This discussion is made up of five parts, with each part containing a reflection and a set of discussion questions. Either with your OCF chapter, a friend or two, or just on your own, read each reflection and discuss the questions related to it. You can choose to break the discussion into multiple sessions, tackling a part or two a week, or you can do the whole thing in one sitting.
Part I: Framing the Discussion
The Resurrection of Jesus Christ is one of the core doctrines of the Christian faith. It is the center of our rhythm of worship. It is the motivation for our ethical progression. It is the resolution of the struggles and evils in the world. It is what forms saints and reforms sinners. It is what allows us to know Who God is and what He wills for our lives.
The Resurrection is transformative in every sense of life. This is certainly something that all Christians understand in one form or another. But when asked about the Resurrection of Jesus, how often would we say that it is transformative in every sense of death?
In what ways does the Resurrection transform life?
What are some ways that the Resurrection transforms death and dying?
Part II: Early Christians and the Dead & Dying
Certainly, many of us recognize that the Resurrection changes the way that we ought to view death. We can point to the martyrs who were willing to die for Christ because they were no longer afraid of death thanks to His Resurrection. We can explain that because of the Resurrection we know that death is not the end of life — that there is more life to come and that we should not live as if this is our only opportunity to enjoy the world. We know that the Resurrection teaches us that life after death is heavenly and worthy of greater investment than this life — that sacrifice and suffering is not in vain when done for God and neighbor.
Yet how many of us would also say that the Resurrection affects our treatment of someone who is already dead or in the process of dying? How much does our treatment of the dead differ from people who do not share our faith?
In the first few centuries after Jesus’ Resurrection, the early Christians’ treatment of the dead and dying was one of the things that made them stand out among the Jewish community and the rest of the Roman Empire. Under the Old Covenant, interaction with a corpse ritually defiled a person because it meant that they had come into physical contact with death, which is the opposite of the gift of life which is offered to us through a relationship with God (Numbers 19:13). Similarly, in the pagan Graeco-Roman culture of the time, corpses were seen as things that polluted a society and needed to be disposed of outside of the city or simply burned to ashes (cremated). While Romans did view a formal funerary process as a way to honor a person, they typically reserved such processes for family members and wealthy members of society. The corpses of criminals, slaves, and the like were denied any ceremonial treatment. Finally, when it came to people who were sick and in the process of dying, the instinctual reaction in Roman society was to distance oneself from the dying person. For example, in times of plague, sick bodies would often be removed from homes and left to die on the streets in order to prevent them from infecting others in the household.
Yet despite being surrounded by all of the approaches to the dead and dying listed above, the first Christians established a radically different tradition. Instead of distancing themselves from dead bodies for fear of defilement, Christians intentionally worshiped in catacombs (underground tombs) and even went out of their way to risk their lives to collect the bodies of martyrs for veneration and for placement in altars used for the Eucharist. Likewise, Christians had the utmost respect and care for those who were in the process of dying. A paschal message by Bishop Dionysios of Alexandria preserved from the third century explains that during a recent pandemic Christians risked their lives to care for the sick and dying, “attending to their every need and ministering to them in Christ.” Proper burial was no longer just for close family members or important members of society. Instead, all people and even dead strangers on the street were treated with honor and care.
All in all, the first Christians were not only unafraid of death and dying, but found the treatment of the dead and dying to be such an important part of the Christian life that some ignorant Roman citizens even thought Christian communities were simply burial societies.
Why do you think that treatment of the dead and dying was so important to early Christians that they were willing to risk their lives to do it?
How do we reconcile the practices of the early Christians regarding the dead with Jesus’ saying to “Let the dead bury the dead” (Matthew 8:22/Luke 9:60)?
Part III: The Bodily Resurrection
The early Christian practice of caring for the dead and dying was rooted in two fundamental teachings of the Christian faith: the Resurrection and the fact that human beings are made in the image of God. If we pay attention to what the Scriptures tell us about Jesus’ Resurrection and the one to come for all human beings, we will notice very quickly that the Christian Resurrection is not just a spiritual reality. Just as Jesus was resurrected in a body (as we see in Thomas’ touching Jesus’ wounds or Jesus’ eating of fish after He Resurrected), so too will we be Resurrected in a body, says St. Paul in his First Epistle to the Corinthians (1 Cor 15:35-52).
