We buried our friend Jack Cutrer today, out of our little country church. It doesn’t seem quite real. He was only 41. His mother found him dead on his couch last Friday morning, hours after he had returned from a hospital visit. He had been suffering from terrible kidney problems. None of us, least of all Jack, thought he was in imminent danger of death. You never know.
Jack was so gentle and kind, and faithful. He had to bear a lot of pain in this past year, both emotional and physical. But he was a pillar of the church. In his eulogy today, Father Matthew said that seeing how enthusiastic Jack was for the prospect of a new Orthodox mission here was one of the things that convinced him and his wife to take a chance on moving South. I can see why. Jack was one of those quiet, solid men who talk low, and who say the most profound things and the goofiest things in the same tone of voice. The difference with Jack is that when he would say something silly, he would always give you the sweetest grin.
It is hard to imagine that we will never again see that grin this side of paradise.
For nearly all of us in our church, this was our first Orthodox funeral. My wife Julie, the choir director, and Mat. Anna, the priest’s wife, had to put together and learn all the music in only three days. The entire service is sung, so this is very much more complicated than selecting hymns. And the service is much longer than the funerals most of us are used to. I think it went for an hour and fifteen minutes. If you have ever been to an Orthodox service, you know when the priest chants, “Let us complete our prayer unto the Lord,” you could well be in for another forty minutes of chanting.
But I must say that the aesthetic and theological depth of Orthodox Christianity is on full display in the way we send off our dead. On Saturday morning, Father Matthew and I went to the funeral home, where, in a back room, we bathed, anointed, dressed, and prayed the prescribed prayers over our friend’s body. It was unnerving to me at first, I don’t mind telling you. There is the unclothed body of your dear friend on a slab in front of you. You have to touch it, and not only touch it, but when you dress it for burial, you have to embrace it and lift it, and treat it lovingly, because this was our beloved Jack.
By the end of our two hours readying Jack’s body, as Father Matthew prayed the final prayers, I had gone from wanting to run away from death to thanking God for having given me the opportunity to serve Jack in that way.
We kept vigil with Jack last night in the church, reading the Psalms all night near his open casket, all the way up until the time of the funeral. Have you ever kept an all-night vigil with the body of a loved one? It’s a remarkable experience. I didn’t know the Psalms before I became Orthodox, but they are woven so intimately into the fabric of our liturgies that you can’t help but learn them. It’s hard to know what to say about the feelings you have when you are looking at the body of your loved one, but the Psalms say what needs saying. This morning, standing in the full church listening to the three priests and the choir singing the Psalms, passage from Scripture, and the liturgical prayers, I was immensely grateful for all of it. They felt right. The service was long, but Jack deserved it, and, I think, we all needed it. His death was so sudden, so unexpected, and the idea that we would simply dispatch him with a few prayers seemed so … wrong, somehow. This was a time for lamentation, and lamentation takes time.
As the service came to a close, I thought about how the past few days, beginning with preparing Jack’s body, until this moment, made death seem so much less frightening and alien. The last thing the church community does before the casket is closed is kiss the body goodbye. Father Matthew said you may kiss the body, or you may simply kiss the icon of St. Nicholas, Jack’s patron saint, that was in his arms, and with which he would be buried. All of us, one at a time, did this, and it was so beautiful, and so natural. I wouldn’t have felt that way about it four days ago, but going on this journey through death with the Orthodox faith changed me. At the end of it all, death seemed like a part of life. Of course it is a part of life, but in our culture, it comes off as something to run from. These rituals these past few days have made it so much easier to accept the pain of losing Jack.
Orthodoxy is a religion that demands a lot from its practitioners, but it is also a religion that gives so very much back. There is a connection between the two things. Goodbye Jack; you made it possible for us to have an Orthodox church here, and for our lives to be enriched by the faith you loved and served so well. Pray for us, as we will pray for you.
By the way, I walked back on the back porch on Saturday and saw that my daughter Nora had made this poster for Jack’s boy, who is a member of our congregation:
UPDATE: This vintage song from The Who explains the subject line: