Source: Greek Orthodox Archdiocese
Meaning of Burial/Funeral Service
The Funeral Service is composed of deeply meaningful hymns, prayers, biblical readings, and symbolic acts. Most of the material that the Church uses for the Service of the burial of the dead refers not only to the dead but to the living as well. By studying the service we can orient ourselves in the direction of our natural destiny. The intelligent traveler studies the map and knows what road to follow. He reads the signs and is careful not to lose his way. “For here we have no lasting city, but we seek the city which is to come.” (Hebrews 13:14).
The Orthodox Funeral Service of today goes back to the end of the 5th and beginning of the 6th centuries in its main articulation and was later enriched by the eight sublime hymns of St. John of Damascus by which the ephemeral of this life and the eternity of life hereafter are poetically described. From very early in the Christian era, people were honoring their dead by making contributions to the poor as a memorial to the dead. This is prescribed in the Apostolic Constitutions, and St. John Chrysostom says, “do you wish to honor the departed? Honor him by giving alms and by doing works of benefaction.”
Today’s mourning, usually associated with death, is a later development that crept into the Church as Christianity became the religion of everybody and, in a great number of cases, one’s religion either by necessity or by expectation of personal benefit. As time went on, death began to be viewed again as a development full of awe for which there was neither remedy nor consolation. Especially beginning the Middle Ages, the love of the bereaved began to be expressed by the erection of expensive and highly ornamented tombs and mausoleums.
The hope and joy of the resurrection is expressed in the priest wearing white vestments during the funeral service. The best time to plan a funeral is before you die. This way you can communicate the type of care you would like to receive after death. A will or a living will is certainly appropriate for Orthodox Christians. If you are planning for an Orthodox Funeral service, keep the following in mind.
Eligibility for Orthodox Funeral
Any person baptized in the Orthodox Church is entitled to a funeral service, with some exceptions. Individuals who are in severe violation of canon law including marriage outside of the Orthodox Church, cremation, suicide, and other circumstances are denied a funeral service in the Church. In some cases prayers, but not a full service, may be said at another location. The Diocesan Bishop will use discretion in deciding cases where mercy should be shown. In the case of a non-Orthodox person who is not connected to any other faith community/tradition, the priest can conduct a prayer service at a funeral home or some other venue to express the love and care of the church community. If you have any questions, please consult the priest to ensure that you are canonically in good standing with the Orthodox Church.
Dying or Near Death
If a person’s health is declining quickly and death seems inevitable, the priest should be called. He can read prayers, hear Confession, administer Holy Unction, and offer Holy Communion if appropriate. If a person’s suffering is extreme and there is no reasonable hope of recovery, if the family wishes, the priest can read prayers asking God to take the dying person’s soul to end their suffering.
Almost all funeral homes are very sensitive to the religious traditions of families and their deceased loved ones. They will work with you and the priest to make all arrangements for the deceased. They will help you in determining the wake, casket, cemetery, marker, obituary, and so forth. Families should be aware that they can honor their loved ones with modest, inexpensive arrangements.
Giving gifts in memory of the dead is a centuries old tradition. Giving to the church is very honorable. Designations to various ministries/projects within the parish can be done in advance or at the time of the funeral planning. These preferences can be advertised in the obituary and literature distributed to visitors.
Commonly, a wake or viewing is done the night before the funeral at the mortuary. This is a time when people can express their respect and sympathy, especially if they are not able to attend the funeral service. The priest will attend and pray the Trisagion Service at a pre-arranged time. Other ceremonials such as for Legion (Veteran) and AHEPA members can be done at the wake. It is also an appropriate time for eulogies by family and friends in honor of the deceased.
Scheduling the service is very important and the priest needs to be consulted before any plans are set. Generally, funerals may be done on any day except Sundays (in honor of the Resurrection) or on Holy Saturday (in honor of Christ’s Descent into Hades). If the family desires, the priest can come to the mortuary in the morning before the funeral to pray the Trisagion Service again. Commonly, the priest will meet the family with the casket outside the church and escort the deceased into the nave. The casket will be placed on the solea with the deceased facing the East (feet towards altar). The Orthodox Tradition is to have an open casket during the Funeral Service to acknowledge the reality of death and allow for last respects; including the “farewell kiss.” The priests and chanters pray the service and the worshippers are encouraged to join in the singing of the hymns and responses. After the final prayer, the priest usually offers a sermon to share the inspirational message of Christ’s teaching regarding life, death, and eternal life. He will also incorporate, where appropriate, important aspects of the deceased life to further personalize the message. After the sermon, the casket will be turned so that last respects can be made to the departed loved one. For time’s sake and respect for the Temple of God, personal sympathies to the surviving family should be avoided at this time. They can be expressed afterwards. The faithful are asked to return to their seats as the family comes forward to pay their last respects. Then the priest seals the body with oil and sand and, after the casket is closed, he escorts the deceased out of the church to the hearse with family and others following behind.
