Tomorrow is Psycho Sabbato, Saturday of All Souls, when the living remember the dead. This service, which follows in a succession of three Saturday mornings, serves as a safeguard for all souls who perhaps because of the hasty circumstances of their death did not have a proper burial. But in addition it serves to commemorate the recently departed or those whose memory we hold dear no matter how many years they have passed. The custom is to make a koliva plate for each of those who have fallen asleep. The Church lays out long banquet tables in the aisles of the nave where hundreds of koliva commemorative plates, like snowy mounds of powdered sugar with four or more blanched almonds arranged in the form of a cross from the center of which burns a beeswax candle. The koliva plate captures this marriage of the mystery of death and life. On the outside they remind you of tiny graves. Koliva is made from the seeds of the earth—barley, cracked wheat, raisins, dried nuts, pomegranate seeds—symbolic of the stuff the body is made of, of earth to earth. But the koliva double up as living plates for the living. They mark the place setting for ones living at the table of life.
In taste the koliva symbolize the exact flavor of life—bittersweet–like the ruby seeds of the pomegranate some of which rest in the mix of the earth underneath the sugar-covered mounds. A thin layer of soft, juicy flesh envelopes a bitter, inedible, hard seed on the inside. In that seed, paradoxically both dead and alive, lies the mystery of all that the service is trying to communicate. The pomegranate seed, the ancient symbol of the underworld waiting to come to the light of the living day. Like Christ, who had to descend into Hades, shed the outward layer of flesh to reach the bitter depths of death and reemerge alive. Christ, like Persephone, the seed both alive and dead. The seed holds the core of this mystery, that what it is to live is to die and what it is to die is to live. This is the meaning of the service.
During the service, the priest remembers the names of the dead. In fact, the majority of the service is made up of the priest reading names. He reads from a huge stack of “For the Departed” sheets of paper. “Eis mnimi tou Theou, Marias, Georgias, Persefonis, kai ton siggenon. Andreos, Charalambou, Nikolaou, Cleopatra . . .” A litany of names that goes on and on—probably unto eternity.
It is a mystery; this banquet that brings together both the presence of the living and the dead. For the dead, although lacking bodies and breath, are alive in spirit, kept alive through the prayers of the living. And the living, through the gift of the dead are reminded about the value of life. This is what the dead offer the living—the realization of the preciousness and fragility of life. For what is death and life but sitting on opposite sides of the same table?
It is so uncanny, but life and death follow in each other’s footsteps. I am here to commemorate my father who passed away eight summers ago. Yet within three months of his death, his favorite child, my sister, announces she is pregnant. “It’s a boy,” I tell her intuitively. Which of course it is. He will be named for our father—Dimitrios. He will probably be born around the two weeks’ time our father passed away. And way before that, I remember squeezing my head between the rails of the kitchen balcony in our flat in Athens, looking up to the streaming face of my mother on the phone. (You never do forget the times your mother cries when you are a child.) Her sister was on the phone telling her that their mother, Emilia, had passed away. It had been less than a week since the day Mama came home from the hospital herself, bearing her second daughter, Emilia, pudgy, red as a tomato in a woolen grey blanket, in honor of her mother who was on the verge of being born into a new world.
The litany of names goes on forever—“Stamatios, Argirios, Athinas, Konstantinos, Annis, Ioannis, Eirini . . . “ If you listen long enough, you will hear your name no matter how rare and unusual you think it is –“Konstandoulas, Ectoras, Athinis, Avgerinis, Anthipis, Efsevios, Parthenas, Baisanias, Garifalias, Elizabeth . . .” The plates of koliva stand as a silent reminder of the presence of the spirits of the dead who have come to feed at the table. Though they outnumber the living—there could not be a banquet table long enough to seat all the departed—they fit in the space provided.
Their presence fills the empty spaces so that no one dares go close. A banquet table is comforting because it involves food and Greeks love food. Food is sustaining for both the living and the dead. The dead are fed by our prayers and vice versa. The dead and the living form a pair of two separate hands locked in prayer. No one alive is present without the fullness of the memory of one who has passed away, as one past away is sustained through the memory of the living. Such is the mystery of death that millions and billions of souls can fit together around a mystical banquet table. But the weight, the sheer force of the countless dead overpowers the living. The cloud of departed outnumber those alive.
This service in our Church is very wise. The memory of the sleeping helps to wake up those supposedly awake. The petty concerns of our every day lives, the headache of finding parking, the grumble of the gossipy neighbor, the daily grind of dealing with difficult people, pale in the presence of the mystery of death. What errand so pressing, what squabble so pervasive, what worry so nagging that it does not dissolve in the darkness of the grave? The mystery of life entwined to the mystery of death in this service.
The service ends with “Eternal the memory—aionia I mnimi, aionia I mnimi, aionia i mnimi.” And even if the memory of those lying asleep is so far away in the past that no one living has a memory, the reminder is the same.
For the living, live as if you are going to die, and for the dead, sleep with the knowledge that you live eternally.