Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Saying goodbye

Yesterday evening we went to Mark's 40 day memorial service. Actually Monday was technically the 40th day since he passed over, so there was a graveside service on Monday and this service in the church on Tuesday to mark the 40th day as well. Mark's wife is from Russia and is Russian Orthodox, and so Mark's services have all been done in the Russian Orthodox tradition.
There have been a number of services for Mark, since they hold services on the 1st, 3rd, 9th and 40th days after the person has died, and there are numerous other holy days dedicated to those who have passed over. Karen gave us a link to the Russian Orthodox practices which seems to explain it fairly well, though I find it convoluted and complex; I don't have even the basic Catholic knowledge in order to understand their traditions, and several Roman Catholics I know who were there said the Russian Orthodox tradition was very different from the American Catholic traditions.

I was not raised with any formal religious tradition.We are now members of Mission Peak, a Unitarian Universalist Congregation (we don't formally call it church), which is about as all-inclusive a denomination as is possible; I don't know of any other group that is as open and willing to allow its members to believe whatever they wish, actually. It's not any one type of religion, but welcomes in anyone who seeks a supportive community. There are a core set of beliefs centered around 9 Principles, which include treating all people kindly, that all people are brothers and sisters. I can get behind that. The kids in the religious education program get educated about many different religious traditions and are taught to be open-minded and accepting, which is a really important thing for us with our 2 boys. This has worked fairly well except that Riley tends to go about telling people that he's not Christian and we don't believe in God, which can be rather disconcerting for people. Some people within the congregation do actually believe in God, while others don't have a clear picture of any formal deity, and others have different notions. It's all part of being inclusive, but can obviously be rather confusing for people who have a clearly defined set of beliefs that they follow (or for young boys who don't have an easy, well known name for their religion when asked what they believe). We have never actually made it a 'thing' in our family to say we do or don't believe in God, so I'm not really sure why Riley feels the need to say that; it seems to come up when he has friends who talk a bit too proudly about being Christian, so I suspect he may be trying to set himself apart from them or else trying to shock them or trying to sound cool. Yeah, we need to have more talks about that sort of behavior with him, anyway. Church and God and all of that sort of thing is complex and probably rather confusing for our boys, since it is for us as well.

So we went to Mark's 40 day service yesterday and went into the small, beautiful church and Alex, Mark's 9 year old son, carefully handed out beeswax candles to everyone, which smelled wonderfully of honey. Yesterday was very warm and we stood there holding our warm honey candles and it all smelled like summer honey with the sunshine floating all around us. We women covered our heads with scarves and hats and whatnot and we all made our way into the church, which is small and dusky with lots of gold leaf and many tiny Russian Icons on the walls.
The space was small but completely open, with a few benches set close against the walls; obviously everyone was expected to stand unless there was a desperate physical need to sit. So we all stood with our candles, and the priests had a censer with incense that they were waving and twirling about with expert ease and a small choir started singing in both English and Russian. We stood and listened while the choir and the priests alternately sang and chanted, and the priests intoned occasionally and waved the incense in a ritual manner. I was surprised at how much the censer was used; in Catholic services that I've been to they use the censer perhaps at the beginning and end of a service but they frequently seem rather embarrassed and almost apologetic about it, as if they might offend people with it. Here it was a very central part of the ritual and the bells on the censer were chiming continually throughout the service. The priests went through the crowd with it several times to make sure everyone present was bathed in the incense. It was a pleasant scent, actually, but it has a powerful sort of feel to it. If you've ever smelled Frankincense maybe you know what I mean. It smells like Ritual reduced to a deep primal level. Between the standing, the twilight atmosphere, incense and the rhythmic chanting it puts one into a meditative state whether you're prepared for it or not.
This picture isn't of the actual church we were in, since I didn't take pictures, but it's very similar. There was an ornately decorated wall up in the front, with a space behind it where the priests and alter boys disappeared occasionally. I found out later that women are not allowed back there. I leaned over and whispered to Paul at one point and asked him what was behind the wall, and he said, "God!", like an awe-struck six-year-old kid. So apparently only males, or at least people who have the proper credentials, are allowed back there to chat with God.
Yeah, I'm being a bit facetious. It was all very solemn, the entire service seemed to consist of alternate singing and chanting, no speaking in plain talk, no sermon per se. It was all very ritualistic and seemed quite set in its patterns and repeated phrases and verses. It had a rather mesmerizing effect, though I admit that all of the repeated verses and chants puzzled me; is it considered hard to get God's attention, so you end up repeating the prayers many times? Or is it that you have to ask for the soul to be forgiven multiple times to forgive each possible sin? Or is it that the more prayers that are sent up will carry more weight with the ultimate judge and therefore you want to have a lot of friends praying for your soul repeatedly and constantly to assure you a better chance of ascending to heaven? It seems like the latter, from what little I understand. It's obvious that I don't understand that set of beliefs, even though I try to respect others who choose to believe that way.
I hope it all brings some comfort to Natasha. I was so impressed with Alex, Mark's son, throughout; he was quiet, well behaved, handing out candles, robing up as an alter boy and reading a rhythmic sort of prayer in the service with poise and a clear, steady voice. He was so superb throughout the service. My boys sat on a bench over near the back, with us nearby, holding their candles and only occasionally getting the flames dangerously near their hair or other things. They were respectful and quiet, at least. For myself, I had a hard time associating any of the church experience with what I knew of Mark, but it was really quite lovely and touching, and I'm glad I had a chance to see a Russian Orthodox service.

Afterward many of us went a few blocks away to a local eatery and sat around and chatted and told stories about Mark and caught up on each others' lives a bit, as frequently happens after a memorial service, and Alex and the boys got to play a bit of Magic the Gathering while the adults indulged in boring adult talk. The boys all got along well, as we thought they would, and I know Mark would have been glad to see them together having fun. 

When Natasha and Alex left, I was so touched at the way everyone chimed in yelling goodbye to Alex as they walked away, past the fence. He paused and turned, maybe in surprise, to hear that many voices calling his name, and he shyly waved to us before following his mom out of sight. That's when I got all teary, actually. Mark himself was such a good, kind person, and his son obviously is as well.

Hopefully we'll get to see him again soon and the boys can all play together.


  1. There's something so wonderfully tribal about all this. I respect a religion that embraces the mystery of spirituality, even if I don't actually believe in it. But man if I did, I'd want to belong to a church that understood the symbolic importance of ritual.

  2. What a wonderful peek into a tradition we don't get to see, I have a great deal of respect for the application of rituals to give an odd sort of aid to processing grief.

    I am glad Mark's son got to spend some time being a boy with other boys, I agree with you as to how important that could be, especially in the middle of something as immense as this.

  3. Whatever the ORhtodox say about it, from a practical point of view I think it's actually not about the departed person's soul, it's about the reactions of the living. Having a series of ceremonies that encourage meditation would help them realign themselves back into some kind of spiritual normality, it might remind them to be kind to people they must put up with for the time being and don't normally encounter. It's interesting that the series goes on for that long, but I think that is probably healthier than one funeral, that's it, we're all done, now let's argue over money.
    This is a lovely post and I'm glad you shared it with us, but that's too many people passing away all at once!