The View From Here: Panakhyda

By Volodymyr Kish.

For most of my life I did not think much about death. Of course, I was well aware that our time on this earth is constrained, and sooner or later we all pass on into the unknown void known as the afterlife. Nonetheless for most of my life, funerals were a fairly rare event that made few demands of my time, thinking or priorities.

However, I have now gotten to that age, where going to funerals has become a fairly common occurrence. In Ukrainian religious tradition, this means experiencing many a Panakhyda, the service performed in memory of the deceased at the funeral home and at the cemetery. It has gotten to the point where the words and chants of the Panakhyda are deeply ingrained in my memory. As I go through the ritual, I cannot help but ruminate on what all this means, and what am I to make of life, death, God, heaven, hell and whatever happens to the soul when I shuffle off this mortal coil.

“Sviatiy Bozhe, Sviatiy Kripkiy…“ (Holy God, Holy and Mighty..)

We are taught that God, a perfect all-powerful being, created us, as most certainly not perfect human beings, obviously knowing we would “sin” and do all those nasty things that flesh is heir to. Which leads me to wonder why didn’t God create us as “perfect” human beings and save both us and him/her a lot of pain and aggravation?

“Shche molymosia…za vidpushchenya hrikhiv…” (We also pray for … the forgiveness of their sins..)

Because we were created weak, we will inevitably stray from the path of perfection, and according to the more fundamentalist clergy, will be held accountable and punished severely for our iniquities. Yet, we are also taught that God is all-loving and merciful and will forgive our sinful behavior if we … at this point, depending on which religious denomination you subscribe too, you fill in the requirements you must follow to be forgiven and earn entry into heaven. These requirements range from simple and merciful, to complicated and demanding, and in some cases to the bizarre. Somehow, I have never been comfortable with the concept that an all-powerful and all-loving God, would have come up with such a system of reality that would result in eternal punishment and suffering unless we religiously follow certain conditions prescribed mostly by religious clerics and bureaucrats a thousand or more years ago at various synods and church summits.

“…I Tobi slavu vidayemo…” (And we give glory to You)

In the Panakhyda, and in virtually all formal church services, a great deal of time is spend praising and giving glory to God, a practice that has always puzzled me. Since God is a perfect being (and obviously self-aware of that fact), he obviously has no ego to satisfy, and hence does not need or require praise. I have always believed that our propensity to do so is more based on historical feudal practices of showing subservience to the powerful earthly lords and masters than a reasonable theological requirement. Wouldn’t God prefer that we put that time to better use by following his guidelines of how to lead a good Christian life?

“I vchyny yim vichnuyu pamyat.” (And make their memory everlasting)

This part of the ritual always moves me, as once we depart from this world, all that is left are the memories we have left behind in those that are still living. The “eternal” part is obviously poetic license, since on this plane of existence, memories disappear quickly in the space of a few generations. I have for instance, absolutely no knowledge about any of my great grandparents or earlier forebears or how they lived their lives aside from possibly their name. Go back a few centuries or millenia and there are no traces of any of our ancestors aside from the preserved works of a few individuals who left some permanent record once mankind had invented communications media of some sort.

The “eternal memory” I suppose is not meant to apply to us transient humans, but presumably to God who knows and remembers everything.

I have come to the conclusion that Panakhydas are less about paying respect for the deceased (which they undoubtedly are to a large extent), and more an opportunity for us still alive to devote some thought to the way we lead our lives, and what implications that has on our own beliefs, our spiritual existence and our own inevitable earthly demise.