Dealing With Death: Mortuary Practices in the Greek Orthodox Christian World

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This was a talk accompanied by Powerpoint slides and was originally given at the Pitt Rivers Museum, Oxford in 2011.
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  1 | Page  Illustrated lecture to the Friends of the Pitt-Rivers Museum , 28 th  September 2011 DEALING WITH DEATH: MORTUARY PRACTICES IN THE GREEK ORTHODOX WORLD Renée Hirschon [SLIDE 1: TITLE] My intention in this talk is to convey to you the important functions of ritual and of communal participation in the events surrounding death in THE EASTERN CHRISTIAN TRADITION. In order to do this there is an interplay of elements of theology and of folk practice as they are revealed in the various ritual practices. The main body of the talk falls into three parts but I must first draw attention to the setting i.e. the context  in which these observances and practices have developed : this is a quick Introductory sketch of the background of the Orthodox Church, (apologies to the experts on Byzantium, to medievalists, and theologians. As an anthropologist, living among the people I study, my intention is to make sense of their cultural norms and to interpret them). According to the history I was taught at school, Gibbons’ influence prevailed: The split in the Roman empire [SLIDE 2: MAP 6 th  C extent and divisions}  which occurred some time earlier based on the capital in Constantinople/ aka Byzantium was dismissed. In this view when Rome fell to the barbarians in the 5 th  C , “ darkness fell upon Europe ” , the Eastern Roman Empire was ignored , and suddenly in 1453 the Renaissance brought the blossoming of civilisation [SLIDE 3 : MAP 11 TH  C Byzantine Empire at its greatest extent] . In reality, for a thousand years after the fall of Rome, this part of the world, the Eastern Empire, reached a peak in many branches of civilised activity. Great accomplishments were achieved in art, literature, philosophy, theology  –  all flourished in the Eastern Mediterranean. [SLIDE 4: Byzantine metalwork] THE HEARTLAND OF THE CHRISTIAN TRADITION was the land mass of Asia Minor and Middle Eastern countries (nowadays those early Christian centres have severely depleted populations). Early Christian communities were established as the apostles undertook missionary journeys and the “seven churches of Asia” were  major towns on the western coast of what is now Turkey, towns such as Ephesus, Pergamon, Smyrna. The blending of local cultures and schools of thought took place there. Consequently, the Eastern Christian doctrine and dogma is a syncretic development of the Judaic, the classical philosophical, and the new precepts evangelised by St Paul and the missionary apostles. Early Christian theology, the Patristic tradition, developed and was elaborated in Cappadocia, the heartland of Asia Minor, through the Church fathers, St Basil the Great, St John Chrysostomos, St Gregory Nazianzus, St Gregory of Nyssa [see Cameron, A. Byzantine Christianity.]  2 | Page  In 1453 the city of Byzantium was captured by the Ottoman Turks and the wider region fell into the increasing domination of Islam, in its various cultural expressions. It is important to note that Eastern Christianity is deeply traditional and conservative. It retains many of the practices of the early Church e.g. the srcinal Creed (formulated at the first Ecumenical Councils, 325, 381 AD), and also the provision for celibate as well as married clergy. There is a strong mystical approach through contemplative prayer, and monasticism is a central institution without there being separate monastic orders. The strength of the Empire and its power and influence through the centuries is witnessed by the stability of its currency , the ‘nomisma’  --- coins of pure gold [SLIDE 5: coins] which were accepted throughout medieval Europe for over 8 centuries, acting something like the ‘gold standard’ of our times. It was a society in which religion and daily life were intimately entwined and this continues to be the case since Eastern Orthodox Christian practice is inextricably bound up with everyday life, with the seasons and daily life activities. Like most religions, it is a blend of elements as we shall see later. For example, a special ‘food for the dead’ called k olliva  is traceable as a pre-Christian practice, and is a central element in memorial services for the deceased. Notably, Orthodox Christianity is marked by the interpenetration of the spiritual and the material [ SLIDE 6 : QUOTES] “Orthodoxy rejects any attempt to diminish the materiality of the sacraments” (Ware 1963 , 274). “sacramental worship in which we humans participate should involve to the full our bodies along with our minds” (275) and its practice involves all the senses.  