Reasons for Advanced Planning

Cross used in Traditional Orthodox burials to ward off the Evil Eye.

Death is something that awaits all of us; yet most often we wish to avoid thinking about it, and in essence deny for the moment the fact that we will all pass on one day.

In actuality, death is the gateway to life eternal. Regardless of age, we need to prepare ourselves spiritually as well as practically for life is but a fleeting moment.

 

Why is it essential and important to make arrangements in advance for our funeral?

  • It gives meaning to a person’s life and a life lived;
  • It removes responsibility and the potential of guilt from family that otherwise would be faced with the difficult task of planning a loved one’s funeral at the time of their passing;
  • It enables family and friends to devote their time expressing their love, sadness, and affection for the recently departed without concern for excessive details;
  • It enables family and friends to deal with the emotional loss of the deceased and focus on the acceptance of the loss rather than being absorbed with bothersome decisions;
  • It is a fact, “You do not get a second chance to say good-bye to a loved one!” Advanced planning is a gift to surviving family members – for what is to occur are the specific wishes of the departed loved one.

Why Plan in Advance 

I am intrigued and have spent many hours speaking with first (1st), second (2nd) and third (3rd) generation Eastern Orthodox Families living in all parts of America asking them what are their feelings when it comes to pre-planning for their ultimate passing from this world as we know it. It was not then, and is not now, my intention to attempt to convince those responding to change their minds in any way; but for me to come to understand their thought process as it pertained to the issue of death. In understanding what burdened them when thinking about the issue of death, I would be in a better position to be of assistance were they to seek my advice and support in their hour of need.

The most predominant response from 1st generation and to a lesser degree 2nd generation Eastern Orthodox Families was “If I pre-plan for my ultimate passing, (selecting a gravesite and pre-planning for my funeral), I am sure to die soon!” The issue boiled down to "superstition" – if I do it, I will die sooner rather than later.

I am reminded of an instance back in 1983 when the Council of Eastern Orthodox Churches of Central Massachusetts purchased a section of Hope Cemetery in Worcester, Massachusetts and offered gravesites for sale. All interested families submitted their names etc., and a lottery system was created and names were randomly drawn with dates and times for families to be present at the cemetery to select their final resting places (gravesites). Many thought this process was barbaric and that if we purchased a gravesite we would soon be using it. Although in two days, more than 215 grave sites were purchased, numerous families chose not to avail themselves of the opportunity to select their final resting place in advance.

Each of us must love and respect our neighbors and honor their wishes even though they may be in conflict with our way of thinking.

Other responses from those 2nd and 3rd generation Eastern Orthodox Families surveyed – most not opposed to purchasing a gravesite or pre-planning their funeral – stated, “We are too young and too busy to think about pre-planning at this time. Maybe we will consider it in 20-30 years." And finally others were more precise in their thought process – “I could care less about my passing. Put me in a pine box, bury me anywhere, or just scatter me when I die!” This last response raises the issue of “cremation and the Eastern Orthodox Church,” which will be the topic of a future update on this web site.

I will now address the positive aspects of advanced planning when it comes to the issue of passing from this life to the next. But before I do allow me to share a statement my father, who was and is to this day my hero, often stated, “Fools plan while God laughs!” He did not mean that we should not plan, but what he did mean was that we cannot always count on what we plan to become a reality in our time and as we would will it to be. Numerous times prior to his passing in 1965, my father reminded me of the fact that the Syrian Orthodox Community of immigrants upon coming to America knew they had come to America and would ultimately pass away here. As they were contemplating the process of building a Church in Worcester, MA, they had the vision and immediately purchased a section in Hope Cemetery (the Syrian Brotherhood Orthodox Section) where they and their families would ultimately be buried.


Why Plan in Advance

It is a fact – “No one escapes their earthly life alive!” We are all going to die at some point – some sooner, some later; but we all will pass. As an Eastern Orthodox Christian, we must be interred – either in a gravesite in the ground or in a mausoleum. Cremation is not an option in the Eastern Orthodox Church. (Issue to be addressed in a subsequent update).

Thus, the initial area of concern in the Advanced Planning process is to determine where you (your family) wish to be interred. After making that decision, it is strongly recommended that you carefully and with the family present, select and purchase the actual gravesite(s) at that time. Generally payment can be arranged over time, but at a minimum you will have selected your final resting place comfortably and without the pressure of having to make an immediate decision at the time of need.

