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Big Fat Greek Funeral

"The world I lived in had a soft voice and no claws." —Lisel Mueller

I tended to 74-year-old Darian Christopolous’ funeral today at the Greek Orthodox Church. Nine long-robed priests stood in front, basking in the glory of Darian. Nearly 500 people attended, midday on a Wednesday. Darian worked as a Special Ed teacher. The vibrancy of his life shone through. His wife and children were shiny, gracious, vivid and beautiful. There were too many pallbearers, so Greg, the funeral director, and I created a scrub B-team bench to follow behind the casket. All wore proper mourning clothes—the Greek men in black or charcoal sharp-fitting suits with white shirts and black ties, the women in black dresses. Four myrrh bearers—women holding icons and pictures—proceeded behind the casket and the Junior Varsity “no-carry” pallbearers in an extravagant pageant. The final viewing of the body took a long time. I stood vigil next to open-casket Darian, my hands folded, witnessing so much demonstrativeness, so much kissing and hugging of the family by those giving condolences that my task standing at the front was to keep the crowds focused on their job of just kissing Darian goodbye, then getting down to the basement repast. Like a bodyguard, I boxed them out of their time-consuming kisses to the family.

Darian and his sons were thick Greek men who wore their weight like an expression of manliness. Darian wore his weight proudly, puffed up. His bulk was his identity. I picked him up at Holy Apostles Church that morning after the viewing there the day before. Only Darian’s wife and two sons came for a private moment with him before seeing him off to St. Nicholas’ church. His wife exclaimed, “Oh my word, Darian just looks like himself. You did a really good job.” As though I had personally embalmed and dressed him. Greg and I told her we would pass her compliment along to those responsible.

In the final pass-by at St. Nicholas, it was like I had been assigned to inspect each congregation member’s level of respect for Darian and judge the deftness, depth and sincerity of their genuflecting and their signs of the cross and their kisses to his forehead. One after another, these huge lovers of Darian bowed before him and kissed his thick hands and his forehead and patted his chest. The manly Greek men fist-bumped his still heart. The row of seated, dark, handsome pallbearers and their lovely wives all crying for Darian witnessed what I witnessed—we watched in stereo. Some older men knelt on one knee to bow and cross themselves. Other men knocked on the wood casket, tears in their eyes. Some women kissed Darian’s forehead and patted his gargantuan, meaty hands—tenderly, but casually. Everyone leaned down. The leaning, the bowing, the stooping, the lowering of one’s head—that ultimate show of respect. The children processed, too, learning the naturalness of this event. A mother leaned her little girl over, holding her in her arms, to kiss Darian’s forehead.

As I fought off my emotion, a woman suddenly stepped out of line and walked up to hug me. Then, she kissed Darian and made the sign of the cross. As she walked away, I recognized her as Debbie, the grandmother and guardian of Courtney, the 21-year-old who hung herself after Thanksgiving and at whose service I’d presided. I had forgotten that Courtney’s family was Greek, though she was not orthodox in any sense.

The mourners walked downstairs to roast beef, wine and beer—a big, fat Greek Church basement repast, where everyone wanted to speak about Darian, including the oldest son: “My father Darian said, ‘I lived on this earth as close to heaven as anyone possibly could. I married an angel. I loved my sons and my sons married angels. It’s only about this.’”

Darian’s was a world without claws. He bear-hugged his community—he was a big contributor to the annual September Greek Festival, he loved his church. He rode it hard. And it paid off. His people returned the embrace.

This funeral was a festival of love—a big, fat love fest.

(Names have been changed to protect anonymity.)

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