What I Saw at the Reburial: Part One

[Editor’s Note: It’s been a good three months now since the reburial of Archbishop Dmitri Royster of Dallas. Many have asked for my perspectives, especially since I was there during the weekend of March 4-6, when we finally placed him in the chapel which had been painstakingly erected to house his earthly remains. What follows is a recollection of my experiences, recounted in as sobering a fashion as possible. As this was an extremely emotional experience, I felt that the passage of some time was needed before I could gather my thoughts in a respectful and coherent manner. –GCM]

KENDALIA -Feb 11, 2016
image002While on pilgrimage to Holy Archangels Monastery in Kendalia, Texas, I’d been informed by a couple from Dallas who were also there, that the long-hoped for reburial of Archbishop Dmitri Royster of Dallas was finally going to take place in one month.

This news hit my like a thunderbolt: the entire process of getting permission to rebury him was a long, expensive and arduous one, filled with not a few setbacks and disappointments. In addition, the fact that the Diocese of the South had not had a bishop for going on seven years did not make things any easier. As much as I wanted to, I just couldn’t believe it, given that there had been so many interruptions along the say. Since this had been the hope of so many throughout the South, I immediately went to see my priest (who was also there), to see if he had heard about it.

He had. And he had known for about a month but as there had been no official word from the Chancery, he did not think it prudent to inform the parish as of yet. Like me, he was concerned about last-minute glitches involving the city of Dallas and possibly the neighborhood. This was understandable. There was no reason to get people’s hopes up only to have them dashed once again.

He then proceeded to give me some details. The entire process of dis- internment was going to be under the complete control of Restland Cemetery, his present resting place. Only two people from St Seraphim’s Cathedral were to be present: Abbott Gerasim Eliel (the Rector) and Subdeacon Vladimir Grigorenko. The mandate from Restland was based on the fact that the exhumation of human remains is an unpleasant experience and that they didn’t want to be responsible for any trauma experienced by novices and curiosity seekers.

Of course, I understood completely. With this understanding I asked my priest if he could put in a word for me withe the Chancery regardless. I informed him of my previous experience as a diener (a pathology technician who assists in autopsies). As such, I was not queasy about the prospect. Father was unaware of this aspect of my life but in his judgment he didn’t want to impose on the Chancery. The protocols that had been worked out had been long and detailed and there was no reason to risk the entire project being upended simply because of my love and respect for Vladyka. Reluctantly, I understood.

THE JOURNEY TO DALLAS: Friday, Mar 4 -Noon
I awoke early Friday morning, excited about the prospect of going to Dallas. I left McAlester, Oklahoma around eight in the morning and stopped off in Durant to gas up. Next stop was Dallas.

I arrived about noon and made my way to the Cathedral. Pulling up to the parking lot I saw a few cars and one or two men outside milling about. Walking inside, and hearing the sound of a vacuum cleaner, I made my prostrations and ambled over to the Altar. There to my surprise was Abbott Gerasim, who I thought was going to be at Restland overseeing the process.

We greeted each other and I expressed my surprise. He assured me that things were under control and he immediately put me to work, relieving Fr John Parker of the vacuum cleaner. After about fifteen minutes, I decided to take a break and walk outside. I caught up with him and told him that I would have loved to have been present for the exhumation, explaining to him my previous experiences with corpses.

Chagrined, he saw my pain and told me “I wish I had known! I know about your relationship with Vladyka” (or words to that effect). Anyway, there was nothing that could have been done at that point. All things being equal, I was glad to be there and even more glad that Vladyka would finally be put to rest in the Mother Church of the South.

We started to walk back into the Cathedral and all of a sudden, Abbott Gerasim’s phone rang. After a few seconds he stopped walking and his expression became serious. It was Vladimir Grigorenko and I could barely hear his voice. After a few more seconds, Fr Gerasim said: “OK, then go ahead and put on his red vestments.” Vladimir spoke again and Fr Gerasim answered thusly: “No, put his old vestments in a big plastic bag. We’ll deal with them later.”