Families that wait to select their gravesites at the time of a departed loved one’s passing burden themselves at a very difficult time and most often have to settle for what is available at that very moment, rather than selecting a gravesite location they will be pleased to have for themselves and loved ones in the future. Also needless to say, costs for gravesites continue to increase significantly, and once purchased you now own the burial rights to the site selected.

Now to be truly honest with each other, “No one knows you – like you!”  You know what you like and what you do not like. Each of us is unique, as the Good Lord created us to be. Thank the Lord for this! It is your prerogative to dictate what you want in life, and it is your prerogative to decide what you want at the time of your passing. This is your God Given Right, and it is important that your passing be as you wish it to be; especially as it pertains to the customs, traditions, and practices of the Eastern Orthodox Church.


Your Obituary – Newspaper Notice

Assuming for our purposes going forward, the final resting place (gravesite) is secured, it is now important to put into print all the vital information that you and only you know about yourself, your family, and your life in general. Much of the information you will record will be for the obituary (I reference herein as “You Final Tribute”). I am a firm believer the obituary is your final tribute, and is not and should not be a marketing instrument for the funeral establishment to place their name in either capital and/or bold letters. It is essential for the funeral establishment to be listed for the benefit of location of services and a focal point for inquiries by the public, but it is not and should not be competing or compromising to the Final Tribute of the recently departed.

I encourage families to provide a photograph to accompany the obituary; as many folks, especially seniors, oftentimes miss the name of the person, but will immediately recognize a photograph and read the person’s complete obituary.

Before addressing the specific details for consideration in continuing the Advanced Planning process, allow me to make one point abundantly clear – “You are in charge!”


Advanced Planning  /  The Process

Once you have embraced the concept of Advanced Planning and are willing to take the required actions to make the necessary decisions, which will ultimately provide you with a peace of mind not previously encountered, the following areas need to be considered.

You have now decided on where you will be interred and have finalized that very important issue. That decision is behind you. As an Eastern Orthodox Christian, the remaining steps and decisions you will make have a direct correlation with the customs, traditions, and practices in the Eastern Orthodox Church Theology.

Prior to your passing (if death is imminent), do you wish to have an Orthodox Priest visit you and administer Communion, assuming this is possible? This process is strongly encouraged in the Eastern Orthodox Church, and it is a decision you will want to make known to your next of kin (or executor). Your next of kin (executor) will have the responsibility to contact the Priest at the appropriate time.

 

Preparation of the Body

The next issue to be addressed is: do you wish to be prepared for viewing (embalmed)? What this means is that in order to have a viewing wherein family and friends visit, view the deceased, and have others do so as well; the deceased must be embalmed, washed thoroughly, dressed, casketed, and apply cosmetics as appropriate. Even in the event the deceased is not going to be viewed at all or just privately by family, embalming would still be an appropriate process to be considered.

There are two (2) ancient customs that have significance to many Eastern Orthodox families dating back for centuries. One being the ancient Greek and Roman custom of placing a coin either in the mouth of the recently departed or in close proximity thereto, and the second being the placement of a shroud over the deceased after the final blessing and just prior to the closing of the casket. In a subsequent update to this web site, I will explain each option in great depth for your understanding and consideration.


Viewing of the Recently Departed

This issue, often referred to as “calling hours” or “visitation hours” is an extremely important one for you and for your family; and being aware of the customs, traditions, and practices of the Eastern Orthodox Church is essential in understanding the process which is to be followed. A detailed explanation of what is expected of you, your family, those that visit will be presented in Blessed Repose.


Casket Selection

Going into a casket selection room to purchase a casket for the 1st time can be a very difficult time for anyone. Having to make a decision when a death is sudden and no advanced planning has taken place compounds significantly the anxiety for the family. It can and often times does becomes an emotional decision – not necessarily in the best interest of all in the long run. Advanced planning allows you to make your own decision, taking the responsibility (and potential guilt) off of family members, who otherwise would be faced with this difficult task.