The burial service consists of a Trisagion service at the grave site. Afterwards, the family may wish to stay for the lowering of the casket and the sealing of the vault. In some communities, the body is sealed with oil and sand by the priest at the grave side. The current practice at St. George Greek Orthodox Church is sealing in the church (see above). A burial site should be chosen that allows for the deceased to face East (feet towards the East) in expectation of the Second Coming of Jesus Christ.
After the burial service, it is customary (but not required) to have a funeral luncheon called the Makaria. This can be done in the church social hall or at another location. Fish is served as the main dish because it was an ancient symbol for Christians and because it is considered an acceptable alternative during fasting periods. The luncheon gives more opportunity for those in attendance to share in their grief and remembrance of the deceased. The luncheon is also a very appropriate time for eulogies and other expressions of honor by family and friends.
Remembering the deceased in prayer to God is an important expression of love and faith. Trisagion services can be done at the time of death, the third day (in honor of the Holy Trinity and Christ’s three day burial), the ninth day (in honor of the orders of angels), the fortieth day (in honor of Christ’s 40 days on earth after His Resurrection), three months, six months, nine months, one year, or any time the family feels the need. The memorial service is a little longer service that is typically done on the forty days. The memorial requires coliva or sitari. Coliva/Sitari is the boiled wheat dish (recipes can be provided) that symbolizes the seed of the body that has been placed in the earth to sprout forth new, resurrected life when all the dead are raised at the Second Coming of Christ. Scheduling memorial services for Sundays in the church must be prearranged through the priest. Additional tributes on that day include making the prosforo, having flowers and candles, bringing refreshments for coffee hour, and to visit the grave site.
- Embalming—This is an accepted nonreligious practice to slow the natural decomposition of the body after death. However, it is not mandatory. Bodies can be buried as soon as possible or they can be cooled to slow decomposition until burial. CHECK WITH FUNERAL HOME FOR COUNTY AND STATE REQUIREMENTS.
- Organ Donation—Donating ones organs upon death to those in need is an acceptable and commendable practice for Orthodox Christians. Usually wishes must be expressed ahead of time in a will or to family members.
- Donating Body to Science—This is acceptable if the body is treated with respect, kept intact, and made available for burial after being used. See your priest for more information.
- Autopsy—This is acceptable and sometimes required by law to determined the circumstances of death.
- Suicide—Generally suicide is considered self-murder. Because it is such a grave, final act it can prevent the deceased from receiving an Orthodox Funeral service in the church. However, with the permission of the Diocesan Bishop, an exception can be made if there is evidence of mental illness.
- Cremation—This is the incineration or burning of the deceased body until it turns to ash. Orthodoxy teaches that the human body is created in the image and likeness of God and is a temple of the Holy Spirit. Therefore, an Orthodox funeral service cannot be conducted for
- those who will be cremated.
- Superstitions—The church discounts the superstition, and others of similar spirit, of keeping newlyweds and pregnant women from the viewing and the funeral because it is considered bad luck.
- Remembering the Deceased—Honor and love can be expressed by visiting the grave site, lighting candles at church and home, donating to the church and other causes, submitting names to the priest for prayers during services, making prosforo, and scheduling memorial or trisagion services.
Grieving is the process of dealing with loss. Usually, it is filled with sadness and loneliness as we begin life without our loved one. These emotions are normal but should not be without a general sense of hope in Christ’s love for us. Eternal life in heaven is our goal and it is ok to rejoice that our departed loved one has left the toils of this life to rest with God. There are many customs about behavior and dress among various ethnic groups. However, the Church has no official teachings on grieving. Each person mourns the loss of a loved one differently. Relatives and friends should be careful not to impose expectations about grieving. This usually only complicates and prolongs the grief process. If your grieving is causing depression, debility, or dysfunction, seek out counseling with the priest and support groups.