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  • The Liturgy of Death by Alexander Schmemann
  • David W. Fagerberg
Alexander Schmemann The Liturgy of Death Yonkers, NY: St. Vladimir's Seminary Press, 2016 234 pages. $20.00

These four previously unpublished lectures were delivered by Alexander Schmemann in 1979 at a summer institute held at St. Vladimir's Seminary. The text in this book is based on transcriptions of tape recordings of those talks, integrated with notes and outlines consulted by editor, Alexis Vinogradov. I have the memory from high school biology class of adjusting microscope magnification settings, and as one turned the knob one could penetrate different depths of the slide. I will suggest that there are four layers in this book one can see at different magnifications.

First, because these chapters have the quality of a live speech event, Schmemann's personality can peek through and one might [End Page 186] read it in order to share the perspective of this great theologian as he criticizes both the secular culture in which we live, and our woefully inadequate Christian response to it. Here examples speak best. "Let us call for a moratorium on burials, until we ensure the celebration of Holy Saturday in every parish" (9). "The horizon has closed, and fallen man invents little consolations of progress, like the Chekhov heroes who sit there, dying of tuberculosis, and say, 'Yes, but the future generations will be happy.' … In my stubborn Christian selfishness, I could never understand why I should die so that some distant descendent in Ghana will have a second car in two thousand years" (176). "What is it about that incessant blathering about 'spirituality' that makes me hope this word will disappear from our vocabulary for twenty-five years?" (177). The cult of the dead "has very little if anything to do with God, we erroneously take to constitute the object of every religion, and of 'religion' as such. Not at all! The historians of religion tell us that God is a latecomer to religion" (43). And he criticizes the Church for trying to sell Christianity by serving the customer by making death less threatening: "[it] directs itself toward an incessant social activism represented by Boy Scouts, young adults, seniors, coping therapies, etc. All this activism masks the inevitable: its adherents are made up of potential corpses!" (150).

As those familiar with Schmemann's Journals know, he does not indulge in a criticism of secular culture just to be witty or cynical (he does not suffer an Oscar Wilde complex), but rather to underscore the contrast between the vision of Christianity and the one held by the world it is commissioned to convert. The mark of the world is secularism, frequently defined within this book. Secularism is an experience of life without any reference to anything that could be termed otherworldly (25); it is something that emerged under the very influence of Christianity (35); it has naturalized, tamed, humanized, disinfected, deodorized and made death banal (52); it suppresses death by means of a medicalization that removes death from the land of the living (144); it has moved us from a vision of the deified man to the consumer who "counts calories and jogs at the age of sixty because he is begging for two [End Page 187] more years of life" (171). In short, the secularist abandons belief in the kingdom of God, which accounts for his view of death.

Second, one can read this book for a liturgiological investigation of the Orthodox funeral liturgy, which is included as an appendix at the back of the book. To me, this was a very interesting dimension because my impression had been that Schmemann did not make this a priority for himself since his 1966 book Introduction to Liturgical Theology. These four essays are combined in a sandwich effect, with theological material in the first and fourth, and liturgical-historical analysis of the funeral liturgy in the second and third. Schmemann observes two pairs of layers in the funeral rites, helpfully summarized here: "I tried, in a very general and inadequate way, to discern two layers: the essential layer, I called the Holy Saturday layer, the entrance into the entrance into Christ's rest...