Father Gregory’s Last Gift

Note – I wrote this reflection three years ago, a week or two after Fr. Gregory’s repose. I had thought I might seek to get it published somewhere, so I received the blessing of Fr. Gregory’s wife, Presbytera Catherine and his son, Fr. Peter for publication. Life was busy then, as it is now, and it’s sat on my hard drive for the past three years. It’s now a few days past the third anniversary of his death (6/11/16), and I thought it fitting to publish the reflection as a blog post.

Life is a precious gift but it is also a funny thing. Sometimes my place in life seems to make perfect, almost-providential sense and at other times, it feels as though I’m out of sync with the world around me.

This past Friday, Father Gregory Heers, a retired priest at my parish, had a stroke and died on Saturday, June 11th. He previously had a massive stroke a little over a year ago–at the time, we thought his death was imminent–but he bounced back more fully than any of us had anticipated and we had the gift of another year with him.

The day after Father Gregory’s death, I was at coffee hour–a meal following the weekly Divine Liturgy–when my friend Vinnie asked if I would lend a hand to help prepare his body for the funeral. I’m thirty-seven and Vinnie is thirty. I remember that seven-year age gap being so wide back when he was eighteen and I would buy him beer. I fell out of contact with him for a few years and it’s funny how sometimes in my head I still think of him as the teenager he used to be and not the husband and father he is now, a man I am proud to call my friend and my brother-in-Christ.

When I was asked, I felt a chill. Death has been on my mind greatly for the past six months or so–I’m starting to feel the eventual grip of mortality, and the existential angst that grip can create if left to freely grow weeds within one’s soul. Nevertheless, I agreed to help without even hesitating–I hadn’t spent a ton of time with Father Gregory, but he was always respected and loved, and anything I could do for him would be my honor.

Fr. Gregory at a wedding feast
Fr. Gregory on Palm Sunday

Many of us Orthodox (Eastern Orthodox Christians, not Orthodox Jews) eschew the funerary industry and prefer to go back to simpler times before embalming, expensive caskets, and all of the other trappings that we moderns use to insulate ourselves from our own mortality. A lot of us tend to favor wooden coffins and natural burials, and this was Father Gregory’s wish.

Washing at the morgue

For my part, I met Vinnie, Father Marcus, both of Father Gregory’s sons, and the rest of the burial society members at the local hospital the next evening after work to bathe and clothe Father Gregory’s body for the funeral on Tuesday morning. After a bureaucratic wait, we were admitted to the morgue examination room. I had seen enough procedural crime shows to know what to expect–a cold, clinical room full of stainless steel surfaces with plenty of hoses and drains to deal with the various humors produced by the human body.

I didn’t have much time to contemplate the aesthetics as the orderly soon wheeled in a gurney with a zippered body bag, and we went to work. The body bag was unzipped and revealed Father Gregory’s body dressed in a hospital gown. He looked good, much better than I anticipated. He could just be sleeping, I thought absent-mindedly for a moment.

The first step in the process is prayer, just like everything else in Orthodoxy. We praised God, petitioned for the salvation of Father Gregory, and asked his forgiveness for what we were about to do. Then, one of our membership began praying and reading psalms while the rest of us cut away the hospital gown, washed his body with a gentle soap, rinsed away the soap, and anointed him with oil. The oil was olive oil mixed with herbs and essential oils of Frankencense and Myrrh. I was the new person there, so I mostly served to hold up Father Gregory’s leg or arm to allow access for the others. His limbs were cold and solid–it’s amazing how heavy a human is when they can no longer exert any force of locomotion to balance out the ballast of their weight.

We then dressed Father Gregory’s body in a simple white t-shirt and black gym shorts and covered him with a sheet so that we could transport him to the church to dress him in his vestments and place him in his wooden casket. We had our own gurney, an older one that was donated to the church by the EMT company Vinnie works for, and we loaded Father Gregory onto the gurney and into someone’s Chevrolet Suburban for transport. No hearse, no funeral directors, just the people that Father Gregory had faithfully served in life who had the privilege to serve him now in repose.

After the Suburban had left for the church, I got in my own car and followed behind. Along the way, I had a mild case of anxiety–my own fear of death was manifesting as palpitations and labored breathing, and my grief at Father Gregory’s passing suddenly overwhelmed me. The twenty-minute drive was quite terrifying and I felt far away from myself as nihilistic doubts whispered in my ears. I began praying the Jesus Prayer (Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner) and felt the anxiety lessen.

I arrived at St. John’s and got out of my car, standing straight and taking a few deep breaths to shake off the dread that had engulfed me during the somber commute. Now was not the time for my own insecurities–now was the time to do what I could for Father Gregory and his family.

Vesting at the church

Once inside we planned logistics and I took over the reading of psalms and prayers while the others dressed Father Gregory in his favorite vestments. The coffin was a simple pine box, but beautifully-made–the sides were engraved in gold leaf with the text of the Trisagion Hymn (Holy God, Holy Mighty, Holy Immortal, Have mercy on us). Sheets of insulation had been added to the inside of the coffin on top of dry ice. The insulation was nice to have to keep the wood from getting wet when the dry ice eventually melted, but it meant we lost a few inches of room and it made getting Father Gregory’s body inside a tight fit.

