"Who Are You?"
by Reverend Fr. Bohdan Hladio,
Parish Priest, Ukrainian Orthodox Sobor of St. Vladimir, Hamilton, Ontario
I know your name, I know your family, but I don't know you. The phone call I
got about you was the one I dread. "Father, so and so has passed away, and
the family wants to know when you can serve the funeral"
What am I supposed to do? I've been in this parish long enough to have seen
and met anyone who has even the slightest connection with our community.
I've never seen you in Church. I've never spoken with you. I've never
noticed you at a Panakhyda, a wedding, a baptism, or a funeral. Where have
Were you a believer? If you were a believer, you certainly didn't act like
one. What I mean is that there has always been a clear set of expectations
set before anyone who wishes to call themselves a Christian. Christians
approach Holy Confession and Holy Communion at least once a year, for
example. You didn't. Christians support the Church with their time, money,
and talents. You didn't. Christians attend Divine Services regularly. You,
to my knowledge, and to the knowledge of everyone I've talked to, haven't
darkened the door of our church in years.
From what I've been told you were rather successful at what you did. You
obviously spent lots of time learning career skills, spent lots of time
working and making money. From your address I see that you certainly were
well off financially. But even this confuses me, because our parish keeps
records of everyone who donates even the smallest amount of money, and I've
never seen your name there. You had money for the government. You had money
for food. You had money for shelter, for vacations, for a cottage, for
concerts, and for restaurants. Yet now that you're dead it's the Church, the
same Church you didn't support when you had the chance, that gets asked to
"But he was baptized here", they tell me. Sometimes I think the
sectarians are right, and we should wait until people reach the age of
reason so that they might consciously accept baptism, with all its
consequences and responsibilities. The fact that you were baptized here
simply underlines the fact that someone failed-perhaps your family, perhaps
our community, perhaps you yourself-in your Christian upbringing and
development. If you hadn't been baptized you (and your parents and
godparents) would at least have an excuse for your conduct.
At times like this I just want to go on vacation, and let a substitute
priest deal with things, because not knowing the situation at least he won't
have qualms of conscience.
Did you believe in God, or did you mock God? Were
you positively disposed to the Church and Her teachings, or did you actively
support social and moral teachings? Not knowing these things, I don't know if it's proper to bury you.
A Christian burial is for Christians. Were you? The Church always
gives the benefit of the doubt, but we've got to base that benefit on
something. So far, I'm drawing a blank.
What do I say to your family? They are distressed and heartbroken. All of us
realize that death is just around the corner, that a weak heart, a drunk
driver, or any of a myriad of other causes can snuff out our life even as we
feel ourselves to be young, healthy, and in control of our destiny. Your
sudden death, not having time to say even a simple "good-bye, I love you"
has devastated them. I hope there were no unresolved conflicts, because in a
case like this it makes those left behind even more distraught, and
sometimes those wounds never heal.
The one thing I can say for sure is that you do have a few devout relatives,
people who truly love God and serve Him in any way they can. While most of
your friends and family would be only mildly upset if I didn't bury you. (I
actually think they'd be happier. A "rent-a-preacher" service would be
shorter and more easily forgotten, and afterwards they'd have the
satisfaction of complaining about how the priest was "unfair" or
"judgmental" and feel justified in not having anything to do with the
Church. Until they wanted a nice wedding. Or to baptize their child. Or
died). It's these pious relatives who are foremost in my mind as I consider
what to do.
But as the saying goes, "God has children, but no grandchildren". It doesn't
matter whether our parents or aunts or uncles are saintly, or priests, or
bishops, or whatever, it's what we ourselves do with the time, talents and
material wealth which God has given to us which will either open or lock the
gates of Heaven for us. If we don't want to be saved even God Himself can't
force us (and God can do anything!).
The bottom line, you see, is that I don't feel comfortable making either
you, or me, or the Church into a hypocrite. Jesus preached love, but He also
preached truth and responsibility. He accepted the worst sinners who
repented, but he condemned everyone (the "church people" first and
foremost!) who was hypocritical.
So you see, my problem is not that you were
a sinner. I'm a sinner too. My problem is that if you consciously chose not
to have anything to do with the Church during your lifetime then burying you
from the Church makes you into a hypocrite, which I don't want to do. If I
decide to bury you for a stipend, or just in order not to "make waves" in
the community, I'm then a hypocrite. And if hypocritical priests bury
hypocritical laymen it certainly makes the Church appear hypocritical,
"But the Church is full of hypocritical people", you might say. You're
right, and again, I'm one of them. I personally would rather deal with an
honest agnostic than a nominal believer. But the very fact that someone is
willing to give God the "benefit of the doubt" (if not real faith) by paying
their parish membership, by being well disposed towards the Church, by
showing up for the occasional religious or cultural or social gathering
really does mean something. We are taught that when we take one step towards
God, He comes running toward us (you may have heard the story of the
prodigal son. It's been on the best seller list for a long time). At this
moment I'd really like to learn about any conscious step you may have taken
in your adult life towards God. I'm not having much luck.
So I don't know what to do. I don't know whether giving you a Christian
burial will be for God's glory, or compromise the Churches authority and
discipline. We all know that a funeral has absolutely nothing to do with
whether we go to heaven or not. Many saints didn't receive a Christian
burial, but are in heaven. Others, who were buried with great pomp and
ceremony but had grave, unrepented sins weren't helped by their funerals,
because repenting is one of the few things only we can do for ourselves. In
any other sphere of life a different set of expectations is in place-if I'm
not in the army, for example, and ask for a military funeral the officer at
the local base will not only deny my request, he'll think that I'm crazy.
But the Church, is, well, supposed to be different!
"But Father, the funeral is for the living". If I hear this nonsense one
more time I think I'm going to be sick. I've never heard of a funeral being
served for someone who was alive. Orthodox Christians believe that prayers
for the dead can be beneficial. We don't believe in "closed casket"
funerals, or worse yet, funerals without a corpse. Yes, a funeral, piously
served and chanted, with a proper sermon, can bring great comfort to the
grieving and spiritual edification (sometimes even enlightenment) to those
present. But it's my experience that people "write their own eulogy". In
cases like yours lying won't do, and telling the truth might not be terribly
So forgive me. If I was wiser, and more compassionate, and holier, I'd know
what to do, what to say. But I don't. Am I going to serve the funeral? I
don't know yet. The only thing I know for sure is that at this moment I hope
and pray with all my heart that your current dilemma is less traumatic than
mine. But somehow I doubt it.