The earliest Christians took the bodily Resurrection seriously, as they did the fact that every human being is made in the image of God. Because of this pair of teachings, they treated every dying person with profound love and care. And, just as importantly, they treated every corpse with profound love and care, knowing that it would one day be transformed in the Resurrection. For early Christians, a person’s body was not a mere cage for their soul but a part of who we are and who we will be in the Kingdom of Heaven.
For centuries, Christians preserved this mentality. When a person died, the body was kept in his or her family’s home, and members of the Church would come and keep watch mournfully for the next few days. Women would care for the body until the funeral, preparing it for burial as the myrrhbearers and Joseph of Arimathea did for Christ, and men would dig the grave or carry and lower the body into the tomb. After a person’s body had been buried for many years, his or her bones would be exhumed and kept in an ossuary. To this day, an Orthodox Christian funeral requires the presence of a body, and, save for certain exceptions, the body is always laid out openly and visibly in the middle of the Church for the service.
Finally, Christians throughout history refused to cremate their dead brethren because of the Resurrection. In fact, in certain times of persecution, one of the acts of disrespect that persecutors would engage in against Christians would be to burn the bodies of martyrs because (in both the East and the West) the act of returning a person’s body to the earth from which it came (Gen 3:19) was such an important practice for the Church.
What is the connection between the Resurrection and care for the dead and dying?
Why would Christians throughout history take care of a corpse when it would ultimately decompose and when God has the power to “raise up children for Abraham out of stones” (Matthew 3:9)?
Is the early Christian perspective of the dead and dying one that we preserve today? If not, what are the practices of our society that run counter to that perspective?
Part IV: The Fall From a Traditional Christian Ethos
In the past few centuries, western society has moved away from these Christian values to the point where many of us Christians passively participate in a very unChristian culture surrounding the dead and dying. In the Middle Ages, crises like the Black Plague caused people to begin to fear corpses again, and the practice of burning dead bodies soon rose to prominence in the West. Over time, bodies that were buried were no longer done so in direct contact with the earth but through coffins. Then, beginning in the 17th century, the first undertakers appeared in Europe, which distanced family members and others in the community from the burial process.
Eventually, dealing with the dead became a business. Cemeteries were no longer public plots of land but private grounds that people had to pay to be buried in. Likewise, funeral homes are run by private companies that seek to sell customers expensive burial packages that could range from $4,000-$40,000 for a casket, a cemetery plot, burial services, and a plot marker, which is approximately eight to ten times more than thirty years ago and still does not include the cost of florists and other funeral arrangements. In 2016, one of the largest funeral corporations in the world reported a revenue of over $3.031 billion.
Unfortunately, many Christians are the source of some of that corporate revenue for a few reasons. First, we fall victim to the temptation of materialism. Just as fashions and worldly comforts cause us to spend inordinate amounts of money for manufactured but meaningless material pleasures, advertisements about coffins and services that prioritize “durability, beauty, and craftsmanship” as well as custom engravings and more draw us to spend even more money on our own or others posthumous surroundings.
Next, and more importantly, funeral directors not only try to sell us on these expensive material goods, but, according to Deacon Mark Barna and his wife Elizabeth, who have written a book on the topic, funeral directors also lie about the laws surrounding corpse and burial processes. While many funeral directors tell customers that it is legally required to use a licensed funeral director to bury a person or transport a body across state lines or on an airline, none of this is true, and there are very few requirements regarding burials on a state level as well.
One of the greatest lies about burying the dead accepted by many Christians today is that embalming is legally required either for burial or for an open casket because the body cannot be preserved otherwise and because it is unsanitary to be near a dead body. This is simply untrue. There is no health danger that comes from being near or touching a dead body except in the case of open wounds, and embalming only preserves a body for three to four days, which is no better than simply freezing the body.
Still, the lies told by funeral directors, paired with a fear of the reality of death that makes us want to see the person “as they were,” causes many Christians to consent to embalming. The result is an extremely violent process that includes sewing the eyes and mouth shut with materials similar to barbed wire and pumping blood out of the body with tubes and replacing it with red liquid to give the flesh a “lifelike” appearance. Modern embalming also entails puncturing the organs so that they can be sucked out and washed into the sewer and plugging bodily orifices with plastic screw-like devices. In the end, it may make our dead loved-one look more like their living selves, but the reality is that they are even less of a human being than they were after their soul left their body.