Recently I was asked by a woman who was considering advanced planning for her sister who never married, “How important is the casket and how should I approach this decision?” I answered, “This is strictly a personal decision for you, and I would be over-stepping my bounds if I said anything more.” What I did share with the woman and I now openly share with you is a lesson I learned for a 4 year old several years ago. (Before proceeding, you need to know, I encourage families to share the experience of the loss of a loved one with children; and I routinely have sat with the child / or children and listen to their concerns, answer any questions they may have, and explain to them what they will see when visiting a loved one who has passed away. How this process is handled can be either a positive or negative experience based solely upon a family and funeral director’s approach this decision).

Back to the 4 year old. After speaking with the boy for 15-20 minutes, I held his hand and we walked into the visitation room as his mom and dad followed. He approached the casket, knelt down, looked at his grandmother and said, “What a beautiful bed, and Sittoo (grandmother, in Arabic) looks like Sittoo!” It is the tradition in the Eastern Orthodox Church that the body be buried in a casket and remain there until the 2nd Coming of Jesus Christ! And here you have a 4 year old boy teaching a long standing funeral director the essence of the meaning behind the selection of a casket, that being, “Yes, the final bed for the deceased!”


Burial Vault – What is a burial vault, why is it needed, and what purpose does it serve?

This can be and oftentimes is a sensitive issue for many families. In many states, there exists a requirement that the casket, once brought to the cemetery for burial, must be placed into a concrete container prior to being covered over with earth. There are numerous options for families from a simple cement liner box with a 2 piece cover (does not seal) to concrete burial vaults that do seal – many of which have other benefits as well, such as keeping water and elements out etc. Selecting a burial container is a personal decision. The main objective of cemetery requirements for burial containers is to maintain a level surface that remains level over time.


Where to Have the Viewing (Visitation / Calling Hours)

Before visiting this decision, lets speak to customs and traditions of the past leading up to current day. Years ago, the deceased was prepared and casketed at the funeral home, and then brought to the deceased home where visiting hours were held (in some cases) for several days. The deceased remained at the residence until it was time to take the deceased to Church for the funeral service. In time this process became cumbersome for family, as well as the funeral home, and more elaborate and attractive funeral homes were constructed. With visiting hours now held at the funeral home instead of the residence of the deceased, entertaining visitors around the clock at the residence was no longer a concern, and families could now spend more time saying good-bye to their departed loved one without unnecessary considerations.

In more recent times, there has been the emergence of the trend, especially for those Eastern Orthodox Christians who regularly attend church services and whose spiritual life has been centered on the Church and its focus and beliefs, to ask permission and to be waked in the Church. The premise behind their requests, requests that are routinely granted, is that “I was born into the Church, baptized in the Church, married in the Church, attend Liturgy most every Sunday, and wish to be waked in and buried from the Church.”

The decision confronting the person doing their Advanced Planning is where do I want to have my wake/visiting hours/calling hours? At the funeral home or in the church? I suggest if your desire is to have the visitation in the Church, it is to your advantage to assure you are in good-standing within your church and have willingly and openly met your sacramental obligations as required by your church.

And lastly,


Pay Now or Pay Later

This is a personal decision to be made by each person doing their Advanced Planning. I take no position in this matter, but will share perspectives pro & con.


Paying in advance

The benefit in doing so allows the person doing their Advanced Planning to lock in the cost of the funeral home’s services, the cost of the casket, and the cost of the vault. It does NOT lock in the cost of cash disbursements made by the funeral home for other costs that the funeral home has no discretion over, such as the opening and closing of the gravesite, flowers, newspaper notices etc. With the cost of funerals continuing to go up, the security of pre-paying and locking in the majority of the cost of a funeral in advance can be attractive to the average consumer. There is the additional benefit in that the funds utilized for the funeral and pre-paid to the funeral home are an acceptable spend-down of one’s assets – funds that are no longer available should the individual doing advanced planning require long term medical care.


Paying at the time of need

One cannot project accurately for inflation and what the cost of a funeral will be in the future. As referenced herein, the cost of funerals and all the accessory aspects of funerals continues to increase in spite of and in addition to inflationary factors.  If adequate funds will be available in the future regardless of what might occur with one’s health as time passes, there is no need to fund funeral arrangements in advance.  

Pay Now or Pay Later vis-à-vis the future of a specific funeral home will be the initial blog conversation to be presented soon. Stay tuned.