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Burying my mom at a monastery in New Mexico

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Courtesy of Steve Robinson

Steve Robinson - published on 08/13/21

There is a raw brutality of death, horrific if graceless. But, if we can bear grace and truth, it is beautiful.

The chipper customer service rep at Enterprise Truck Rental handed me the keys to the van and said, “SO, what are we hauling today?”

I smiled. “Actually … my mother’s body to a monastery in New Mexico, where we’re burying her. Well, in her coffin that I built … not just her body.”

The pause was probably shorter than it seemed. “Well. Umm. THAT’S one I’ve never heard before … But wow. That’s … ummm, pretty … awesome, actually … You can do that?” And we had a short chat about the Orthodox view of death and funerals and dead body transportation. (I told him when I returned the van, “Don’t worry about it being haunted, my mom wasn’t that kind of person.”)

My sister and brother-in-law weren’t able to come to Phoenix when my dad died last year because the country was locked down. My mom’s caregiver, Bea, could not attend Dad’s funeral last year because she stayed home with Mom to care for her during his funeral. So this was their first experience of an Orthodox funeral service. Bea asked, “Who is preaching the funeral?” I said, “No one. The church is. You’ll just have to see it.” Afterward, she said, “You were right, I ain’t NEVER seen any funeral like that before! It was beautiful!”

We left the church in Phoenix and drove to New Mexico, the casket packed with ice and surrounded by cases of olive oil, roasted peppers, kalamata olives, bulk bags of aromatic spices and coffee from our local Middle Eastern grocery store for the monastery.

The grave was dug. Mom’s casket was placed on top of my dad’s. My son, a monk there, said, “Your dad isn’t incorrupt … just so you know.”

“No doubt,” I said.

The casket rested on two pieces of lumber over the hole. The dirt was piled beside it. There was no fancy brass and chrome frame draped in velvet to hide the hole beneath the casket. There was no fake grass covering the mound of dirt to hide the earth from whence we were created and to whence we return.

The graveside prayers were said. We lowered the casket into the ground. A monk brought out several shovels and a rake. I took a shovel, stood beside the grave and stabbed the dirt. I lifted the shovel and dumped the dirt into the hole. A trail of dust followed it into the grave. The casket resonated, a dull hollow dirt drumbeat, the last thing Mom would hear except the pulse of the earth surrounding her.

The family took turns putting dirt into the grave. Sister, grandchildren, great grandchildren. Then everyone joined in — monks, pilgrims, and children. The monks sang the Paschal troparia and “Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death, and upon those in the tombs bestowing life” as they filled the grave to level with the surrounding earth.

The monks served us a “mercy meal.” We all were handed a small elegant glass of plum brandy. “You need to offer a toast for your Mother,” the Abbot whispered. I don’t remember exactly what I said, but it was something like this:

The earliest photo I have of my mom is of her dancing for her family. She always danced in life. She danced with an abusive, dysfunctional family, she tap danced for 68 years around my dad’s temperament, she danced professionally and brought joy to hundreds, she waltzed through cancer and for the past five years, on paralyzed legs, danced with dementia, decline, and finally death. She always danced elegantly and with strength, grace and love. Today, she is dancing with the angels.

We cannot help but see death. Our culture tries to dress it up, hide the horror, “celebrate the life” rather than confront the grief; we play God and shortcut “ashes to ashes, dust to dust” on our own terms and time. It is easier to spread ashes in the forest than to look into the face of the departed and kiss the beloved one last time and feel the horror of an ending full on.

There is a raw brutality of death, horrific if graceless. But, if we can bear grace and truth, it is beautiful.

But by faith, the beauty of The Image is not obliterated in death, but only sleeps, and will be awakened at the sound of the trumpet of the Resurrection in the last day.

Death is the blessed curse.

Weep, and with tears lament when, with understanding, I think on death, and see how in the graves there sleeps the beauty which once for us was fashioned in the image of God, but now is shapeless, ignoble, and bare of all the graces. O how strange a thing; what is this mystery which concerns us humans? Why were we given up to decay? And why to death united in wedlock? Truly, as it is written, these things come to pass by the ordinance of God, Who to her now gone, gives rest.” -Kontakion of the Funeral, Tone 8

May God give rest to the soul of His servant, Nellie Natalia, and give her strong legs that will dance for eternity.

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