Meanwhile, the alternative process offered by commercial burial practices is just as disturbing. In the process of cremation, a person’s body is placed in a furnace lit to 1,400 to 2,100 degrees Fahrenheit, with burners pointing directly at it like a blowtorch. After up to four hours of heating, the person’s bones, which cannot be burned, are crushed in a high-speed blender and added to the ashes, which are often accidentally mixed with those of other corpses in the crematory. Cremation is often advocated for because of environmental concerns, but the fossil fuels and high levels of dioxins and trace minerals that are released by the burning of a human body end up polluting the environment just as much as the alternative. Similarly, the CDC and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration strongly recommend that embalmers take measures to protect themselves against the over 260 potentially deadly chemicals they use during the embalming process.
All in all, the treatment of the dead and dying today is far from the care that early Christians offered the sacred bodies of their dead brothers and sisters. As many modern commentators say, we treat the body like an “it” rather than a “them,” and this does not even take into account the modern practice of separating the sick and elderly from mainstream society through nursing and retirement homes. Regardless of what facts of life we are considering, when it comes to interacting with the dead and dying, the Resurrection plays no role in the decisions of most people in our culture.
Before reading the section above, what did you think went into the mainstream practices of treating the dead? What from this section surprised you?
In their book, Deacon Mark and Diakonissa Elizabeth also discuss how cremation treats the body like waste while embalming turns it into an idol. Why do you think they make this claim?
What are some of the practices surrounding our treatment of the elderly, sick, and dying that also reflects an approach of treating people like an “it” rather than a “them”?
Part V: Returning to the Resurrection
It seems as if the time has come when once again we as Christians have to take an approach to treating the dead and dying that is radically different from the world around us. But what does that different approach look like? And how do we pursue it today?
Unfortunately, there is not enough space in this brief discussion to cover everything that a traditional Christian burial process looks like. However, Deacon Mark and Diakonissa Elizabeth’s book A Christian Ending: A handbook for burial in the ancient Christian tradition is a fantastic resource to turn to on the details of ensuring a burial honors the Lord and the promised Resurrection. Aside from more information on the process of death and burial and the Church’s theology surrounding the topic, the book also encourages Christians today to research federal and local burial laws (now conveniently located online) and search for a burial place at a nearby monastery or Orthodox parish cemetery. Above all, however, the book offers suggestions and resources for preparing for the inevitable death of those closest to us and ourselves.
One of the best ways to prepare for those deaths is to speak to our priest and familiarize ourselves with the traditions of an Orthodox Christian funeral, such as the tradition of burying a person on the third day of their death. Similarly, we should learn about pre-death practices like requesting a priest to read the prayer of the departing of the soul over a dying person and offering a dying person the Eucharist, as well as post-death practices like anointing and praying over a loved-one’s body throughout the time between their death and burial. With the hope of the Resurrection, we should also seek to learn about the traditions for praying for a person after their burial, such conducting memorial services on the third, ninth, and fortieth day after a person’s falling asleep, visiting a person’s grave on the anniversary of their death, and remembering them in our personal prayers and the communal prayers of the Church.
After familiarizing ourselves with these practices, we can take the time to share our own funeral and burial preferences with our loved ones to ensure that our corpses are treated in a way that is mindful of the Resurrection to come. Again, the book A Christian Ending has fantastic resources for preparing for our own funeral. Paradoxically, the saints teach that it is when we take the time to consider the way that we hope to be treated when we die that we develop a greater appreciation for life and strive to seek its fullness alongside the Lord in His Heavenly Kingdom.
Have you ever considered what your funeral and burial will look like? What are some arrangements you want made for your funeral? What do you wish to learn more about?
Returning to the approach of early Christians and the way that they risked their lives for the sake of some of their practices surrounding the dead, what are some things we may have to risk to practice that same tradition today?
Share a situation where you were reminded of the reality of death and were moved to live in deeper repentance and with a fuller appreciation of life?
The title of this discussion is, “Let the Living Bury the Living.” How does this title describe the information discussed above and the Christian approach to the dead and dying in light of the Resurrection?