In modern Taiwan there are few concerns as important to people as the remembrance of the dead. Remembrance of the dead plays a role in many of Taiwan’s traditional practices. In the same way, the importance of remembering the dead is an important part of Orthodox Christian practice. Between these two ancient traditions there are many striking similarities as well as important ontological differences.
In order to talk about remembrance it is important to define just what one is remembering. Chinese tradition has a number of sometimes conflicting explanations as to what happens when we die. The best outcome is that a departed family member dies a “good death,” is buried properly, and becomes an ancestor. The afterlife of this person is sometimes explained as existing in three souls, one which resides in the name tablet on the family altar, one which resides in the tomb, and one which passes to another realm. For one who dies a “bad death,” such as one who dies unmarried, childless, poor, or by suicide or drowning, few or none of the proper rites for transformation into an ancestor may be performed. The unmarried, especially women and children, may not even have their name tablet placed on the family altar. The departed is in particular danger if they have no male heir to perform the rituals in service of the dead, though for some this is avoided by a post-mortem adoption. In these cases the soul may be left wandering, in Chinese belief it may become a “good brother,” a hungry ghost. Even in these cases the soul is not left without hope. At regular times of the year, Chinese offer food and money to the wandering ghosts, both to their departed families and to any nameless ghosts searching for food, in compassion for their unhappy state. Once a year at the Pu-du festival, it is believed some ghosts will find release from their wanderings. Somewhat conflicting with this is the belief held by some Buddhists of possible rebirth in the Western Paradise of the Amitabha Buddha, but in the minds of adherents these beliefs often work together. A belief held by many is that after a time spent in the underworld, they will be reborn in a new life. Many spend this life hoping the next one will be better. For this reason, some people choose to take their own lives as an escape from a difficult situation. There are some variations in explanations of what happens after death, and customs vary from place to place and among ethnic groups, but I think the above gives a fairly accurate generalization of the beliefs of most people in Taiwan.
Whatever variety of theories there are as to how many souls there are and where exactly they reside, let us return to the question of what exactly is being remembered. Beyond a person’s qualities which may determine what mortuary rituals are preformed, qualities such as gender, wealth, age, children, and social or family status, each person has a unique identity which is not destroyed in death. Even if some part of the person was to be reborn, it would not change the fact that they had existed as a unique person, a person which, once given life, does not cease to be. At the tomb, at the family altar, or at the table of food and money offerings, what is being remembered is the unique personhood of the departed. The rituals preformed after death are a recognition that some essential part of their loved one continues to exist. Customs such as the cleaning and decoration of tombs and having a meal at the tomb, announcements to one’s ancestors of marriages, births, business ventures, and other important events, as well as divination to ask the advice of ancestors, are all ways family members attempt to participate in the continued existence of the person.
The remembrance of the personhood of the departed is also an important part of Orthodox Christianity. One of the most basic principles of Orthodox belief is that God exists as Trinity, as three persons in communion. As we humans are created in the image of God, we are persons created for communion with one another. As death is not an end to our personhood, so it is not an end to our communion. For this reason we continue our participation with the departed. Similar to Chinese funeral custom, prayers are said for the person to find rest. An important difference, however, is that the particular qualities of the person such as gender, age, wealth, or progeny are not taken into account. All those who carry God’s image are equally and uniquely worthy of remembrance. A memorial service is offered three days, forty days, six months, and then every year after a person’s death. Similar to the Chinese custom of offering food to the dead, a plate of koliva, or boiled wheat, is set out and censed. However, in the Orthodox understanding this food is considered to be offered to the attendees by the departed, and not offered to the departed as in Chinese understanding. Further, the dead are commemorated at regular times of the year. In the service prayers are offered for the person that their memory will be made eternal. Is it so that they will continually be remembered in the community or by the family? Certainly that is important, especially for Chinese who desire to continue meeting the needs of the departed, but communal memory is not eternal. As generations pass, even the most venerated ancestor may be forgotten, to say nothing of those who died childless. The Orthodox practice goes higher, and asks for the person to be held in the eternal memory of God. As Christ hung on the cross, the thief dying next to him requested: “Lord, remember me when thou comest into thy kingdom,” to which our Lord replied, “Today shalt thou be with me in paradise.” To be remembered by God is to be in paradise with Him. Even when all our decedents have died, even if our family line ends, we can exist in God’s memory eternally.
If one was asked, “What is the opposite of death?” our first answer might be to say, “Life.” However, if one thinks about it carefully, the opposite of death is in fact, birth. Death has ended the biological process began at birth, but the life of the person created by God has not been extinguished. As such, their life with us has not ended. As we pray for them they, too, pray for us. They see our struggles and trials and stand with us by their prayerful support. There are those who, because of the holy lives they lived or because of miraculous happenings before and after their deaths, have achieved a special place of remembrance in the Church. These we call saints. Saints are those who, because they lived their lives near to God, remain near to Him in death. Saints hold an important place in the Orthodox Church, much as ancestors have an important place in the life of their families. As Chinese venerate their ancestors, we venerate the saints of our Church in many of the same ways such as by placing them on our altars and by burning incense. An important difference is that while ancestors belong to a certain family, saints belong to the whole Church. Even after death, saints play a role in the life of the Church. They will intercede for their petitioners for all things that are for their salvation. Saints have also appeared to many after their death. One of the earliest appearances was after the death of the second century Bishop Ignatius who, after his martyrdom, was seen by his friends to be praying for them. Saints also appear to people in times of need as guides and healers. A more recent example is that of a native Alaskan woman, Blessed Olga Michael, who appeared in a dream to an American woman who had undergone a deep psychological trauma. After the dream, the woman’s pain had been taken away, and she eventually became an Orthodox Christian. The stories of saints fill large volumes and space does not permit me to tell anymore, but these two example show that those who have died are never far from us.
