The grieving family had been escorted slowly and with dignity and difficulty, from the “holding stall” to the chapel. The area where local Greek Orthodox funerals originate reminds me of a less-than-dirty but far-from-clean, over-used, cattle stall; built with no doors on one end and open to the elements, families collect there, the room dominated by a simple, fiber-board casket. They grieve publicly and often loudly, while others stand around and watch, with a few self-designated persons close-by to provide support. Friends have, of course, already been to the home of the deceased, but now, they arrive, as if for the first time, to hug the loved ones again and to hold on more tightly to each other.
When those in charge declare that it is “time,” the priest leads the procession out into the weather, walking slowly toward the chapel. They follow the casket and pass by many similar “stalls,” built, in anticipation of those days, like this one, when funerals are scheduled back-to-back. The other “stalls” are filled with mourners of yet others, waiting their turn for the brief, Greek Orthodox funeral service in the cemetery chapel on a hillside on the outskirts of Piraeus, Greece, the port town adjacent to Athens.
After a stylized Greek Orthodox liturgy with little if any mention of the deceased, much repetition and some mellifluous male chanting, the family passes, one last time, by the now-open casket. In a typical Greek Orthodox funeral ceremony, the lips of the deceased may be kissed, but those on the icon of Jesus are most definitely kissed.
As Janice and I stood outside the chapel, awaiting that long, rocky walk, up and around to the open gravesite, a mangy, pitiful-looking, street dog proudly walked up. Sensing who was in charge, he ambled over to the Greek Orthodox priest. As a minister who has shared many unexpected happenings in the pursuit of serious reverential duty, I watched with interest, to see what the clergy person would do.
He kept his ministerial dignity. He never bent his silk-robe-covered body. From behind his full beard and beneath his pointed hat, a most loving and warm smile nearly broke forth and made its presence known to us. Holding a formal, black umbrella and a somber expression, both the seasoned holy man’s protection against the “worst case,” the priest gently rubbed the dog’s back and neck. The tip of the umbrella seemed to carry with it sacred oil, magical incense and the stuff of blessing. For a few moments, while the family reassembled for the final procession, the weary old dog willingly received the priestly blessing and seemed, somehow, lighter on his feet.
Too soon, it was time to move on; the priest “shooed “ away the mongrel, his momentary canine care replaced by the “higher calling” of leading the family to an open hole, where they would leave the mortal remains of their loved one on top of some other soul whose family had rented the gravesite three years before him. There, in the wind of an overcast day, they would bid him a last farewell.
Oh, what gift that God could give us, to provide for hurting humanity the sweet solace and genuine comfort offered to that old dog on that sad day! If it is true that “every dog has his day,” then, when my day comes, I want my family to be cared for like that. Rub their backs! Do not condemn them for their awkward grief! Embrace them, welcome them, stand with them in the neighborhood of the dead and dying and treat them with profound respect and gentle kindness!