I’d like to take a brief aside here and talk about how morbid and how disrespectful it feels to talk about our beloved Father Gregory as one would talk about a carcass–this was not a medical cadaver, it was the body of a man we all love and respect greatly. That said, I feel that describing the physicality of the process is important–not just for giving you, the reader, a sense of what I experienced but also to share how embracing mortality can lead to greater wisdom and lessening of fear of one’s own death. As one who has dabbled at raising livestock, I often talk about how I feel that all meat eaters should have to butcher a chicken once to gain the experience that comes with being an active participant in the food chain, not just a consumer who buys a sanitized package of flesh wrapped in plastic and styrofoam. It is the same with the death of our loved ones – the incarnational physicality of washing and anointing Father Gregory’s body was a privilege for me in that it shattered a lot of my fears and made me realize what it truly means to be in a community, or, as Wendell Berry might say, a membership one of another.

During this process I often looked over at Father Marcus, the rector of our parish, my spiritual father and a friend of mine for nearly twenty years now. We’ve had many conversations about life and death and how we both have invested in our local community. I look forward to the day when I will either wash Father Marcus’ own body in preparation of burial or he will wash mine. I hope you don’t think me too morbid, but it is the comfort of knowing that we are all involved in each others lives. This is what it means to be truly human; life is often hard and sometimes messy and broken, but not all sadness is despondent and our joyful sorrow for the loss of our brother is tempered by our unshaken belief in his communion with God.

Fr. Marcus and Fr. Gregory

Once Father Gregory’s body was prepared and in the casket, we prayed a short service and then dimmed the lights and started the all-night vigil. Various parish members would come and read the Gospels over Father Greogry in the church for an hour at a time. My wife read from 11:00 PM to midnight and I took the hour following that.

The funeral

The next morning we gathered for the funeral iteself. Orthodox Christian services can never really be described as short–we are on God’s time and not our own, and why would we ever want to rush through the act of worship? The funeral of a priest is longer than a standard layman funeral and involves multiple epistle and gospel readings. I remember the funeral as being three hours long, but I think it was probably only two hours.

Father Marcus gave a wonderful eulogy for Father Gregory, focusing on his kindness, humility, and how his last year of life was a gift for all of us and especially for his wife, Presbytera Catherine.

After that, Father Gregory’s son, Father Peter Heers, gave another eulogy. It was an unbelievably difficult moment for Father Peter–I can’t imagine trying to reconcile being a son who feels the numbing void of having just lost your father while also being an ordained priest who is charged with finding profound wisdom in this death to share with the faithful. He broke down crying a few times during his talk, and his tears were a sort of joyful anguish–they were the tears of a man who knows his father is now in the presence of God but feels the full weight of that visceral loss. We all began crying and I wanted to go and embrace Father Peter. I felt unbelievably honored to be able to share that moment in all of its joy and its sorrow.

The Last Kiss

We Orthodox have a funerary ritual known as the Last Kiss; it’s pretty much exactly what it sounds like–the faithful all come and give the dead a final kiss while a hymn is sung. The hymnography is striking–it’s a visceral gut punch. Here are three of the stanzas:

Come, brethren, let us give the last kiss to the dead,
rendering thanks unto God,
for this one hath disappeared from among his (her) kindred,
and hasteneth to the grave, no longer having concern with vanities
and the many passions of the flesh.
Where now are kindred and friends?
Behold, we are parted from him (her)
for whom let us pray the Lord to grant repose.

Great is the weeping and wailing,
great is the sighing, and the need, at the parting of the soul;
hades and destruction await;
transitory life is but a fleeting shadow, a deceptive dream;
the toil of earthly life is an untimely phantasy.

Far let us flee from every earthly sin,
that we may inherit heavenly things.
Gazing upon the dead who lieth before us,
let us all accept this image of the final hour;
for he (she) is gone from the earth like smoke,
is faded like a flower, cut down like grass,
wrapped in a winding sheet, covered with earth.
Having left him (her) hidden from sight,
let us pray Christ to give him (her) rest unto the ages.

Following the Last Kiss, we went into the church hall for a meal, referred to as the Mercy Meal. One of our parishoners has a barbecue food truck and graciously catered the meal. We all shared food and stories of how Father Gregory had impacted our lives. Later, we transported his body to a monastery two hours away for burial.

The entire day and the entire process from the time that Father Gregory fell asleep was a joyful sadness. We weep, not for him but for our separation from him. I will continue to pray for his soul and I will also ask him to pray for mine from his repose.

My own faith has been shaky for a while now, as evidenced by the fear of death I’ve sometimes felt imprisoned by for the past few months. Being able to help attend to Father Gregory’s body and the funeral itself was his last priestly gift to me. Lord, I believe – help my unbelief!

Give rest eternal in blessed falling asleep, O Lord, to the soul of Thy servant, the priest Gregory, who has departed this life, and make his memory to be eternal!

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