OK, I have some questions after reading the mainstream news coverage of the funeral rites for Alexander Solzhenitsyn. Let me see if I can say this first one clearly: Is a piece of music a "dirge" because it sounds like a "dirge" to the reporters present in a worship service, or is a piece of music a "dirge" because the actual texts are, well, dirge-like?
First of all, what is a "dirge"? Here are the two main definitions in one online dictionary:
1: a song or hymn of grief or lamentation; especially: one intended to accompany funeral or memorial rites
2: a slow, solemn, and mournful piece of music.
Keep those two different definitions in mind, while you read the following passages from coverage of the funeral rites for this profoundly Orthodox Russian writer. Most newspapers based their coverage on the Associated Press report, since was not the kind of story that draws travel-budget or bureau money in these financially-challenged times. There we read:
Alexander Solzhenitsyn, the Nobel Prize-winning author whose books exposed the horrors of Soviet slave labor camps, was buried Wednesday in a Russian Orthodox ceremony that included goose-stepping honor guards and a religious choir singing solemn dirges.
Solzhenitsyn -- who died Sunday at his home outside Moscow at age 89 from a chronic heart condition -- was buried according to his will amid the pink brick cupolas of Moscow's Donskoi Monastery, where famous Russian cultural figures have been laid to rest since the 18th century.
Here's another question I need to ask: Were those goose-stepping honor guards actual participants in the Eastern Orthodox ceremony itself? Really? Or were they involved in public events involved in getting Solzhenitsyn's body to and from the rites?
The bottom line: I am not aware of any parts of the rite that call for secular guards on the march. So what actually happened in the service?
Over at the Washington Post, Peter Finn of the newspaper's foreign service wrote this:
The burial took place after a solemn Russian Orthodox service, and the funeral was attended by Russian president Dmitry Medvedev, who broke off a vacation on the Volga River so he could be there. Medvedev laid a bunch of dark-red roses at the foot of Solzhenitsyn's open coffin. Solzhenitsyn, a veteran of the Red Army, was buried with military honors, including a gun salute. There were no eulogies. ...
A large portrait of Solzhenitsyn was placed at the head of the coffin at the viewing; the writer's wife, Natalia, and sons stood to the side. Among the mourners paying their respects were former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, who placed a bouquet of red roses at the foot of the coffin before speaking with Solzhenitsyn's widow.
Note, again, that he was buried with military honors. I assume that this meant the guards were involved in the processions that took place between the funeral rites and the burial. Perhaps we should say that there were Orthodox rites, in between Russian civic ceremonies.
Oh, and while we are at it, Orthodox funerals do not contain eulogies -- so that was perfectly formal. People often make remarks at tribute meals or family gatherings after the liturgical rites are over.
I know this sounds very, very picky. But believers care about the details.
This brings me back to those "dirges."
The music in these services may have sounded like dirges, to outsiders. But the actual words of the litanies in the Orthodox funeral rites are packed with images of hope, beauty and even joy. There is mourning, in the reality of what is taking place. But I am always amazed -- I am an active choir member in an Eastern Orthodox parish -- that the words of these hymns are not dirge-like (especially if the rites take place in Bright Week after Pascha).
And those goose-stepping guards? Were they really taking part in the funeral liturgy? Really? I would like to know.