Authors: Deacon Mark and Matushka Elizabeth Barna
Publisher: Divine Ascent Press, 2011
Reviewed By Matushka Constantina Palmer
While the below is a re-post of a book review I did in 2012, I wanted to include it in this year’s Truth of Our Faith series because I believe it is important for Orthodox Christians to know there is a handbook out there for how to take on the Christian task of preparing a body for burial.
Although as Christians we know that the aim of this life is preparation for the next, and although we go to great extents to plan weddings, showers, baptisms, and birthday parties, we are reluctant to plan – or even speak at length – about our burials, let alone death itself. Deacon Mark and Matushka Elizabeth Barna’s A Christian Ending eases its reader into an important conversation concerning Christian death and burial.
The book is split into two parts, what I would call a theoretical part and a practical part. The first five chapters make up part one and consist of a discussion on different burial customs – both ancient and modern – as well as the Christian view of death and the body. The remaining eight chapters make up part two and involve a detailed description of the how and why of natural, or “ancient”, burial, as well as the necessary forms and prayers. Both parts are equally full of well-researched information on a variety of theoretical and practical aspects of burial. From information about the importance of avoiding embalming, “it is imperative that the funeral director be informed immediately, preferably in writing, that the body is not to be embalmed. Standard Operating Procedure is to embalm” (p. 60) to traditionally worn headbands on the deceased, “another tradition is a headband bearing an inscription based on the thrice holy hymn… ‘Holy God, Holy Might, Holy Immortal’” (p. 78), the book is full of interesting and helpful facts.
The text as a whole is uncomplicated; the instructions are clear and concise. The reader is given a good understanding of the method and work entailed in natural burial. It explains what exactly to expect when considering taking on such a task. It is a true handbook, an indispensable resource to have at one’s side during the burial process. While I found the book as a whole quite interesting, I found the description of how exactly to prepare the body very interesting. A Christian Ending makes a strong case for the need for such customs to be introduced to our North American Orthodox culture.
Yet, at the same time, natural burial does not come across as a light and easy task. In fact, the book reveals this type of burial to be more intense than perhaps one would initially think. The Barnas are right to stress the need for multiple volunteers; it is not something one can accomplish alone. It is a wonderful (and necessary) act of love to offer our community, and I would like to believe that this book will encourage many Orthodox parishes to rise to the occasion when those in our Orthodox family need help with the last of life’s important transitions.
The most impressive aspect of A Christian Ending, more impressive than the vast amount of reading and research that went into writing the handbook, is the great reverence with which death and the body are treated. The piety with which they write about such things never comes across as contrived, rather as something completely natural. The same can be said of the many poetic yet very real descriptions of death, “We know that the dissolution of the corpse is not the end of the body but the end of corruption. The seed in the ground has dissolved and is the beginning of the future harvest” (p. 93).
A Christian Ending is filled with practical advice for how to handle, clean, anoint, and dress the body, but it also offers a fair bit of insight into how we ought to approach death, the grieving family, and how we can help the deceased person’s eternal soul.
“A proper memorial for the dead, besides our own amended and virtuous life, would be alms to the poor or in an anonymous gift to the church. Perhaps one of the best memorials to all those who have gone before and all of us yet here, is to redeem the time, to practice virtue and recapture our own tradition; the act of mercy, the preparation and burial of the dead” (p. 95).
In short, A Christian Ending: A Handbook for Burial in the Ancient Christian Tradition is a necessary book for all those who desire to help revive this respectful, Christian manner of burial.