I’ve attended a few funerals, over the years. I’ve always felt awkward since I was there to support a friend in their time of loss and never really knew how to behave. Often there wasn’t a body, just a picture which we stared at while family and friends shared stories, showed slides and maybe sang a favorite hymn or two. I’d convey my condolences, eat the sandwiches and make small talk with other attendees awkwardly standing around. Someone was here and now they’re not. Now we need to get on with our lives.
I’m convinced our society doesn’t really know how to deal with death. We try to ignore the inevitable but when it slaps us in the face, we try to deal with it as quickly and as painlessly as possible.
Since becoming Orthodox, my understanding of death is gradually changing. Every single one of us is born to die and when that happens, within Orthodox circles, we sing “Memory Eternal.”
At first the phrase seemed to be fairly self-explanatory and consistent with traditions of days gone by. America had a springtime tradition of Decoration Day where families would have a family reunion at the graves of loved ones complete with picnic. Graves were tended, stories told and children learned about family history.
Eventually, this tradition was rolled into Memorial Day, known as Remembrance Day here in Canada, a day set aside to remember the soldiers who had died fighting in battle. The non-war dead are left to be remembered by family friends and their religions.
The Orthodox remember the dead every day. Every day is dedicated to specific saints, people who have died while serving their God. The church will hold memorial services for any family requesting one, usually 40 days after the death of a loved one and then annually after that. And at every service we sing, “Memory Eternal”.
As I said, I assumed the term ‘memory eternal’ was for us, the living and our descendants, to remember the dead. I have since learned it is more than that. It is a prayer to the eternal God on behalf of the departed. It’s like saying, ‘may this person forever be in God’s memory’.
Creation exists only because it has a relationship with its Creator. My love and respect for creation shows my love for God.
It is God’s sacrificial love which encourages us to humble ourselves, to love others and fulfil our potential by being all we were meant to be and to have our names remembered by God Himself.
In Luke 10, the apostles came to Jesus rejoicing over their command of the demons. Jesus cautioned them not to rejoice over inconsequential things on earth but rather to rejoice that they are remembered in heaven. Later, in Luke 16, Jesus tells the parable of Lazarus and the rich man, a story which really illustrates the concept of “Memory eternal”. We know the poor man, Lazarus by name, but the selfish rich man will forever be nameless.
Elie Wiesel, a noble laureate, a holocaust survivor who just died this past July, wrote in his book “Night” (a biography about his time spent in the death camps) “To forget the dead would be akin to killing them a second time.” He, of course, was referring to the victims of the holocaust, but the sentiment can be applied to anyone who has died. Whether soldier who gave up his life for our country, the missing and murdered women, the lonely homeless person, our parents, our miscarried child or someone who had fame and riches in this lifetime. If they are not remembered, they die again. We need to remember them all, but this is a task virtually impossible for us who are trapped in time.
I can’t do it, but God can.
November 11 is a time to remember our heroes, those who made the ultimate sacrifice. They gave their lives so others may live. Let us lift them up to God and may their memory be eternal.