Κυριακή, 2 Μαρτίου 2014

I am Not Afraid Of Death

“I came to the Greeks early, and I found answers in them. Greece's great men let all their acts turn on the immortality of the soul. We don't really act as if we believed in the soul's immortality and that's why we are where we are today.” 
― Edith Hamilton




I grew up being totally unafraid of death
because I was used to seeing dead people all the time. 

That's why this text message from a friend 
(from a culture different to mine) in my inbox
 came as a total surprise:

''Just saw that thing about your mom.Sorry that I don't know what to say to you. I'm sure the way that you were raised has some kind of way that you express your feelings.

I thought that I had a pretty good idea of you. Of your beliefs and how you felt about things.I'm so wrong.I'm sorry.Well, I'm happy for your mother. And if you are feeling at a loss then I'm concerned for you.''
This came as a shock to me, because I knew I wasn't afraid of death as I had practically grown up in a culture that is both unafraid of and revering the deceased. Then I realised it was probably a lack of understanding of how our different cultures view death, mourning and the actual grieving process that lead to his believing that I was incosolably and unbecomingly grieving . 
So I had to explain.
You see, I grew up with the open casket practice ,which acrtually dates back to ancient greek practices, but my friend didn't.So he couldn't possibly fathom my culture's expression of grieving.
Here is what the burial process was like in ancient Greece:
1.Prothesis-the display of the body
The body was never left alone as all relatives paid their final tribute to the diseased whose body was on display
2. Funerary Feast- a big spread for everyone
in honor of the diseased and the bigger the spread the more the honor given
3. The Ekphora- the funeral procession 
where the body was carried amidst special hymns and songs  to the burial place
4. The burial or cremation religious ceremony
Greeks usually buried their dead within two days of their death. Αthens however was a major exception: the Athenians normally cremated their dead and placed their ashes in an urn.
5. The Building of the burial tomb
 The above steps match exactly modern Greek burial practices, except the funerary feast is held right after the funeral now.
I grew up totally unafraind of death and I believe this is almost entirely due to the open casket custom.
Eastern Orthodox Church, unlike Catholic and Protestant churches, practices the ancient Greek custom of dispaying the body of the diseased prior to the funeral and keeping the coffin casket open throughout the memorial service (though nowadays in the two biggest Greek cities people have conformed to the non- Orthodox way and neither keep the prothesis of the body part nor the open casket practice).There are of course occasions when the coffin is closed during the funeral: when the deceased was horribly wounded or disfigured by an accident or illness or when the body was not found. 
Τhe open casket practice, apart from being a continuum of ancient Greek practices, is based on religious ground too. For Eastern Orthodox Christians the the body is believed to be an honorable or even holy thing. 

''It is not something which is dishonorable or defiled, or to be hidden away or hastily disposed of. It is not gross or frightrening but rather honored as the housing of the soul. This body, not just the soul, but the body too, which is now about to be dissolved to its elements, on the last day will be raised again to partake in God's glory as the glorified body of Christ did. 
What is more, this body, according to our tradition, is holy for other reasons too. This is the body of a person that wept, suffered, knew hunger or thirst, knew pain , knew mental and physical anguish, suffered in childbirth or in illness, and generally undertook all the hard parts that mean being human and living on this plane of existence. For  this reason it is revered as the body of a departed image of God,  as the body of a true athlete who finally 'made' it.
In a very special way the funeral of the deceased is a presentation of the body as a sacrifice, a coming before the Lord to receive an award of the deceased's contest at the very end of  their earthly struggle.
It is also necessary for the Orthodox funeral rites fully to be performed that the coffin is open. At various points in the service, the body (not the coffin!) is censed by the clergy, because of the beliefs outlined above,  revered as worthy of honor. Towards the end of the service, people come forward to give the deceased a last kiss if they wish. The close relatives usually kiss the forehead or the hand, the rest of the attendees, if they wish, the icon on the chest of the departed while canons chant  “give rest with the saints to the soul of Your servant where there is neither pain, grief, nor sighing but life everlasting.” 

I grew up seeing dead people all the time and because of this  I was neither being grossed out by death nor scared or traumatised by it as so many kids and adults are nowadays.
I attended numerous funerals ever since I was as young as 6 years old, of grandfathers, grandmothers, aunts, uncles, neighbors or friends. I was told their soul went to heaven but their body was left behind like a cloth discarded by someone who is about to have a bath and has no need for it. Viewing that discarded cloth was neither gross nor a big deal. It was like a memento left behind by someone undergoing a big journey ,whose relatives and friends cried tears of sadness because they wouldn't get to see him for a long time,not because they were in dispair for the finality of his or her loss.
Nobody was afraid, kids neither. Nobody was traumatised, no psychologist was called forth to slowly break the horrible news to the younger kids. It was a natural thing, part of life. And as such it became totally demystified and totally accepted.
But in order for this to happen, the grieving process had to happen first. And grieving had a very physical and very hands-on approach to the body of the deceased. 
As someone who attended many funerals in my culture and has seen dead bodies including those of both my parents on display, I can assure you there is nothing horrible, gross or creepy about a dead body within the first 24 hours of its departure. (Which is the time within which a burial has to take place around here anyway. Those who wish to attend from abroad will just drop everything they are doing and take the first plane so as  not to miss it). 
What I often marvelled at was the peaceful, calm expression that has spread over the face of the deceased, which can actually offer great relief and comfort immensely those close to him or her, because they can see with their own eyes that the crossing over was not a horrible thing and that their beloved is now at peace.

Also, I cannot even begin to tell you how much comfort it offers to be able to see, hold, caress or even kiss your beloved friend or relative for one more time before they are lost to you in the physical for ever. A man exists partly in eternity and partly in time. Our souls know that we will get to meet in heaven one day, but our bodies still need the physical comfort of seeing and touching our beloved for one last time, of having a physical 'closure' of sorts, or else we are haunted by the unfinished business syndrome.
So, to sum up, in answer to my friend's text message who felt I was at a loss at my mother's crossing over and grieving too much for his standards?
I firmly believe that death is nothing but the Threshold of Eternal Life,
but I 'm glad I got to grieve and mourn the fact that I'll be still missing the physical presence  of my mother.
In a way her loss will always mean pain at the back of my conscience. But because I was allowed to grieve her departure in the physical too, I can now move on and look forward to our actual meeting one day.

Love and blessings
Eirini











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