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Funeral for an Infant

Fr. Steven C. Kostoff

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Yesterday, we served The Order for the Burial of an Infant over and on behalf of the two-day old boy, Garrett Matthew Arvan, who died at Children's Hospital on Saturday. Encouragingly, we had a representative body of parishioners present for the service, respectfully and prayerfully joining the other family members and friends. As I wrote earlier, I was able to baptize and chrismate Garrett on Saturday just a few hours before his death. That in itself was a profoundly moving experience for all who were present. It was the first time in my life as a priest that I performed such a baptism. The urgency of the situation intensifed the sacred Mystery of Baptism. He then died in the arms of his parents, John and Nicole, in the evening. After a brief prayer service, Garrett's body remained in the church Monday night leading up to the funeral on Tuesday morning. I strongly encourage all families to consider this in the future, as the church is a much more fitting resting place than a funeral home.

Humanly speaking, there is nothing much sadder or heartbreaking than this imaginable: a tiny infant dressed in his white baptismal clothes lying in the middle of the church in a coffin that looks more like a small box, surrounded by his grieving family and friends. With an "open casket," I was deeply struck by the innocence, purity and beauty of this "undefiled infant," as he was called in the funeral service. It was difficult not to keep returning to his coffin and looking at him. Here was an indelible image that will always remain with me. In addition, we witnessed his poor mother, still recovering from giving birth on Friday, together with a father who was momentarily elated with the birth of his firstborn son, joined together in mutual grief at their little son's burial service on the following Tuesday. The initial impact of death is that of irrevocable lost. This is why we sing so realistically, "I weep and wail when I think upon death ..." It was certainly impossible not to weep at little Garrett Matthew's funeral yesterday. Yet, at the same time, John and Nicole showed great courage and a real graciousness of spirit during the entire ordeal of bidding farewell to and then burying their beloved son. Their faith was a witness to all who were present. I anticipate them becoming more integrated into our parish as the future unfolds. John's parents are Orthodox Christians from the Youngstown, OH area, and they too were very impressive in their faith in Christ, even though their pain was clearly etched upon their faces. John's father, Eli, told presvytera Deborah at the memorial meal, that you can have everything, but if you do not have faith (in Christ), then you actually have nothing. Hard to disagree with that thought.

As alluded to above, we use a completely different funeral service for "infants," basically meaning children under the age of seven. This was also the first time I had ever served this particular funeral service in my years as a priest. I was struck by the beauty of the service, the certainty of an infant's entrance into the Kingdom of God, and the complete absence of even the slightest mention in the prayers for the "forgiveness of sins" of the departed infant. There is no sin for which he needs to be forgiven - including so-called "original sin." The service explicitly states that "he has not transgressed Thy divine command" (Ode 6 of the Canon); and that "infants have done no evil" (Ode 9 of the Canon). Since transgressing the divine commandment is inevitable in a fallen world (by the age of seven?), we pray over the departed adult that God will forgive his/her sins. But for an infant, the service repeatedly refers to the departed infant as "undefiled," "uncorrupted," "most-pure," ""truly blessed," and even "holy." This is not sentimentalism meant to make us feel better. It rather reveals a profound theological truth.

A child, according to Orthodox Christian teaching, is not born a "guilty sinner." A child is not baptized in order to wash away the "stain" of "original sin" and the attendant guilt. We believe that a child is born bearing the consequences of "original sin" understood in a different manner by the Orthodox, and thus often referred to as "ancestral sin" by Orthodox theologians in order to distinguish the major differences in meaning. The consequences of ancestral sin are precisely corruption and death. A child is born into a fallen, broken, and corrupted world grievously wounded by sin and death. Nothing sentimental in that assessment of our "human condition!" Disease and physical deformities are a part of this world caused by humankind's initial alienation from God - and providentially allowed by God - and thus a child is never too young to die. Hence, the tragic nature of life, nowhere more clearly revealed than in the death of an innocent infant. An infant is baptized in order to be saved from the consequences of the ancestral sin that lead each and every person to inevitably sin and be subject to corruption and death. Therefore, the child needs to be "born again of water and the Spirit" - the Mystery of Baptism - in order to "put on Christ" and the gift of immortality that is only received through sacramentally partaking of the death and resurrection of Christ.

The entire service was permeated by the sure hope and conviction that little Garrett Matthew has been "translated unto Thee," and that he is now "a partaker of Thy Heavenly good things." (Ode 6 of the Canon). His death is treated realistically, and the pathos of an uncompleted earthly life is clearly acknowledged, but again his death is his entrance to life with God in His eternal Kingdom:

By Thy righteous judgment, Thou hast cut down like a green herb before it has completely sprouted, the infant that Thou hast taken, O Lord. But, as Thou hast led him unto the divine mountain of eternal good things, do Thou plant him there, O Word.

The sword of death has come and cut thee off like a young branch, O blessed one that has not been tempted by worldly sweetness. But, lo, Christ openeth the heavenly gates unto Thee, joining Thee unto the elect, as He is deeply compassionate. (Ode 5 of the Canon)

O Most-perfect Word, Who didst reveal Thyself as perfect Infant: Thou hast taken unto Thyself an infant imperfect in growth. Give him rest with all the Righteous who have been well-pleasing unto Thee, O Only Lover of Mankind. (Ode 3 of the Canon)

The suffering hearts of the mother and father are not forgotten in the prayers of the service, expressed with a certain rhetorical style that may no longer be fashionable, but which retains a genuinely poignant realism:

No one is more pitiful than a mother, and no one is more wretched that a father, for their inward beings are troubled when they send forth their infants before them. Great is the pain of their hearts because of their children ... (Ikos following Ode 6 of the Canon)

This further intensifes in one hymn that seeks to articulate the words of the infant if he could communicate with those "left behind" Here we find a realistic acknowledgment of intense grief suffused with a certain hope that God can bring relief to that very grief:

O God, God, Who hast summoned me: Be Thou the consolation of my household now, for a great lamentation has befallen them. For all have fixed their gaze on me, having me as their only-begotten one. But do Thou, Who wast born of a Virgin Mother, refresh the inward parts of my mother, and bedew the heart of my father with this: Alleluia. (Ikos following Ode 6 of the Canon)

We believe that all these hymns and prayers are profoundly comforting, not primarily for psychological and emotional reasons, important as they may be; but comforting because these very hymns and prayers offered up to God in thanksgiving, reveal what is actually true: that Christ has overcome death - trampling it down - on our behalf in His glorious Resurrection. Death itself has been transformed from within. Horror and darkness give way to hope and life. The healing grace of God does not act through pious, psychological or emotional sentiment, but through the awareness of this Truth as it penetrates our minds and hearts through the gift of faith. What other kind of "comfort" can exist when parents, relatives and friends must bear the cross of the death of a beloved infant? Grief and sorrow over such a loss never leave us, but they can be transmuted and transformed in time by the joy of knowing God's love poured out to us through His beloved Son and our Savior, Jesus Christ.

This may not be the best way of saying it, but it was an honor to be able to serve little Garrett Matthew Arvan's funeral service yesterday as he passed from his too-brief of a life here into the "radiant angelic abodes wherein the souls/spirits of the Righteous dwell." (Final Prayer of the Funeral Service for Infants). I further pray that his family and friends are consoled by the "peace of Christ" that "surpasses all understanding."

Memory eternal!

Fr. Steven C. Kostoff is the parish rector of Christ the Savior/Holy Spirit Orthodox Church in Cincinnati, OH. He is also an adjunct faculty member at Xavier University in Cincinnati, where he teaches in the theology department.

Posted: 19-Apr-2009

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