The quiet dignity of the Anglican funeral long ago gave way to the dreary shuffle through the crematorium with its ghastly musak and the brief and unedifying fabrication of the deceased’s supposed virtues by a rented priest.
Curious, I thought, as I waded through a wet January morning, that I should have to wait until retirement, when old friends die depressingly often, before going to an Orthodox funeral. My old buddy, a parish priest for most of his life, had finally escaped the refined cruelties of the Anglican establishment, settled in the glorious liturgy of the Russian Patriarchate and become, in his last few years, a writer of translucent ikons.
The church, a minute redundant Anglican chapel, was full. Walls lit with ikons and lamps and the air suffused with incense and the prayers of the saints and a sense of imminent glory. There were no books, no sheets, no hymns, no distractions. We were there to pray the liturgy which needed no spoken word from us but was, mercifully, in English.
The Orthodox remove the coffin lid during the service. My friend lay before us facing the ikonastasis – Jesus, his Saviour and Mary upon whose loving prayers he had so often depended and the signs of the mystery of the Communion now being fulfilled beyond our sight.
The service was long by Anglican standards but did not seem so. Again and again our prayer was for the Lord’s mercy and forgiveness of sins. Our love for our friend and Our Lord intertwined before the mercy seat – what other prayer is there?
The homily, when it came, was brief and free of eulogy. There is nothing to say about the dead that we didn’t know and everything to say about God’s promise in Christ. At the end a Gospel text was placed on his forehead and an ikon on his heart and we were invited to kiss both. There may have been someone who didn’t but I didn’t see them.
In the graveyard we clasped the symbol of our mortality and his and sprinkled the earth on the coffin lid.
The pilgrim way on earth will seem a little lonelier, the prospect of Heaven that much greater.