Monday, September 12, 2011

Death is Inevitable

Roman Bursak,  a seminarian from  Saint Petersburg Theological Academy in Russia, together with sponsoring board members of Seattle Sister Churches, visiting the monastery for a final farewell dinner.

And the Clock is Ticking

My recent bout with my heart brought the subject of mortality to the forefront for perhaps the first time in my life. At sixty-five I am no spring chicken, as the saying goes, but facing a possible bypass made me realize I needed to be prepared for my own inevitable demise. The clock is ticking for all of us, but once you have an illness you hear it for the first time.

A doctor friend made the observation that the greatest hazard to your life is conception, because it is a death sentence. From the moment we are born we begin to die. The best way to approach the inevitability of your own death is to face it head on. Our culture fears death, avoids the thought of death, masking it when it does happen.

My best friend in college died about four years ago. Although he was Orthodox his family had him cremated, so there was no final kiss, no burial, no closure. Following the funeral in the parish church his priest and I joined his family and friends at an art gallery, where his work was often featured. While mingling with his wife, son and their friends, I happened upon a small box sitting on a pillar meant for a sculpture. Looking closely I saw decoupaged photos of my friend's life. Among them was a photo of the two of us taken back in the 60's, during our college days. Looking around to make sure no one was looking, I lifted the box in order to take a closer look at the photo. Instantly I knew it was my friend's ashes, given the weight of the box. Laughing to myself, I knew he'd have been amused at the site of me discovering I was holding his remains in this small box.

Since my friend was not responsible for the cremation, an Orthodox service was allowed. His priest and I had a long discussion about the American way of death, how we send our dying family members off to hospitals or hospices, keeping the unpleasantness of death out of sight. We fear death, so avoid looking at it. Cremation is a convenient way of denying the reality of death because there is no body. Yet we Orthodox know that a burial service with an open coffin and graveside service are of benefit to friends and family because the whole process helps with closure.

Lowering the casket into the ground while everyone is there and allowing each person to drop a handful of earth into the grave, is a wonderful way of walking ourselves through the grief process. Denying the reality of death by hiding it from our consciousness only promotes a longer period of grief.

I have chosen the site of my own burial on the grounds of the monastery and hope to have simple pine box built while I can still look at it. Setting it up in a corner of my cabin would allow me to use it as a storage space before my death. I once heard of a man who used his pre-need coffin as a wine rack. 

Facing my own mortality better prepares me for that moment when I will be standing before God and accounting for my life. I'm not in a hurry mind you. I'm praying God will give me many years more for repentance. However, it is good that I think about my own death, for avoidance will not prolong my life, but it can make me put off repentance.

Love in Christ,
Abbot Tryphon

Farewell dinner for Roman (click on photo to enlarge)
Click on the above for Abbot Tryphon's short audio talks.

Monday September 12, 2011 / August 30, 2011

14th Week after Pentecost.
Sts. Alexander (340), John (595), and Paul the New (784), patriarchs of Constantinople.
Repose of Venerable Alexander, abbot of Svir (1533).
Translation of the relics (1724) of St. Alexander Nevsky (1263).
Uncovering of the relics of St. Daniel, prince of Moscow (1652).
New Hieromartyr Peter priest (1918).
New Hieromartyr Paul priest and Virgin-martyr Elizaveta and Martyr Theodore (1937).
New Hieromartyr Schema-archimandrite Ignatius (Lebedev) of St. Peter's Monastery (1938).
Hiero-confessor Archpriest Peter Cheltsov of Smolensk (1972).
Venerable Christopher of Palestine (6th c.).

2 Corinthians 12:10-19


10 Therefore I take pleasure in infirmities, in reproaches, in needs, in persecutions, in distresses, for Christ’s sake. For when I am weak, then I am strong.
Signs of an Apostle
11 I have become a fool in boasting; you have compelled me. For I ought to have been commended by you; for in nothing was I behind the most eminent apostles, though I am nothing. 12 Truly the signs of an apostle were accomplished among you with all perseverance, in signs and wonders and mighty deeds. 13 For what is it in which you were inferior to other churches, except that I myself was not burdensome to you? Forgive me this wrong!
Love for the Church
14 Now for the third time I am ready to come to you. And I will not be burdensome to you; for I do not seek yours, but you. For the children ought not to lay up for the parents, but the parents for the children. 15 And I will very gladly spend and be spent for your souls; though the more abundantly I love you, the less I am loved.
16 But be that as it may, I did not burden you. Nevertheless, being crafty, I caught you by cunning! 17 Did I take advantage of you by any of those whom I sent to you? 18 I urged Titus, and sent our brother with him. Did Titus take advantage of you? Did we not walk in the same spirit? Did we not walk in the same steps?
19 Again, do you think that we excuse ourselves to you? We speak before God in Christ. But we do all things, beloved, for your edification.

Mark 4:10-23

The Purpose of Parables
10 But when He was alone, those around Him with the twelve asked Him about the parable. 11 And He said to them, “To you it has been given to know the mystery of the kingdom of God; but to those who are outside, all things come in parables, 12 so that

      ‘ Seeing they may see and not perceive,
      And hearing they may hear and not understand;
      Lest they should turn,
      And their sins be forgiven them.’
The Parable of the Sower Explained
13 And He said to them, “Do you not understand this parable? How then will you understand all the parables? 14 The sower sows the word. 15 And these are the ones by the wayside where the word is sown. When they hear, Satan comes immediately and takes away the word that was sown in their hearts. 16 These likewise are the ones sown on stony ground who, when they hear the word, immediately receive it with gladness; 17 and they have no root in themselves, and so endure only for a time. Afterward, when tribulation or persecution arises for the word’s sake, immediately they stumble. 18 Now these are the ones sown among thorns; they are the ones who hear the word, 19 and the cares of this world, the deceitfulness of riches, and the desires for other things entering in choke the word, and it becomes unfruitful. 20 But these are the ones sown on good ground, those who hear the word, accept it, and bear fruit: some thirtyfold, some sixty, and some a hundred.”
Light Under a Basket
21 Also He said to them, “Is a lamp brought to be put under a basket or under a bed? Is it not to be set on a lampstand? 22 For there is nothing hidden which will not be revealed, nor has anything been kept secret but that it should come to light. 23 If anyone has ears to hear, let him hear.” 


  1. I was very plesaed to hear your thoughts on death. I was a non-Orthodox Christian for years and considered cremation a simple and easy alternative for my family. I now see the wisdom of the ancient traditions. I have also read about a monastic tradition of exuming the bones years later, cleaning and blessing them with red wine, and placing them in an ostuary (I may have spelled that wrong) with the bones of other monks. A kind of wine rack for relics I suppose.

  2. My mother, my mother-in-law and beloved aunt all were cremated. That fact has brought me more grief than their deaths. My mother-in-law's ashes were scattered. I visit the graves, but it is painful knowing that a tiny box is what is buried.

    It was hard to watch my mother die from lung cancer and my aunt from Alzheimer's Disease. They both fought until the bitter end. I have contemplated my own death, though I am young (52). I hope that God gives me the grace to embrace it with peace and prayer.

    Glory to God for all things.