My Beliefnet column this month is about the experience of washing my friend Jack’s body to prepare it for burial, according to the Orthodox Christian tradition. Excerpt:
Dealing with the viscerality of death is difficult for all cultures, but for us Americans, it is particularly hard. We shield ourselves from the grim reality of what it means to die in the flesh. Touching the dead is a taboo in many world cultures, but in contemporary America, we wall ourselves off from the horrors of death with sentimentality. It is not that way in Orthodox cultures. But I do not live in an Orthodox culture, nor was I raised in one. I am an American. Standing there next to the body of my friend, preparing to wash him and clothe him in his burial garments, unnerved me to the core. Still, it had to be done.
This intimate ritual was the strangest thing I’ve ever done, but I was grateful that I had been able to give this to Jack. We live in a culture that wants to turn away from all death and suffering, to deny it, to keep it out of our sight. But it comes for us all the same, sometimes, as in Jack’s case, like a thief in the night. What the priest and I did on that Saturday morning was to look at death face to face, and to touch it with our hands, and to affirm that not even the mortality can take away a man’s dignity, if he has love. Driving home, it occurred to me that I did not want the men of my church doing the same thing for me, seeing me naked like that. And then I thought: that is not Christian humility, but all-American pride, and a denial of reality that’s unworthy of men. You can’t get any poorer or more naked than dead. This is how each of us came into this world, and this is how each of us will leave it. There is a powerful life lesson in the ritual that Father Matthew and I performed that morning.