Religion is an important source of strength for many of our members, so we’re asking clergy from different religious traditions to share how their members mark the end of a life. Angelo Volandes, M.D., practices internal medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, and is on faculty at Harvard Medical School. He is an advocate for patients and families and the author of The Conversation: A Revolutionary Plan for End-of-Life Care, about how people can empower themselves to get the right medical care at the right time and on their terms.
What does your faith teach about happens to people when their lives end?
In the Greek Orthodox Tradition, Greek words used in the Bible often influence our understanding of belief. For example, the word “asleep” is from the New Testament word koimaomai, which gives us the word cemetery. As a young person in the church, I often understood death to be a person sleeping: metaphorically they are no longer in their bodies but that does not mean they don’t exist. Rather, they exist in another world, no longer struggling with the cares and issues of this world
How do clergy comfort the dying? How do lay people comfort the dying?
I think one of the most powerful acts that clergy and lay people offer to the dying is to read prayers and hymns. This simple act reminds people that this earthly existence is temporary and that mortality is a fact of our existence.
How do members of the community traditionally respond to the death of one of their members?
The memorial service is participatory. The entire community chants in response to the hymns chanted by the priest. I think this is a powerful means by which the community comforts the family and celebrates the memory of the departed.
Is there a service to memorialize the dead? What is it like?
The Greek Orthodox service for the dead includes prayers for the departed, as well as prayers to comfort the living. Many of the themes of these hymns refer to our own limits and mortality in this world. All the prayers and hymns are chanted with Byzantine music, which is simultaneously mournful and consoling.
What rituals of mourning are there in your faith?
The memorial service is performed on the day of death, as well as the third day after, the ninth day, the fortieth day, three months, six months, and the first anniversary. This cycle of mourning allows the community to both celebrate and remember the departed.
Is there a particular amount of time allocated for grieving?
Grieving is allowed for about a year.
What text or passage would you suggest to a member of your faith community who is grieving?
I am an image of Your ineffable glory, though I bear the scars of my transgressions. On Your creation, Master, take pity and cleanse me by Your compassion. Grant me the homeland for which I long and once again make me a citizen of Paradise.
Blessed are You, O Lord, teach me Your statutes.
Give rest, O God, to Your servant, and place him (her) in Paradise where the choirs of the Saints and the righteous will shine as the stars of heaven. To Your departed servant give rest, O Lord, and forgive all his (her) offenses.
What words would you share to comfort members of our community who may be mourning?
I think the process of mourning takes times. The beauty of the memorial service in Easter Orthodoxy is that it occurs over the course of a one year cycle, allowing the family to mourn the loss while recognizing that the departed exists in a place apart from our earthly toils.
Is there a tradition from your faith that might be comforting for people of other faiths?
Listening to the Byzantine chants of Eastern Orthodoxy is powerful. The music is simultaneously mournful and hopeful, reflecting the pain of death but remembering that it is the start of a greater existence.
Angelo Volandes is a physician, writer, and patients’ rights advocate. He practices internal medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, and is on faculty at Harvard Medical School. He is Co-Founder and President of Advance Care Planning (ACP) Decisions, a non-profit foundation implementing systems and technologies to improve the quality of care delivered to patients in the health care system. He is the author of the new book The Conversation: A Revolutionary Plan for End-of-Life Care, about how people can empower themselves to get the right medical care at the right time and on their terms.
Born and raised in Brooklyn, NY, he was educated at Harvard, Yale, and the University of Pennsylvania. He lectures widely across the country, and spends his time in Massachusetts with his wife Aretha Delight Davis, MD, JD and their two daughters.