Burying our child

On Friday, we buried our first-born son.

We had not seen my parents since Sunday night, and they had never seen the baby until the funeral.  It was a very emotional experience for me, but it was made much more difficult because of their grief.  I can cry over my child, but seeing others weep over him breaks my heart even more.  I can feel pain, but I don’t want them to feel pain.

On the way to the funeral, I read morning prayers as my husband drove.  I broke into tears in the middle and could hardly say the words.  He filled in with the prayers he knew by heart.  I felt like I couldn’t pray—not because I was upset with God or anything like that, but because my heart just felt so full and heavy, I could hardly say anything, not even the saints’ prayers we say so often.  I felt the same way as Seraphim was dying and I was holding him; I tried to pray the very basic trisagion prayer over him but kept forgetting the words.  I wanted him to feel comforted by a prayer we say so many times every day and that he has heard so many hundreds of times during his time in my womb, but I couldn’t get past “All-holy Trinity…”

The funeral service for an infant is very beautiful and meaningful, and I felt surrounded by God’s grace as I was close to my baby, hearing the prayers read over him.  I tried to focus on breathing and letting my tears fall slowly so that I wouldn’t lose control.  It helped. 

Our spiritual father, the priest who had married us not so long ago, gave a homily towards the end of the funeral service.  He said, “About nine months ago we gathered here to celebrate something very different with K—and J—.  They stood in the middle of the church and were married and we gathered with them to celebrate that.  Now we are here again under very different circumstances.  In the marriage ceremony, we take crowns that mean a couple of different things.  First, they mean that K—and J—are king and queen of their own little church, their home, and it is left to them to bring forth royalty.”  He gestured to our child.  “They’ve done that.  It is every parent’s prayer that their children will enter into heaven one day.  But the crowns also mean something else that we’re very familiar with in Orthodoxy: they are crowns of martyrdom.  We take on the challenges of life and marriage to shape and prepare us for heaven.  Now K—and J—have their son praying for them in heaven, encouraging them to join him someday.  It’s the opposite order of things, whereas usually the parents are praying for their children, now the child is praying for his parents.”

I had felt deeply emotional at the connection between our wedding and the funeral of our baby.  They were closely linked in many ways.  First there was the proximity, which in itself makes them feel like they are part of each other.  As far as eternity is concerned, they probably are.  When we brought the coffin to the church on Wednesday night, I wept when I realised it was going to be placed on the table that we had symbolically walked around at our wedding nine months ago.  The same table around which we took our first steps as husband and wife and on which contained the things our life was to revolve around: the Gospel, the Cross, the Chalice.  We walked in a circle around it three times to symbolise the unending journey of our marriage, the unending struggle to heaven.  Here, my first child was to rest for a few days.  A woman from the church had ordered some delicate, beautiful floral arrangements to place on the table beside the coffin.  My husband pointed out that the flowers were our wedding colours.  I burst into tears.  Even the weather seemed like the day we were married—the sun illuminated the church just like it had on the early summer day we stood in front of the altar and took the crowns.

By the end, when everyone came up to kiss my baby “hello” and “goodbye,” I felt I had no more tears to cry.  I don’t know if that seemed odd to everyone else, that I was no longer crying, but I really felt like I was completely dried out.  I didn’t feel quite as overwhelmed as I had the night before at Vespers and the Trisagion as a hundred people approached us one by one, crying profusely, after kissing our child to offer condolences.  I felt like I needed to console them, as they were in just as much grief as we were.  I was most moved by the children, who no matter how small they were, were anxious to look at and kiss little Seraphim as well, and did not shrink back at his cold, motionless, purple face.  In their innocence and purity, they did not cry or look frightened, but very peacefully embraced us and expressed with confidence to their parents that he was in heaven.  I had feared they would be upset by seeing such a little person in a coffin, but they humbled me with their faith and love for our little one that they were just now meeting for the first time.

I did not dry out for long, though.  When I approached the coffin to kiss my baby one last time before burying him, the tears came back full-force.  I put my head close to his and told him he was so beautiful and I loved him, held his tiny white hands that had squeezed my fingers just a few days before, and caressed the comforting weave of his white blanket, feeling his small body beneath the folds.  I wished I could hold him again.

My parents kissed and touched him for the first time, and I felt like my broken heart broke even more.  I apologised to my mum that this was the first time she had seen him.  I really wished they had been able to see him while he was alive, or that they could have at least held him at some point.  My husband’s dad and grandma had seen him just minutes before he died, but could not attend the funeral.

My mum hugged me and said, in between sobs, “He’s beautiful.  You did a good job.”

We had been burning Seraphim’s baptismal candle at the funeral service, so once everyone had kissed him, we put out the flame and laid it in the coffin beside him for burial.  The priests poured sweet-smelling oil over Seraphim’s body, then closed the lid to the coffin and screwed it in place.  We followed them out as they placed the small box into the car of one of the priests and as the bell clanged. 

The other priest offered to drive us to the monastery for the burial.  On the way, my supervisor from work called my husband—the last person in the world I wanted to talk to right then.  He didn’t answer, and I didn’t call her back.  I will call on Monday.  They know I went into labour on Tuesday and that’s all they needed to know for now.  I have had too much to deal with to worry about things like turning in my timesheets or listening to her condescending, rude remarks about my pregnancy and my baby.  I only wanted to think about my son’s beautiful, short life on earth, and how glorious his experience must be now.

We arrived at the monastery, and the priest placed the little box into the ground that some men in the area had prepared the day before for Seraphim’s body.  I thought that it was probably the easiest burial, physically, he had ever performed since no equipment needed to be used to lower the casket into the grave.  The priest said a prayer and put the first shovelful of dirt onto the lovely pine box with my son’s body inside.  Then he handed the shovel to my husband, and two other people took up shovels and began filling the hole.  I held a vase of flowers as I watched my husband, my father, my sister, my mother, my friends bury my son.  A few people offered to take the flowers so I could help, but I knew I couldn’t physically do it—the soil was full of rocks and my body is recovering from childbirthing.  So I watched instead as the hole quickly filled with soil—the place my son’s body would rest until, as our priest kept saying, the final resurrection when Christ will raise us all.  I felt great peace and did not shed a single tear.  It was chilly and muddy outside, but the sky was clear and blue and the sun was shining grandly like it had when Seraphim had been born.  I felt contented with life, death, and the events of the week. 

The 8-year-old standing next to me during the burial looked up at me at one point and exclaimed, very cheerfully, “He was really cute!”  I told her that we thought so, too.

We have been greatly blessed by all of the people who have taken care of us this week—the priests who came to pray over us and the baby at the hospital, the family who had made the coffin and drove it 45 miles to the priest who brought it over a snowy mountain pass to us and then took all of us home, the people who figured out everything that needed to be done for the funeral and arranged with the monastery to allow our son to be buried there (an enormous honour—not many people can even hope to be buried in their small cemetery), the people who have brought us food and cleaned our apartment, and everyone who has expressed their love and who has grieved with us.  I assume it gets harder from here, but at least we know we have others who will support us along the way.

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