An Infant’s Burial
by Father Steven Kostoff
Editor’s Note: Fr. Steven Kostoff, Rector of Christ the Savior / Holy Spirit Church, Cincinnati, OH, recently posted to his congregation some reflections on the burial of a newborn child. They speak eloquently to this tragic yet thoroughly Paschal event. We include portions of them here for their pastoral sensitivity and their illustration of the depths and power of the theological message expressed by the burial service.
Yesterday, we served The Order for the Burial of an Infant over and on behalf of a two-day old boy, who died at Children’s Hospital on Saturday.
Humanly speaking, there is nothing more heartbreaking than this: a tiny infant dressed in 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. 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 …”
We use a completely different funeral service for infants, basically meaning children under the age of seven. This was the first time I had ever served this particular funeral office 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 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, we pray over a 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” with its attendant guilt. We believe that a child is born bearing the consequences of “original sin,” often referred to as “ancestral sin” by Orthodox theologians precisely in order to distinguish it from “original sin.” The consequences of ancestral sin are corruption and death. A child is born into a fallen, broken, and corrupted world, grievously wounded by sin and death. There is 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. Thus a child is never too young to die. And 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 inevitably to sin and be subject to corruption and death. 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 received only through sacramentally partaking of the death and resurrection of Christ.
The entire funeral service was permeated by the sure hope and conviction that this little child 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. Yet 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, since 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 than 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 is further intensified in a hymn that seeks to articulate the words of the infant as 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)
These hymns and prayers are profoundly comforting, not primarily for psychological and emotional reasons, but because they reveal what is actually true: that Christ has overcome death, trampling it down on our behalf by 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 come 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 there be 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.