"Let books be your dining table, / And you shall be full of delights. / Let them be your
mattress,/
And you shall sleep restful nights" (St. Ephraim the Syrian).


Saturday, March 24, 2012

Mark and Elizabeth Barna on Dying and the Dead

Earlier I drew attention to a new book about the ars moriendi: Mark and Elizabeth Barna, A Christian Ending: a Handbook for Burial in the Ancient Christian Tradition (Divine Ascent Press, 2011), xii+169pp. I asked both authors for an interview, and here are their thoughts:

AD: Tell us about both your backgrounds

I was baptized in a little Carpatho Russian Orthodox Church in the coal mining village of Elkhorn, WV, in 1954. The same year, Elizabeth was baptized Roman Catholic. Her father was a college professor, so they moved around a bit until settling in Pennsylvania. Her mother’s family was primarily Mormon. She spent every summer with her maternal grandparents and became quite familiar with the Mormon sect. My hometown was four hours distant from the church where I was baptized, and there were none closer, so I was raised in a local Methodist church.

Being children of the 60’s and coming of age in the early 70’s, our formative years were quite turbulent. To our continuing surprise, when we decided to get married, the first question we asked ourselves was “which church”? So, in our effort to decide, we read the book of Mormon and visited a Catholic church with her dad, to no avail. We finally settled on the Orthodox Church for a variety of reasons. We were married on our farm by two priests of the Antiochian Archdiocese of the Orthodox Church. The farm burned not long after the birth of our second son. We were homeless for a year with two babies and two dogs until we finally settled back into the suburbs. We were both active in our church.

There I became one of the first trained English chanters in the Antiochian Archdiocese. We started a business in a large urban mall, ran it for six and half years then went bankrupt, lost everything again and finally moved to Charleston, SC where Elizabeth had a job opportunity. Here we joined the Greek Orthodox Church of the Holy Trinity. I continued chanting some of the services and became the campus minister for the Orthodox cadets at The Citadel. Since then we’ve helped establish two Orthodox missions in the Charleston area; one for the Antiochian Archdiocese and one for the Orthodox Church in America (OCA). I was ordained deacon in Holy Ascension Orthodox Church (OCA) in 2006 and still serve there today. This is about where the story picks up in the introduction to A Christian Ending with the death of Elizabeth’s mother and our growing interest in hospice care.

AD: What led you to write this book in particular?

Over the years my discomfort with the American funeral industry led me to explore burial in an Orthodox Christian context.

Clearly, it is an important part of life and we want to do it right. To my surprise, I had accumulated a good amount of information on traditional Christian burial. One day I mentioned this to Fr. John Parker and half joking, told him to find a seminarian in need of a thesis and I’d turn my files over to him to write a book. He said, “No, you do it.” “A Christian Ending” started out as a simple instruction manual for preparing a body for burial. The first draft was simply a step by step, hands-on description of how to prepare a body for burial. We wrote it specifically for Orthodox Christians and therefore took a lot of basic Christian knowledge for granted. Our later experiences led us to include information on legal matters; dealing with the coroner, hospitals, and nursing homes; and mobilizing parishioners to help. Later we included some short chapters on the evolution of funerals. Realizing that natural burial is becoming popular with the new-age and "green" folks, we added a chapter of some basic theology for the non-Orthodox or non-Christian reader as a form of outreach.

The first opportunity we had to use our own instruction manual was for a dear friend and parishioner who died unexpectedly. It was a great shock to us all. We went to the morgue to prepare his body and everything went “by the book.” Everyone involved with that first “in-house” funeral was so touched by it that we knew we would continue. Another thing really struck me. The director of the Medical University morgue told me as we were leaving, “We’ve had Muslims, Hindus and Buddhists in here. You’re the first Christians.” That struck me as very sad: “You’re the first Christians.” We of all people, the people of the Cross and the martyrs, have not been taking care of our own departed brethren in an intimate, traditional way as other cultures and religions do. What kind of witness is that?

