Tuesday, August 30, 2011

House of Bones: An Orthodox Perspective on Death

  "Take care, you who look in, for soon you shall look out."  This terse sentence is set above an ossuary or charnel house—a room for storing the bones of the dead—in a monastery on Mount Athos, a small peninsula in northeastern Greece.  This monastic enclave is in many ways the center of the Eastern Orthodox Christian world; on Athos one encounters the whole variety of cultures and nationalities whose common tradition is the Christianity of the Byzantine Empire.  Prof. Armstrong began this series of posts by asking where our dead people are.  By way of answering that question, I want to offer up a glimpse of how Eastern Orthodox Christianity views the connection of living and dead. 
  Eastern Orthodoxy maintains an ancient and well-defined tradition of care for the dead which resonates both with other modern Christian cultures and with the ancient peoples we are discovering this term.  Many of its practices may sound exotic or unfamiliar, precisely because they reflect an earlier time and a culture very different from what we often encounter in the modern western world.

Varatec Monastery Grave, Romania
  While staying at Varatec Monastery in Romania, my wife and I were asked by a nun to go see her mother.  Her mother, as it happened, was dead, but, having become a nun at the end of her life, had been buried at the monastery.  We were sent with some flowers from maicuţa’s garden, a plastic bottle of olive oil and some matches.  Coming to the cemetery, we found that the grave itself was a kind of flowerbed, well-tended but wild and flourishing which you can see in the picture.  There was also a little oil lamp.  We were to change the wick, fill up the oil and make sure that the lamp continued burning.  We also planted the flowers in whatever space we could find and said a prayer.  I could not help being struck by this—an oil lamp requires daily refilling.  Of course, there was not only an oil lamp on this grave, but on many of the graves.  Daily care, constant contact with the dead was the custom, expressed through the construction of the grave site itself.

Graves at Sihastria Monastery, Romania

  After a body has lain in the ground for forty or fifty years it will have decomposed and only the skeleton will be left.  Thus, in another thirty years or so, all that will be left of Maica Ecaterina will be her bones.  Then a group of nuns will come—very few of which would have known her personally—and they will dig up her bones so that another nun may be buried there.  They will write "Monahia Ecaterina" on them, perhaps also her birth and death date (very often only the death date) and place them in a communal ossuary under the main church at Varatec.  This ossuary, like that one on Athos, serves a multiform purpose:  as giving to the dead a dwelling-place with the living, as showing respect and care for the dead, and as reminding the living of the brevity and uncertainty of their own life, as well as the inexorability of death.

 Bones in Neamts Monastery Charnel House, Romania

  All of these vignettes point toward a particular culture of death in which memory plays an especially important role.  It is not, I think, that the Orthodox are particularly "comfortable" with death.  The funeral service (which is the same for all) reminds those attending in no uncertain terms of the terrible fact of mortality:

I grieve and lament when I contemplate death, and see the beauty fashioned for us in God’s image lying in the graves, without form, without glory, without shape. O the wonder! What is this mystery which has happened to us? How have we been handed over to corruption, and yoked with death?

These are words on which those nuns who exhume Maica Ecaterina’s bones will surely meditate.  They do not seek to assuage fears of death, as the Epicureans might have; rather, they call upon the living to remember the fragility of existence and to order their lives accordingly.  The Orthodox feel no comfort at the thought of death, though they have hope for an end to it in keeping with traditional Christian theology.  Rather, for this very reason, they are comfortable with the dead.  In keeping with their views on death and what lies beyond it, the Orthodox constantly remember the dead in particular and general terms.  After the funeral, services are performed on the 3rd, 9th, and 40th days after death as well as annual commemorations.  More broadly, the dead are commemorated by name at every service, and "all the dead of all the ages" are remembered and prayed for on every Saturday and certain festal days.   
  The Orthodox believe that the living and the dead are part of the same community, whose integrity is guaranteed by God’s eternal care, but that they occupy different categories:  when someone dies, their name is moved from one column to another in service books, from prayers "for the living" to "prayers for the dead."  Yet this remembrance of the dead is part and parcel with a constant engagement with one’s own mortality and a particular yet communal hope for the future, in which distinctions between living and dead will be abolished and the fractured community exist as a complete whole.  Thus the Orthodox sing of one who has died: Αωνία μνήμη—"may their memory be eternal!"
—Jonathan Zecher


  1. I am an Indian Orthodox and have some of the same traditions as the Eastern Orthodox Community. We also remember the 3rd, 9th and 40th days. We also have annual services devoted to the remembrance of the dead. But we do not have the practice of the house of bones. I feel when we remember our dearly departed, we comfort ourselves with the belief that one day we will have no such distinction and all come in the presence of God as a community. Even in our prayers for the living, we always remind ourselves how short life is and how we need to be conscious of how we spend our lives - always asking God for forgiveness and guidance.

  2. I am Coptic Orthodox and although I never really thought about death or the commemoration of the dead much I now realize through these discussions on the emphasis we have on them. We too like stated above remember hand have special prayers on the 40th and other days after departure. Also it is quite often that a liturgy (mass) is prayed on behalf of the departed for remembrance and comfort to those left behind. Also for the first 40 days after the departure the women in the family (and close friends) wear black in mourning. I am sure there is so much more we actually do but I have not done this topic justice in actually researching and finding out more.

  3. This reminds me of The Day of the Dead (Dia de los Muertos) that is celebrated in Mexico. While I do not actually celebrate it, I think it is a really interesting tradition. As opposed to mourning, it is more of a festival. This article describes the holiday and relates well to the Living and the Dead theme we have in Human Sit. http://www.dayofthedead.com/