Thus the churches are decorated with icons [SLIDE 7, 8, 9: iconography] which are venerated with a kiss, the body is involved in prostrations, through the lighting of candles, burning of incense; music, sight, sound and smell are all invoked. Leavened bread loaves [SLIDE 10: Leavened Bread] are used in the Communion Liturgy,  [SLIDE 11: procession of the burial]  THE ORTHODOX CHURCH ’s  jurisdiction is based on the five ancient Patriarchates (Jerusalem, Antioch, Rome, Constantinople, Alexandria). Within these are now various national autocephalous churches: hence the Greek, Serbian, Russian, Bulgarian, Rumanian (and further splits such as caused by the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917, which resulted in the Russian Church in Exile). OUTLINE [SLIDE 12]  So much for the background in a highly simplified and sketchy form. In this talk I am concentrating on the question of how people in the Greek Orthodox Christian world deal with the trauma of death. Surely death deserves our attention; it is the most enigmatic and paradoxical aspect of human existence, and an incomprehensible dimension of human consciousness. The one universal and inescapable fact of our lives is our mortality. And yet in the modern world many of us are out of touch with the reality of death in our everyday lives. As an Oxford friend who had recently suffered a bereavement said to me, “it is locked in a cupboard” --- but as I will show you, Greeks don’t keep their skeletons in the cupboard ! (Excuse the pun!) Indeed I mean this literally since through the  3 | Page  practice of exhumation of bones, skeletons are exposed to light and air, as we shall see later. This talk is divided into 3 parts: 1. Preparation for, and management of death   2. The event of death, the vigil, and burial , 3. The third stage: the mourning period, the memorials for the dead, the exhumation . My information comes from my personal experience in a poor locality in the port area of Piraeus many years ago when I was doing fieldwork for my doctorate. I also use the work of anthropologists who have lived in villages, in central and northern Greece (du Boulay, Danforth, Kain Hart, and Panourgia in Athens) SOME ANTHROPOLOGICAL INSIGHTS [SLIDE 13: Rites of Passage]  Rites of passage and ritual in daily life are an essential part of human experience, However, in the secular world these are commonly disparaged and discarded as irrational, meaningless or as superstitious practices; in my view this works to our disadvantage. Interestingly, nowadays rituals are often invented for various purposes (e.g. the UK citizenship ceremony) or revived when communities realise the need for them. Many of the traditions around royalty in this country are in fact not all that old, but have been elaborated in the recent period. Van Gennep’s 1908 classic  study Rites de Passage  delineated the underlying structure of the great variety of rituals which mark stages in the life cycle of human beings. He noted the common structure of these rituals, a universal pattern in all societies, which can be seen to fall into three stages [SLIDE 13: RITES OF PASSAGE]  Indeed rites of passage are designed to aid the transition and emotional turmoil that occurs at specific points in the life cycle of the human person. Birth, development, maturity into adulthood, marriage, infirmity, death  –  common and shared, inescapable experiences of all human beings  –  are marked by rituals in all societies and, in this way, aid us as individuals to pass from one stage to another. The rituals allow social groups to dealt with change smoothly. I was most struck by this supportive aspect of rituals surrounding death during my fieldwork, when three people well-known to me died, two of old age and one young woman friend who was killed in an accident. I was closely involved in the events surrounding all three deaths and would like to share with you the wisdom to be found in these practices. I found them far from morbid, but helpful as a way of dealing with the disruption of social and emotional ties caused by death. These rituals were an expression of a realistic acceptance of human mortality, the one inescapable fact. Death is not a private matter in  4 | Page  Greek society, it is openly shared and a powerful unifying feature. Consequently, confronting death in public generates a realisation of the inevitability of our common fate. It reminds people of the pettiness of everyday disputes over trivial matters and transient material concerns. In the face of death, the enormity of the mortal condition is confronted. Rituals have many functions, and one of those most pertinent to the traumatic disruption that death causes - what du Boulay calls the ‘v iolenc e of death’  - could be seen as a coping mechanism. This arises from the formulaic and pre-ordained way of behaving when death occurs. People respond in socially accepted and well-known ways, conforming with the observances that are prescribed. No thought is required, no energy is called upon to find the right words or gestures  –  grief is allowed to express itself in socially specified ways. Standard p hrases such as “Life to you”, “May God forgive him/her”, “Eternal memory” are conventionally expected and help to smooth over this emotionally charged time. The recognition of the inevitability of human mortality means that, with advancing age, people move into the final stage in life which is consciously acknowledged. I was struck by the distinct change in social expectations and practice among the elderly. Men and women alike prepare themselves for the end of their lives through a change in orientation, with a consciousness of the other world that awaits them, [SLIDE 14: VASILIA]  Their philosophy is explicitly other-worldly : The older people would say “L ook at us. Everything is transitory. What is a human being after all? You take nothing with you, so leave behind some good  –  a kind word, a good deed, don’t do harm …”. “We are only visitors in this world, everything passes, nothing remains..” It was noticeable how they would divest themselves of material items, giving small gifts away, and saying characteristically “To remember me”. I still have such things given to me by my elderly friends (embroidery, crocheted fabrics). 