During the preparation procedure we had been reading selections from the psalms, so we developed a small service of prayers and readings to use specifically during the preparation of the body for burial. The readings typically last about as long as the preparation and were included in the book for ease of use. The book was not written for profit or notoriety, but simply to make what we have learned available to the Church and any others who are interested. To us it just makes sense that we should render this final service to our beloved brothers and sisters in Christ. We have done this for friends, family, and complete strangers. We have also trained other people, including those we would never expect who have insisted on preparing their loved ones themselves. Everyone who has been involved has been touched and greatly moved by the power and simplicity of this simple service.

AD: How has your Orthodox faith had an impact on your own work with the dying and the dead?

I don’t think we would be doing this if it were not for our faith. This is not something Elizabeth and I would have chosen to do. I was trained as an artist and spent many years as an industrial/technical photographer. Elizabeth has worked in both healthcare and the hospitality industry. Orthodoxy has taught us that all that we have is a gift from God. Growing in the faith, we continue to learn to seek the acquisition of the Holy Spirit and to conform ourselves to the image and likeness of Christ. This inevitably leads to a life of thanksgiving and offering. If I know that, no matter how hard I try, I cannot make my heart beat one more time, how can I get puffed up about what I have accomplished or accumulated in my life? If every heartbeat is a gift then certainly everything else is too. So what can you do with that, but offer it back to God with thanksgiving. One offering we make is serving others. We always knew we would be the ones to care for our parents in their old age.

We didn’t know we would have three of them living with us for six years. Initially, my interest in natural burial was purely selfish. I was motivated by my own desire not to be embalmed and to find a legal way to do that, other than cremation, which is not Orthodox. However, when I discovered that natural burial is truly the proper ancient Orthodox Christian form of burial I felt obliged to share that knowledge with others. Our Lord Jesus Christ and Christian love both give us the strength to overcome primal fears, superstitions, and our own squeamishness. It gives us the strength to serve others in most any capacity. We can do things we never thought possible before--such as changing a mother’s diapers a thousand times or caring for dad’s catheter and feeding tube, even washing and anointing their bodies for burial.

AD: Since the 1960s at least, as the books of Jessica Mitford and Evelyn Waugh both make clear, North Americans seem to have been deeply conflicted about death--or even, as Ernest Becker argued in his 1974 book The Denial of Death, plainly in denial about it. What factors help to explain our culture's denial and conflicts over death?

I am not a sociologist. I’m just a guy who didn’t want to be embalmed. I agree that it is clear we are mostly in denial of our own impending death. We discuss a bit of the history of the funeral industry in the book. Industrialization, urbanization, the increase and improvement of hospital care and the development of the funeral industry all had an impact on our culture’s estrangement from the daily reality of death. America is a very materialistic society. Our culture is all about the acquisition of bigger and better, all-new, super-fantastic, whiz-bang stuff. We are trained from birth to be consumers and, if we want to really be successful, inventors of the “next big thing.” Our culture worships youth and disposes of the old. It worships youth so much that our laws are willing to sacrifice the next generation of young so as not to inconvenience the current generation of youth. America no longer has any cultural reverence for the wisdom of age like we see in many other cultures. The world has passed through the post-Christian age and, as it enters the anti-Christian age, the hunger for stuff has replaced any understanding of the acquisition of virtue.

You may have seen the bumper sticker that reads, “The one who dies with the most toys wins.” Wins what? He’s still dead. Then what? Generally our society doesn’t even want to consider “what then.” We want it all and we want it now. If all of life is about more and more stuff, power, ambition and pleasure, then naturally you don’t want to think about what comes after. Death marks the end of our existence and our ambitions. It is the ultimate defeat and proof that life is meaningless. We don’t want to think about that. It’s really just so terrifying that denial seems like a valid option.

