be saved from my enemies.

4 The pangs of death surrounded me,
And the floods of ungodliness made me afraid.
5 The sorrows of Sheol surrounded me;
The snares of death confronted me.
6 In my distress I called upon the Lord,
And cried out to my God;
He heard my voice from His temple,
And my cry came before Him, even to His ears.

7 Then the earth shook and trembled;
The foundations of the hills also quaked and were shaken,
Because He was angry.
8 Smoke went up from His nostrils,
And devouring fire from His mouth;
Coals were kindled by it.
9 He bowed the heavens also, and came down
With darkness under His feet.
10 And He rode upon a cherub, and flew;
He flew upon the wings of the wind.
11 He made darkness His secret place;
His canopy around Him was dark waters
And thick clouds of the skies.
12 From the brightness before Him,
His thick clouds passed with hailstones and coals of fire.

13 The Lord thundered from heaven,
And the Most High uttered His voice,
Hailstones and coals of fire.[a]
14 He sent out His arrows and scattered the foe,
Lightnings in abundance, and He vanquished them.
15 Then the channels of the sea were seen,
The foundations of the world were uncovered
At Your rebuke, O Lord,
At the blast of the breath of Your nostrils.

16 He sent from above, He took me;
He drew me out of many waters.
17 He delivered me from my strong enemy,
From those who hated me,
For they were too strong for me.
18 They confronted me in the day of my calamity,
But the Lord was my support.
19 He also brought me out into a broad place;
He delivered me because He delighted in me.

20 The Lord rewarded me according to my righteousness;
According to the cleanness of my hands
He has recompensed me.
21 For I have kept the ways of the Lord,
And have not wickedly departed from my God.
22 For all His judgments were before me,
And I did not put away His statutes from me.
23 I was also blameless before Him,
And I kept myself from my iniquity.
24 Therefore the Lord has recompensed me according to my righteousness,
According to the cleanness of my hands in His sight.

25 With the merciful You will show Yourself merciful;
With a blameless man You will show Yourself blameless;
26 With the pure You will show Yourself pure;
And with the devious You will show Yourself shrewd.
27 For You will save the humble people,
But will bring down haughty looks.

28 For You will light my lamp;
The Lord my God will enlighten my darkness.
29 For by You I can run against a troop,
By my God I can leap over a wall.
30 As for God, His way is perfect;
The word of the Lord is proven;
He is a shield to all who trust in Him.

31 For who is God, except the Lord?
And who is a rock, except our God?
32 It is God who arms me with strength,
And makes my way perfect.
33 He makes my feet like the feet of deer,
And sets me on my high places.
34 He teaches my hands to make war,
So that my arms can bend a bow of bronze.

35 You have also given me the shield of Your salvation;
Your right hand has held me up,
Your gentleness has made me great.
36 You enlarged my path under me,
So my feet did not slip.

37 I have pursued my enemies and overtaken them;
Neither did I turn back again till they were destroyed.
38 I have wounded them,
So that they could not rise;
They have fallen under my feet.
39 For You have armed me with strength for the battle;
You have subdued under me those who rose up against me.
40 You have also given me the necks of my enemies,
So that I destroyed those who hated me.
41 They cried out, but there was none to save;
Even to the Lord, but He did not answer them.
42 Then I beat them as fine as the dust before the wind;
I cast them out like dirt in the streets.

43 You have delivered me from the strivings of the people;
You have made me the head of the nations;
A people I have not known shall serve me.
44 As soon as they hear of me they obey me;
The foreigners submit to me.
45 The foreigners fade away,
And come frightened from their hideouts.

46 The Lord lives!
Blessed be my Rock!
Let the God of my salvation be exalted.
47 It is God who avenges me,
And subdues the peoples under me;
48 He delivers me from my enemies.
You also lift me up above those who rise against me;
You have delivered me from the violent man.
49 Therefore I will give thanks to You, O Lord, among the Gentiles,
And sing praises to Your name.

50 Great deliverance He gives to His king,
And shows mercy to His anointed,
To David and his descendants forevermore.

Poem: 'Tis a Fearful Thing
'Tis a fearful thing
to love what death can touch.

A fearful thing
to love, to hope, to dream, to be –

to be,
And oh, to lose.

A thing for fools, this,

And a holy thing,

a holy thing
to love.

For your life has lived in me,
your laugh once lifted me,
your word was gift to me.

To remember this brings painful joy.

'Tis a human thing, love,
a holy thing, to love
what death has touched.

by Yehuda HaLevi

About The Author:

Yehuda Halevi was an 11th/12th century Andalusian Jewish physician, poet and philosopher. He was born in Spain, either in Toledo or Tudela, in 1075 or 1086, and died in Jerusalem in 1141, at that time under Crusader rule.

Halevi is considered one of the greatest Hebrew poets, celebrated both for his religious and secular poems, many of which appear in present-day liturgy. His greatest philosophical work was The Kuzari.

Source: James Boroff

Remembering the Dead

by Robert Moynihan, PhD.

"Every time we are faced with the death of a loved one or of someone we knew well, the question arises: 'What will become of his life, his work, his service to the Church?' The Book of Wisdom tells us that they are in God's hands!"
-Pope Francis, homily at a Mass in memory of all the cardinals and bishops who died during 2012-2019.