I knew something was afoot. My heart started racing. From my own knowledge of dead bodies, I know it’s very difficult to jostle them without them coming apart. And from the conversation I was overhearing, it was clear to me that Vladyka’s old vestments were being removed and a new set was being put on him. To my mind, this could only mean one thing.

After he got off the phone I asked Father if his body was incorrupt. “It appears so,” he replied.

“Come on, let’s get ready, he’ll be here in a couple of hours.”

TO BE CONTINUED

About GShep

Comments

  1. George Osborne says

    Although I am afraid, George, that these pictures will only fan the flames of controversy, they are deeply appreciated. I have kissed that right hand many times and am glad to see that it was spared the ravages of death. One thing, however, disturbs me greatly. One only has to read cursory accounts of the translation of the bodies of the saints to realize that this event was entirely mismanaged. While I appreciate the sensitivity of the attendants in wanting to spare observers the sight of a decomposed body, once it was determined that Valdika’s remains were incorrupt, the whole process should have stopped right then and there and the translation and re-vesting handled according to normal Church protocols. When St John of San Franciso was reinterred and later re-vested, he was attended by an Archbishop and several priest who managed the translation according to tradition. For example, what priest was present to read the vesting prayers and bless the vestments? When his clothing was changed, was Valdika monastically spared the sight of his nakedness? If I may be permitted to draw a conclusion (other than the sad obvious one), it is that the OCA seems to have no sense of “rightness” or of the mind of the Church in these matters as well as others. In any other jurisdiction that has its theological head screwed on straight, regardless of drawing implications of sanctity based in incorruption alone, once the remains were found to be incorrupt a decent opinion for what might be implied would have stopped the proceedings cold in their tracks and proper, traditional protocols put into place. Instead, we seem to have what amounts to be a “rush to non-judgement;” let’s get this over with as quickly as possible without fanfare or notoriety. Frankly, I think that – regardless of Vladika’s possible sainthood – this matter simply shows how the Synod and administration of the OCA viewed and continues to view Vladika’s life work in our Diocese…an embarrassment and indictment to the laxity and compromise so prevalent elsewhere. While I pray for Valdika’s soul, I also am bold enough to humbly ask his prayers for mine.

    • George Michalopulos says

      Mr Osborne, pace my answer to Monk James, your points will be addressed as well in the next two installments. Forgive me but time constraints at present are horrible and I must address what appears to be explosive news about the Cretan Council ASAP.

  2. Michael Kinsey says

    Good News, real good news for Abbot Gerasim. He may finally be near something genuinely Holy. Serving Pangratious and Abbot Herman really is a strenious vexation to the Spirit in a heart and soul. Perhaps, bad choices can be used by the Holy God for His Greater Glory. Fr Gerasim must serve God alone ,like the rest of authentic Christianity did and does. Be kind, charitable , and self controled is a direct command in the Holy Scriptures, which is not relative to the situation. If, you catch a brother in a fault, retore him gentlely. This was rarely practiced in the HOOM or Abbot Herman reign at platina.

  3. Monk james says

    I am grateful to George Michalopulos for his reportage here. It must have been a wonderful thing to participate in these events.

    Although it is our custom to veil the faces of deceased monastics, priests, and bishops as they are prepared for burial, I understand and respect the loving motivation which inspired these photographs, which I am grateful to see.

    Still, although there is still some flesh on his bones, it’s evident that Abp Dmitri’s corpse has suffered some dessication, as happens in natural mummies over time. His unnaturally thin shins just above his ankles show this, as well as the fact that his crown no longer fits his head, but slides down over his nose.

    While I am not in a position to explain this dessication/shrinkage, I think that I can confidently say that Abp Dmitri’s corpse is NOT incorrupt, merely at an intermediate stage of decomposition.

    Of course, none of these observations can comment in any way on the holiness of a man I respected and loved, and who was always very kind to me and a benefactor of my monastery.

    Before we form any more opinions about this matter, let’s just wait and see what we find the next time his corpse is brought to light.

    In the meantime, we can ask his intercession for us and our deeply troubled OCA, especially for the Eparchy of Dallas.

    • George Michalopulos says

      Monk James, your observations will be dealt with in the next installment. For now let it be said that dessication and/or the process of “natural mummification” did not take place in this instance –in fact, could have not taken place.