If losing everything twice in a decade taught Elizabeth and me anything, it was that “it’s just stuff.” It is not at all what is important in life. As Christians our entire life is, or should be, in preparation for our death and judgment. To the Christian death is a defeated enemy. This is the Gospel, the Good News of Jesus Christ. Death is conquered by the life-giving death of Christ on the cross. By his resurrection from the dead, Christ destroyed the power of death and transformed our death from ultimate annihilation to eternal life in peace, joy, and love. The saints teach us to keep the remembrance of our own death on the very tip of our nose, always right in front of our face. Imagine how different the world would be if everyone was able to do that. The constant remembrance of death is a very sobering and important practice according to the saints. They universally teach that the antidote for the fear of death is the fear of sin. If we were even half as afraid of sinning as we are of dying, we would not sin and therefore would have no fear of death and judgment.

AD: While instinctively respecting the Orthodox prohibition on cremation, I confess that I've not always found the arguments for that tradition very strong, but your own book has helped me to see anew the wisdom of Orthodoxy on this position. Explain for our readers the Orthodox position on cremation and its theological rationale.

I would never presume to speak for the Orthodox Church. I can only speak for myself and my own understanding. I’m a pretty simple-minded fellow. My understanding is that God created us with bodies for a reason. Man was created for an intimate relationship with the creator unlike any of the angels or heavenly hosts. The image in Genesis where God breathed life and spirit into Adam’s nostrils is the picture of a very intimate relationship.

According to scripture, this is the living temple where our creator dwells. It is washed in the sacred waters of Baptism, anointed with Holy Chrism and nourished with the Body and Blood of Christ. It is a temple beyond price. Yet, through pride and jealousy we throw away that intimate relationship and desecrate the temple daily. In the history of the early church and the Lives of the Saints we read that the faithful would “rush” to retrieve the bodies of the martyrs, often at the risk of their own lives. They would kiss and caress them, clean and anoint them and give them an honorable burial. The physical remains of the martyrs and all the saints had, and have, value beyond price. We have never thought of the body as a disposable container for the soul. We have never had a dualistic understanding of the body and spirit as separate pieces of the human puzzle. Human beings were created to be a whole being, body and soul. It is sin and death that causes the rupture. The Lord said, “My Holy One shall not see decay.” We have evidence from every age, all around the world that his words are true. All over the world there are incorrupt, often wonder-working remains of saints. Obviously, these are very valuable relics that would not be with us today if they had been destroyed by cremation. As an Orthodox Christian, my entire life is supposed to be a reflection of our Lord’s own extreme humility. It is to be lived humbly and selflessly as an offering of love. Each day I try to place my whole life completely in God’s hands and trust Him to guide me in the way wherein I should walk. I trust Him with my life, my breath and my heart beat. Can I not trust Him to properly dispose of His own earthly temple? In that regard, cremation is my final act of pride. By choosing to have my body burned, I decide what will happen to my remains, not God.

AD: Anecdotally, I've seen a trend growing in the past decade or so, as more and more North Americans seem to be eschewing funerals entirely. Many obituaries today say things like "At Mr. Smith's request, no visitation or service will be held" or "Sophia asked for no services but for family and friends to gather for a drink at the Fox and Hound Pub in her honor." Is this a trend you see, and if so, what do you think is behind it?


That type of thing is alien to everything Orthodox Christians understand about funerals. The funeral is not for the deceased, it’s for the living. I can understand a person not wanting to cause their loved ones the stress of dealing with a funeral, but that is just a fundamental misunderstanding of what the funeral is for. A funeral is for the living to show honor, pay tribute and say goodbye to the deceased. We’ve been doing this since prehistoric times. It is, in some ways, the climax or culmination of the grieving process. In other ways it is just the beginning of that process. Either way, without it we are short-changed.


In the Orthodox funeral service the body is censed several times. There is a great censing where the body, the altar, the people, and the entire church are censed. The great censing is always an act of union, essentially, circling the entire church in a ring of smoke, a sacrifice rising up to God. This act of including the deceased in the typical great censing of the temple is a unifying movement. It is a reminder to all that the deceased is still a member of our body. At the end of the service, our last act is to kiss the body of the deceased as we did when we greeted them in life. I can’t understand anyone wanting to willingly give that up.