1.   Preparation for, and management of death Older people in the community have a familiarity with death from their personal experiences. They would speak about death metaphorically in the form of beings such as Michael the Archangel, depicted in his icon with a sword. He comes to take the souls of those departing this life for the other world. Sometimes people speak about this figure as Charos  –  [the boatman of classical times who transported the souls across the River Styx to the underworld]. The custom in my community was for the corpse to be wrapped in winding cloths before being clothed for burial. 33 coins are put in the coffin (Christ’s age) as the fee to be paid for the journey to the other world. Clearly, this is a mixture of pre-Christian beliefs incorporated into a Christian context. One of my neighbours, Petros, in his 80s, began to fade and took to his bed, showing signs that he was nearing the end; the word went round that he was passing ‘his last hours’. At this time SIGNS are recognised  –  he lost his appetite, his face had sunken in, his feet were swollen, and his breath was short. One of his neighbours, Eliso, [SLIDE 15: ELISO]  (72) was experienced in dealing with death since she had buried her two children and her husband in  5 | Page  the famine of 1942 during the WWII Nazi occupation. She interpreted the process of death to her younger neighbour s : “H is body becomes heavier as the soul prepares to leave the body, it moves up to his chest and finally it leaves like a bird .” As the days passed, Petros  stopped recognising some of his visitors and Eliso commented that he was seeing other invisible beings at the foot of the bed. In a remarkable phrase she explained: “He is clothed in angels [ aggeloforemenos ] and he s houldn’t be disturbed” . She warned those in the room , “You shouldn’t speak to him now that he is heavy. His soul can’t surrender if his attention comes back to this world .” Proper conduct for those attending is to help the soul depart from the body and to ease its passage. When Petros requested a cigarette they gave it to him, and they placed photos of his absent daughters at his bed in case he asked after them, told his grandchildren to say good bye, and to kiss his hand. 2.The event of death, the vigil, and burial  HOSPITAL OR HOME DEATH? [SLIDE 16: QUOTES: Ways of seeing the dead: love or horror?]  My landlord, Prodromos (79) was taken to hospital one night with severe heart symptoms. For 15 days the family were in attendance on a full time basis  –  his wife slept next to the bed, administered oxygen, and gradually became exhausted. Anticipating that he was approaching the end, the family decided to bring him home. It is cheaper to have a home death, they explained, because they would have to pay 300 drachmas for the body to be prepared professionally in hospital, whereas this could be done free by an older experienced person in the neighbourhood. In the days before an anticipated death, the family makes provision for the event, stocking the house with coffee, brandy, nuts, and other traditional offerings, even purchasing extra coffee cups and glasses. Family reputation depends on adequate preparation since the house will be opened to all in the community (see Heirs of the Greek Catastrophe , ch 10) As in the case of Petros, the body of Prodromos was washed with wine and anointed with oil, wrapped in white winding cloths, and dressed. The funeral parlour delivers a coffin and the cover is left outside the house, a visible notice of the bereavement and an invitation for all to enter and pay their respects . As soon as death occurs, the neighbourhood takes over. Being involved in the funeral observances is expected of a good neighbour. The house is cleaned, pictures and mirrors are covered in black and one room is arranged for the wake, for an all night vigil . The body is placed in the open coffin with an icon, flowers are arranged surrounding the corpse. [SLIDE 17: coffin picture].  The bereaved family [SLIDE 18: coffin picture]  is not left alone for the whole night. People come and go, are offered coffees, sweets, nuts and pastries. Each visitor would bid farewell to the deceased with a kiss, or with an affectionate touch to the forehead, light a candle next to the corpse, and join the other mourners, wishing long life to the bereaved family members, an d “Eternal memory” to the dead person. [SLIDE 19: coffin picture] The house, normally closed to outsiders, now becomes a public open space
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