"Our sins are also in God's hands, those merciful hands with their 'wounds' of love. It is not by chance that Jesus wanted to preserve the wounds on his hands to make us feel his mercy."
-Pope Francis

"Not even the powers of hell…"

Pope Francis, in a brief but moving homily, said that "not even the powers of hell" can separate us from God's love.

He was celebrating an annual Mass in memory of all the cardinals, archbishops and bishops in the Church who have died during the past year.

The most striking expression in today's homily, which included, once again, a striking reflection on sin, was in reference to "God's hands."

Those who pass away in this world go into "the hands" of God, the Pope said.

"The hand is a sign"

"The hand is a sign of welcome and protection, it is the sign of a personal relationship of respect and loyalty: to offer one's hand, to shake hands," the Pope said. "These zealous pastors who have dedicated their lives to the service of God and to their brothers are in the hands of God."

But the Pope did not leave this image there. Rather, he made it richer and more profound - and, finally, even more hopeful.

He did so by referring once again, as he has so often in these months, to human sin - to the one thing that can separate us from God - and how even the consequences of that sin (that is, ultimately, death; for only what is holy, that is, unmarred by sin, or what has been sanctified, that is, made holy despite sin, can live eternally), can be overcome through God's love and forgiveness.

"Our sins are also in God's hands, those merciful hands with their 'wounds' of love," the Pope said.

"It is not by chance that Jesus wanted to preserve the wounds on his hands to make us feel his mercy," he continued. "This is our strength and our hope."

By emphasizing once again the mysterious fact that Jesus preserved the wounds of the nails in his hands even after his resurrection (so strikingly narrated in the story of doubting Thomas, who placed his finger in the wounds of the risen Christ), Francis makes clear that his vision of reality is rooted in the "fact" of Christ's resurrection.

"This reality, which is full of hope, is the prospect of final resurrection, of eternal life, to which the 'righteous,' those who accept the Word of God and are obedient to His Spirit, are destined," Francis said.

The Pope's homily is brief. But it is touching. All of us have loved ones who have gone before us. All of stand likewise before that final passage. We are all mortal.

In his words today, Francis offers us a vision of hope, one that can perhaps be consoling to us, in times when darkness and death may seem to prevail.

In that sense, this sermon may be one worth keeping, and re-reading from time to time.

The Text of the Pope's Homily

Homily at Memorial Mass for Deceased Cardinals and Bishops of the Past Year, November 4, 2013, St. Peter's Basilica

By Pope Francis

In the spiritual atmosphere of the month of November which is marked by the memory of the faithful departed, we remember our brother Cardinals and Bishops from around the world who have returned to the Father's house during the past year. While we offer for each of them this Holy Eucharist, let us ask the Lord to grant them the heavenly reward promised to good and faithful servants.

We listened to the words of St. Paul: "I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither our fears for today nor our worries about tomorrow - not even the powers of hell can separate us from God's love, which is in Jesus Christ our Lord" (Romans 8:38-39 ).

The Apostle speaks of the love of God as the deepest, most invincible motive for our trust in Christian hope.

He lists the opposing and mysterious forces that can threaten the path of faith.

But he states with confidence that even if our entire existence is surrounded by threats, nothing will ever separate us from the love that Christ himself gained for us, giving of himself completely.

Even evil powers that are hostile to man are powerless in the face to the intimate union of love between Jesus and those who welcome him with faith.

This reality of faithful love that God has for each of us helps us to face our daily life, which is sometimes slow and tiring, with serenity and strength.

Only the sin of man can break this bond, but even in this case God will always go in search for him to restore that union that lasts even after death, it is indeed a union that in the final encounter with the Father reaches its climax.

This certainty gives a new and full meaning to earthly life and opens us to hope for life beyond death.

In fact, every time we are faced with the death of a loved one or of someone we knew well, the question arises: "What will become of his life, his work, his service to the Church?" The Book of Wisdom tells us that they are in God's hands!

The hand is a sign of welcome and protection, it is the sign of a personal relationship of respect and loyalty: to offer one's hand, to shake hands.

These zealous pastors who have dedicated their lives to the service of God and to their brothers are in the hands of God.

They are well looked after and they will not be corroded by death.

All their days interwoven with joys and sufferings, hopes and labors, fidelity to the Gospel and passion for the spiritual and material salvation of their flocks, are in the hands of God.

Our sins are also in God's hands, those merciful hands with their "wounds" of love. It is not by chance that Jesus wanted to preserve the wounds on his hands to make us feel his mercy. This is our strength and our hope!

This reality, which is full of hope, is the prospect of final resurrection, of eternal life, to which the "righteous", those who accept the Word of God and are obedient to His Spirit are destined.

This is how we want to remember our brother Cardinals and Bishops who are deceased. Men who were devoted to their vocations and to their service to the Church, which they loved as one loves a bride. In prayer, we entrust them to the mercy of the Lord, through the intercession of Our Lady and of St. Joseph, so they be welcomed into his kingdom of light and peace, where the just and those who have been faithful witnesses to the Gospel live eternally.

And let us also pray that the Lord may prepare us for this encounter. We do not know the date, but that encounter will take place!

Source: The Moynihan Letters


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