AD: I don't know if you have read the work of Fr. Cyprian Hutcheon, whose 2003 doctoral dissertation is entitled "From Lamentation to Alleluia : An Interpretation of the Theology of the Present-Day Byzantine-Rite Funeral Service analyzed through its Practical Relationship to Bereaved Persons." Hutcheon is now a priest of the OCA in Canada, and has for years worked as a physician also. (Details about him are here.) He makes a quite convincing argument that the Byzantine funeral obtains a marvelous balance between mourning and grief on the one hand ("lamentation"), and joy in the resurrection ("alleluia") on the other. Do you see that balance? What other resources besides the funeral does Orthodox Christianity offer to people struggling with death?

Oh yes, without question. The Holy Fathers understood human psychology better than anyone today. Why shouldn’t they. They were in intimate communion with the inventor of human beings and human psychology. Our memorial services are prescribed for the third, ninth and fortieth day and then again on the first and third anniversary. Psychologists have since proven that these are precisely the periods which are milestones in the grieving process. The Church knows us better than we know ourselves.

The very first funeral that we directed was an excellent example of what we claim an Orthodox funeral should be, and more importantly, should do. Our friend Zoran died quite unexpectedly as he was leaving the hospital after a short stay. He left three beautiful teenaged orphans as his wife had died several years before. He had no resources so we quickly pooled ours to bury him. Our church donated a casket, prepared his body at the hospital morgue, put it in the back of a parishioner’s Suburban and transported him to another parishioner’s farm for burial while other friends dug the grave. The location is an ideal spot on a tidal creek with a small chapel on the property. Even though Zoran had recently expanded the chapel, it was too small for the casket so we set up outside. When the kids arrived it was terrible. His two daughters clutched each other and screamed when they saw him lying there. The memory of it makes it very hard to tell you about it. They wailed so loud and long that the service was delayed. We were all there, the choir and the people, waiting until we could calm them. There was no consolation. It broke everyone’s heart. Finally, as soon as the service started, they were calmed. They sat weeping but not wailing. During the service, even the sky cried; raining just enough to wet our sheet music with drops.

At the end, we kissed his body.
There was more weeping but not like before. We carried the casket the hundred yards or so to the grave, said the graveside prayers, lowered the casket and filled in the grave. As is traditional, the sisters and their brother helped fill the grave. Then we went back to the house for a mercy meal and remembrances of our old friend. By the time we left there Zoran’s kids were smiling and laughing remembering their father. We knew it would be hard, but they would be ok. That’s what a funeral is supposed to do.

AD: You argue that "burial without a coffin is still the best option" (p. 36). This may be quite a surprise to many today. Why do you say that?

For ages that’s the way it was done. Boxes only came into use when it became necessary to carry a body some distance for burial. When the family was buried in the back yard there was no need for a box. Boxes cost money and take time to make. A burial shroud or winding sheet was all that was needed. Boxes rot and collapse, then the earth subsides. It’s kind of messy if you think about it. The idea is for the body to be in contact with the earth. Christians are not as strict about this as the Jews who still drill holes in the bottom of the coffin. The concept is sound though. Dust to dust. The traditional Christian burial gown is a baptismal robe with no pockets, signifying our hope in the resurrection and our total dependence upon God. Once in contact with the earth it is up to God to determine what happens next.

AD: You argue that "death...is an evangelical opportunity" (p.58). Say more about that. Can it be a vehicle for spreading the gospel in a culture so in denial of death?

Yes I do believe that. An example of that is what the director of the morgue told me about our being the first Christians in his morgue. That really struck me. In all the years the morgue has been operating, the only Christians to claim a body there were professional funeral directors. The morgue staff themselves have been very receptive and impressed by what we do. They ask a lot of questions and have been very helpful. The way we face death says a lot about the way we lived our lives. The love of Christ and the hope of the resurrection give one great hope and courage. Millions of people were converted to Christianity by the brave witness of the early martyrs. Often, people who watched the Christians being tortured and martyred were so impressed that they immediately believed in Christ and offered themselves up as martyrs. Clearly, death can be a great witness to the truth, power and love of Jesus Christ in a pagan world.