      This is not my opinion by the way but the superintendent of Restland Cemetery who was there overseeing the process. As I will recount in the next installment, she said that “…in twenty years of doing exhumations, I’ve never seen anything like this.”

      More to follow. In the meantime, I may have to switch gears as something big regarding the Cretan Council seems to be happening at this moment. Stay tuned.

    • Desiccated remains? In a coffin and vault that were full of water?

      • Monk James says

        That was just my own clumsy way of describing flesh so far gone that only bones appear to remain under the skin. There’s probably a better way of explaining how so much flesh could be gone when a corpse is so wet, but I don’t know it.

        In Abp Dmitri’s case, that would involve at least his right shin and his skull, per the photos which George Michalopulos so kindly shared here.

        In any event, I look forward to GM’s continuing narrative of AbpD’s exhumation and reburial, since he promises to explain a few of these things.

        What it all means, I don’t know. But I hope that it will all be to the glory of God.

    • Monk James,

      For what it’s worth, I had the honor of venerating the incorrupt relics of Saints in Greece, and they appeared much like Vladyka’s. Saint John the Russian’s flesh was actually far darker than Vladyka’s yet smelled of Myrrh.

      Also, mummies are embalmed. Someone can correct me, but I don’t believe Vladyka was. His flesh looks much like the flesh of very elderly living people – very thin and somewhat dark.

      He is/was not my bishop, so I have no dog in the race to judge him incorrupt. These are just my thoughts on what you have written here.

      • George Michalopulos says

        Brian thanks for bringing this out. I didn’t mention in Part I that Vladyka’s body was unembalmed in the first place as I thought that that was understood. (I.e. already part of the historical record.) I will rectify that in Part II.

  4. Gail Sheppard says

    This could only mean one thing. . .

    If I wanted to say more, what would it be? Nothing can change what is.

  5. Peter A. Papoutsis says

    This is a great Miracle for ALL American Orthodox. May Saint Dimitri of Dallas pray for us all.

    Peter

  6. Bishop Tikhon (Fitzgerald) says

    The ‘miracle” of ‘incorrupt”relics may be a frequent occurrence. After all, St John of San Francisco and ROCOR’S Metropolitan Filaret’s remains and now Archbishop Dimitri’s would seem to indicate that EVERY Orthodox hierarch’s remains are incorrupt. Further NO ONE KNOWS how many of those who were embalmed (just about EVERYONE) would have been incorrupt without embalming. It’s just because of pressure from profit-making undertakers that embalming is so automatic! Let’s not forget, too, that “incorruption” is not universally accepted as any kind of sign of holiness in the Orthodox Church–on the contrary. To affirm that would be false teaching! It’s certainly more problematic than the toll houses! What is all this unseemly haste?

  7. Michael Kinsey says

    Again, I find my self (reluctantly) in agreement with the Archbishop. I strive to be true to myself, and will not allow my distaste for his frenquently gutlevel posts to reject his purposed great caution in the incorrupion status of this well loved bishop. Divine Justice Rules, which is the only Justice with which The infinite Mercy of the Only Holy One , Our Father is fully manifested in Our Lord Jesus Christ, who always, in absolute perfection ,does His Father’s Will.

  8. Bishop Tikhon (Fitzgerald) says

    Fr Dimitri Royster heard my confession for the first time in 1962. I knew him well from that year. I believe that just about all the experts on the life of ever-memorable Archbishop Dmitri making contributions here had there first contacts with him only after he abandoned the Diocese of New England in order to establish his own Diocese back home in Dallas, while many of them knew him only in his dotage or semi-dotage. I urge caution in what seems to me to be an unseemly rush to acquire “our very OWN” saint! By the way, I once again urge care in language. Uncorrupted does NOT mean”incorruptible.” Again, let’s admit that incorrupt remains are not, in the ORTHODOX CHURCH universally accepted as a sign of saintliness or even VIRTUE. It’s my conviction that ever-memorable Archbishop Dmitri himself agreed.

