At 11:40 the church was ablaze with lights, a shining, welcoming jewel in the darkness. I had changed into dress pants and blouse out of respect for the solemn, sacred duty ahead.
I rattled the front door. Locked. Checked the side entry. Also locked. I returned to the front and, being early, waited outside. The warm wind whipped through my hair. It was late, but comfortable enough to spend a few minutes seated on a bench awaiting my time slot. I wanted there to be some overlap in case there were instructions to pass on.
At ten ’til I rapped on the door. Moments later, a woman opened the door, scarf wrapped around her hair, still reading out the Psalms from the psalter she carried.
The deceased lay in his coffin, peacefully facing the altar area, the faces of Christ, the Theotokos, angels and saints surrounding us. Above him the beautiful chandelier, imported from Eastern Europe, is ablaze, brass shining. Candles flicker from candle stands, from tall, narrow jars beneath various icons, and next to the readers stand.
As the clock flipped to midnight, the reader finished one Psalm and handed off to me. As I began, she made her reverence to the icons as we usually do when entering or upon leaving a service, and hurried off into the night.
I enjoy chanting. Chanting in this temple is a delight. The architecture allows the voice to fill the space with little effort. Something happens as I pray, read, chant, or sing. It feels as if my voice is joined by something unseen.
My head turned to catch a perceived movement from the corner of my eye. Though I saw nothing, I felt something there–something glorious, ethereal, warm, bright, otherworldly. At this point, it would have seemed normal to find angels winging overhead.
The newly departed looked peaceful. He had not been embalmed, so I was surprised to find him looking like this. It was an honor to chant the Psalms for him on his last night above ground.
Have you ever noticed how many of the Psalms talk about death? Standing vigil, you become aware in a new way. Reading aloud of God’s goodness, His faithfulness, His mercy, and His glory in the presence of the dead imbues it with a sense of depth, of eternity, of…dare I say, holiness.
There aren’t proper words for what happened last night. The departed, asleep in his beautiful handcrafted casket, resting in this peaceful ceremony, so full of humanity in its best form, and in the divine, the veil between this world and the heavenly so thin it seems a mere breath could pierce it and heaven blaze through…it seemed entirely reasonable and to be expected for the deceased to sit up, to rise from his casket and join in praising God.
I was surprised he didn’t.
This duty, this task, despite chanting myself hoarse, did something unexpected. I went, thinking I was doing a service for the deceased and for his family, but left feeling honored and privileged to have been able to participate. Something happened there that is more than reading, more than praying, simply more. I sense that I am changed in some way. I feel more…human.