Liturgy in Life and Death: A Reflection on the Funeral of Sr. Katrina
by Teva Regule
Note: Recently a sister in Christ, Katrina, passed away after a long struggle with pancreatic cancer. She had embraced an Orthodox way of life almost seven years ago, entering wholeheartedly into it via her local community at New Skete Monastery. I had the opportunity to attend her funeral. Below is a description of that event with some additional thoughts.
...The funeral was beautiful in so many ways. It is hard to put into words. It was the most intimate experience of liturgy and life that I have ever had and as a result, it elevated both. I left work early on Friday and got to the church just as the bell was ringing. I was totally overwhelmed with emotions as the pallbearers-mostly all women, many of whom had been her caregivers in her last days-carried her body in a simple pine box solemnly from the chapel to the entrance of the larger church. The service for that night (commonly called a "wake") was in the context of an evening prayer service.
After the blessing of the entrance and the singing of "Come, let us worship and fall down before Christ," everyone escorted the body into the church while a lone chanter intoned the words of Psalm 90/91-"...I will say to the LORD, "My refuge and my fortress; my God, in whom I will trust...." It was a very real communal action. (Usually the Trisagion hymn, "Holy God...," is sung at this time. At first I missed singing it, but the words of the psalm seemed particularly appropriate.) Selections from Psalm 118/119 were then sung with the refrain, "Give rest to the soul of your servant, Katrina." After the epistle reading (1 Cor. 15:39-57) and Gospel (John 6: 47-58-"The bread of Life discourse"), a number of people gave brief reflections. They talked about her life, fond memories, how she handled the news of her illness, how she had been an example for many, etc. The reflections that were shared that evening were all different and quite moving and gave the ceremony a personal touch. They were not long, elaborate, overly glamorous reflections that failed to reflect the totality of her life. The service concluded with a litany that spoke particularly to the reason we had all assembled. It made it so very real.
The funeral service the next day was in the context of a Divine Liturgy. It was an amazing juxtaposition of sadness at the passing of Sr. Katrina and joy at the resurrectional/eschatological focus (i.e. a focus on the "end times") of the liturgy-white vestments and all. All of the readings, except for the Gospel, were done by women. A young altar server assisted. The server was so serious and served with the proper amount of reverence. I was so impressed. Sr. Cecelia, the head of the nuns' community, gave the reflection for the funeral. She spoke with such a profound simplicity, that I was moved to tears. (I described it to my friends as a "grand slam." It was an example of one reflection, when shared, having an impact for many that was far greater than the sum of the individual words.) It was incredibly powerful to hear in person. It integrated a message from the readings (Is. 25: 6-10a, James 5: 7-11, Jn. 11: 1-44) with a mix of Sr. Katrina's spiritual journey and her life in the community. Moreover, it addressed our questions and confusions when faced with a terminal illness that strikes someone down earlier in life. She reminded us what cancer cannot do-"It cannot cripple love. It cannot shatter hope. It cannot corrode faith. It cannot destroy peace. It cannot kill friendship. It cannot suppress memories. It cannot steal eternal life. It cannot conquer the Spirit." She concluded by thanking God for having shared life and love with Sr. Katrina. ...I remember hearing a soft "Amen" depart from my lips.
The remainder of the liturgy was one of joyful sorrow. It was a joy to share the peace of Christ with everyone during the Kiss of Peace, especially Sr. Katrina's relatives and friends who made the trip. But there was a note of finality when her name was read with the other departed members of the community during the commemoration section of the Anaphora. Still, it was a reminder that we are all one in Christ, on both sides of death. Moreover, we then had the opportunity to reflect this encounter with Christ in this life and the unity with Him and our loved ones more fully by receiving His body and blood-the "Bread of Life."
After the Thanksgiving prayer, everyone had the opportunity to approach Sr. Katrina for the last time and give the "Last Kiss." The coffin was then closed. During this time, the resurrectional music was sung-a glorious "Christ is Risen. One of the nuns had painted a cross, graced with a beautiful lilac, on the outside of the coffin. (Sr. Katrina had had the opportunity to deliver a few reflections at the prayer services of the community and in her last one she spoke of seeing the lilacs for the last time.) I had an opportunity to look at it earlier in the day and it was painted with such intricacy. It was clear time and care had been taken to paint it.
The procession to the gravesite (which was adjacent to the church) was led by the young server carrying an icon of the Resurrection. Another server carried a wooden cross that would become the marker for her grave. They were both visible reminders that we are to live and die in Christ and we believe then, share in His resurrection. As we processed, singing "Holy God" (i.e. the Trisagion Hymn), sunlight burst through the clouds. Strangely, it gave a sense of peace to our actions. The service drew to a close with the singing of "Memory Eternal" (of which I was able to sing only about half before tears got in the way), accompanied by the ringing of the lone bell. It was incredibly poignant. The service then ended with friends and family throwing a handful of dirt onto the casket. From dust to dust...
The funeral service for Sr. Katrina-an expression of the living Tradition of the Church-was so moving, I felt like I was transported into another realm. It was totally transformative-one of those aspects of liturgy that we sometimes talk about, but from my perspective, so rarely experience. I am forever thankful to have had the opportunity!