In addition, people are starving for a sense of community. Seeing a group of people caring for one another in such a loving, intimate way says “community” better than any billboard, television ad, or Facebook page ever could. We have a petition we pray in every service for “a Christian ending to our lives, painless, blameless and peaceful, and a good defense before the awesome judgment seat of Christ.” We try to live our lives as a witness of the peace and joy He brings when He comes to live in us. Our death and the loving respect we show our deceased should be a continuation of that witness.

Last Judgment Icon, St. Elias Church, Brampton, Ontario
AD: In reading some of your practical suggestions (e.g., obtaining dry ice and using it for preservation of a corpse), I thought that some of this kind of work may require more work than individuals are really capable of doing. But that's part of your argument, is it not, that caring for the dead is really a parish-wide or community function? And that "clergy must be willing to discuss this subject openly with the whole church" (p.103). Are clergy doing that? Are there many Orthodox communities ready and willing to assume these responsibilities?
We have had a very good response to our book. People are certainly interested; both clergy and laity. Some clergy are taking the lead with their communities. In other churches lay people are taking the lead with the support of the clergy. The effort will vary depending on the character of the particular community. I do feel that the enthusiastic support of the clergy is essential for success. In the book we discuss mobilizing the entire parish as the ideal situation. We realize the ideal may be achieved in different degrees by different communities. There is really nothing complicated, difficult, or time-consuming about the preparation of a body for burial. We found our source for dry ice at a local supermarket. Then we put together a preparation kit before we needed it. Now all we have to do is grab the kit and stop by the supermarket on the way. I do believe that, if we claim we are The Body of Christ and we say we are a community, then we should celebrate the life and death of our members as a community. We are not called to be a loose association of individuals who find themselves in the same place at the same time every week. We pray in every litany of every service, “let us commend ourselves and each other and all our life unto Christ our God.” Just as the sin of one member affects the whole Body, the death of any member has an impact on the entire community. It is important for our community to recognize this reality and respond to it as a unified, loving body. We fall short of the ideal daily. But we continue to strive for it.

An in-house funeral can be a great community builder. Not everyone has to be hands-on dealing with the corpse. It only takes three people about forty-five minutes to prepare a body for burial. But preparing a funeral is quite another thing. As we describe in the book, there are plenty of other things to do. We have several people in our parish that have volunteered to help preparing a body. We have also had families in which everyone pitched in to prepare the body and couldn’t thank us enough for the opportunity. We have been doing this for about eight years. We’ve prepared over a dozen bodies of friends, family, and strangers. Still, our burial fellowship consists of Elizabeth, Fr. John, and me. We have not quite reached the ideal.

AD: What other books or articles have been especially instrumental in shaping your views and practices? What books would you recommend for Christians trying to come to grips with death, both practically and theologically?

We’ve included a pretty complete bibliography in A Christian Ending.

My first recommendation is the Holy Scriptures and the Lives of the Saints. The more familiar we are with them the better prepared we are for anything. I prefer the Great Collection of the Lives of Saints from Chrysostom Press but there are other good collections. I’d also recommend the funeral orations of St. John Chrysostom or St. Basil the Great. Also, St. John Chrysostom’s Homilies Concerning the Statues can be helpful. The noted professor and bioethicist, Fr. John Breck has written extensively on these issues in his books: The Sacred Gift of Life: Orthodox Christianity and BioethicsGod With Us: Critical Issues in Christian Life and Faith; and Stages on Life's Way: Orthodox Thinking on Bioethics. They are very helpful. There are numerous other articles on his website. I’d also recommend The Mystery of Death by Nicholaos P. Vassiliadis.

In conclusion, thank you very much for this opportunity. You may hear another interview with the authors at: Ancient Faith Radio here.

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