    • George Michalopulos says

      Your Grace, I feel that I must challenge your comment regarding the senescence of the Venerable Dmitri. Although I do not, nor cannot claim to have known him for as long and as well as you, I did get to know him quite well from 2000 on.

      The only time I saw some slippage in his mental acuity was the year right before his retirement. At first it was an off-hand question that once it had been answered was repeated again not ten minutes later. It was clear to me that he was having some memory problems but given the fact that he continued to travel in a manner that put men half his age to shame tells me that this was anything but a “dotage.”

      Yes, once his retirement was official, he continued to slip further into a type of dotage but based on my own annual and semi-annual visits, what I saw reminded me of just an old man in retirement, no different essentially than my beloved grandfather or now my own dear father, who regularly falls asleep while watching TV. (My wife says that I do the same thing every now and then.)

      Granted, I do not live in Dallas and I’m sure that the parishioners of the Cathedral could flesh out the picture of His Eminence’s declining years more fully but I keep my ear pretty close to the ground. From what I heard he continued to attend services regularly and host clergy and guests at his house.

      Of course as he approached death he did continue to deteriorate physically (looking very much like the photos of his incorrupt remains by the way) and the last time we saw right before his repose he did look like the shadow of the man he once was. Surprisingly however, the ten or so of us from Tulsa who visited him at his bedside right before the Paraklesis, found him to be firing on all cylinders, mentally speaking. He was joking with us, asking us questions about our families (mentioning some of them by name), asking how our mission was going, details that frankly, surprised me. This of course is an example of what happens to many people right before their deaths. A last-minute surge of clarity that gives hope and comfort to all present.

      I don’t mean to be harsh and I’d love to visit with you some day to learn more about Vladyka’s early life but I wanted to clear the record and offer another perspective about his senescence based on my own recollections. Of course I would welcome anybody from Dallas to offer their’s as well.

      • Bishop Tikhon (Fitzgerald) says

        I understand your wanting to make my reference to dotage and semi-dotage some kind of important aspect of my posting. Forget I mentioned that! My point was that many who appear to be engaged in pursuing glorification of ever-memorable Archbishop Dmitri hardly or only briefly knew a man who lived a long, interesting life before they came into his orbit, and that intact remains signify almost nothing in the matter of such a glorification.

  9. George Osborne says

    In this regard, I am reminded of something Vladika once told me when I was serving as his Deacon during a Liturgy. I forget exactly what happened but he had gotten annoyed by something. After the Liturgy, I asked him if everything was okay. He replied “You know, Russian bishops do not have to be nice. They just have to be holy.” Oh yes, now I remember, he had handed a Trikiri back to me and I got a face full of hot wax! The point I am trying to make is that Valdiki Dimitri was not perfect. He was not always right and certainly not superficially holy. In short, he was just a human being like the rest of us. The difference is that in his life, he bore the mantle of bishop for as long as he could in what we Orthodox believe to be the fullness of the gifts of the Holy Spirit. I opine that his life is best remembered by the works and achievements of his life, namely the diocese to which he devoted a great deal of his life. He was often disappointed in people to whom he had given his trust and support. But he never stopped and continued on as well as he was able. If he is a saint, it will be because of these works because without the grace, aid and intervention of the Holy Spirit, I doubt any of it could have been accomplished. If the Holy Spirit was able to use such a tool – albeit imperfect – then the accomplishment of God’s will should be certainly considered a sign of sanctity. And, frankly, regardless of Greek peasant superstition about incorrupt bodies (vampirism, etc.), I hold to the general principal that something pretty special happened to prevent a dead corpse floating in groundwater for years to be found whole, uncorrupted and not saponified. Remember, we believe that God is glorified in His saints!

  10. Ambrosia says

    Thank you, George, for posting this story. I was also there that weekend, and it was a wonderful experience. I arrived at the cathedral early Friday afternoon (you may have seen me; I was the one sitting in the gold Buick much of the time) and returned to alabama Sunday after liturgy. It meant a lot to me to be so close to Vladika for the first time. I didn’t know him yet when he was alive.

    Learning about the condition of his body, as happy as it made me, didn’t change what I think about him. I don’t think it is proof he is a saint.

    I look forward to reading the rest of what you have to say about the reburial.