Any discussion of Orthodoxy and death without discussing the resurrection would not only be incomplete but false. No other celebration in our Church’s year holds such significance. But before talking about the resurrection it is first necessary to talk about the incarnation. Jesus, the son of God, has existed from all eternity as one person of the Holy Trinity. While remaining himself God, Christ, in his incarnation as a human person, became all that we are. He took a human body, mind, and soul, but at the same time he remained unchanged in his divinity. As will happen to all of us, Jesus died. He was buried and his soul separated from his body. But after three days in the place of the dead, Jesus rose from the dead walked out of his tomb. By his death, death itself was defeated. For this reason on Pascha night we not only sing, “Christ is risen from the dead,” but follow it with, “trampling down death by death.” The resurrection is important to us because we believe that the human person is not just a soul in a body, but a soul and a body. Without our bodies we are not complete, but the separation of soul and body will not last forever. Because of Christ’s resurrection we can say with St. Paul, “O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory?” (1 Corinthians 15:55)
But one must ask, how is Christ’s victory over death accomplished in us? How does and event that happened so long ago and far away have any reality for us? It is accomplished in no less a way than our own death and rebirth into the body of Christ. The Church is not just an institution, but it is the body of Christ. Our entry into the Church is through the sacrament of baptism. Baptism for the Orthodox is a type of death, not a physical death, but a death to our old way of living, a death to the law of death. As we sing at Pascha and at every baptism, “As many as have been baptized into Christ have put on Christ.” And with the putting on of Christ comes Christ’s victory over death.
Returning to the subject of memory, in addition to memorial services held for specific people, the Church has many ways of remembering the dead. The greatest of these is at every liturgy when both the living and the dead are commemorated when the priest represents them with pieces of bread placed on the paten. After communion is served this bread is placed into the chalice together with the holy body and blood of our Lord. The blood saturates the bread and becomes inseparable from it. In this one can see the ontological truth of the Church as a body of people being united to Christ. Because these pieces of bread commemorate both the living and the dead, we also see that once one has become a part of the Church, not even death can erase that person’s place in the Church. Further, on the Saturday of All Souls before Lent and before Pentecost, prayers are said for the souls of all the dead, those who died as Orthodox or not. But once again this remembrance is not a mere commemoration for the relief of the grieving, or an attempt to keep the next generation from forgetting those who came before them. It is a participation of the living with the dead in the life of the Church, because as in the words of Fr. Pavel Florensky, “It is the eternal memory of the Church, in which God and man converge. And this eternal memory is a victory over death. He in whom eternal memory lives, eternally triumphs over death.”
The chapters have yet to be written on what form the traditional death rituals will take within the Orthodox Church as more Chinese enter Orthodoxy. Not many details of the rituals of the Orthodox Church in China are known, and having been almost completely destroyed by the Chinese Communist there is little in the way of a current tradition for one to see. The newly formed Orthodox churches in the largely Chinese regions of Hong Kong, Singapore, and Taiwan are still growing and probably have not held even a single funeral for a Chinese member. One suspects, though, that as more Chinese become Orthodox such practices as the burning of money or paper houses for use in the afterlife will fade away, while practices will continue which are in line with Orthodox theology such as prayers, offerings of food at memorial services, and veneration and the burning of incense at the gravesite at Qing Ming (Tomb Sweeping Festival) as well as on Orthodox feast days. An example of this can be seen in the visit of a Greek priest to an Orthodox community in China. Normally boiled wheat is used because it symbolized the resurrection in that it dies before bearing fruit. Since it was unavailable, the priest chose to use seed-bearing fruit. This was in keeping with the local custom at memorial offerings, while at the same time keeping with the Orthodox tradition about using boiled wheat, which falls to the ground and dies, producing much fruit. (John 12:24) Perhaps one day the most common food used in Chinese memorial services, rice, will replace koliva, as it already has among native Alaskan Orthodox Christians. As time goes on we will see how Chinese practices are brought into the Church as the Chinese faithful practice their traditional customs with their new understanding as a part of the body of Christ.
When Chinese Orthodox priest Fr. Elias Wen reposed in the Lord in June of 2007, on his coffin was placed the Chinese character for long life (?). Why use a character for long life at a funeral? Because we know that one who is held in God’s eternal memory still truly lives. For all people in all cultures, the death of a loved one is a tragic event, but we must keep in mind that tragic as it may be, death is not the end of their existence or of our participation with them. In remembering the dead, we remember that there was a living person who lived among us and held an important place in our lives. When their life with us has ended, it is important to perform the proper rituals to lay them to rest, and bring comfort to them by our acts of remembrance until the time we can say, as St. John Chrysostom wrote in his Paschal homily, “Christ is risen, and life reigns. Christ is risen, and not one dead remains in the grave.”