Meaning of the Orthodox “Service of Burial” sometimes referred to as the “Funeral Service”
In the Orthodox Church, the service celebrated when a person has fallen asleep is the «Ἀκολουθία Κηδείας» or “Service of Burial.” Its exclusive purpose is to consecrate the body of the deceased and bury it with respect in preparation for, and anticipation of its recomposition and resurrection at the Second Coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. Obviously, then, if there is no body to bury (for example a sailor lost or buried at sea) or if the body has been or will be cremated, there can be no “Service of Burial.” In such cases a “Memorial Service” («Μνυμόσυνον») or the “Trisagion Service for those Fallen Asleep” («Τρισάγιον τὸν Κοιμηθέντων») is served instead.
The Orthodox 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 celebrated today dates from the end of the 5th and beginning of the 6th centuries in its principal elements. It was later enriched by the eight sublime hymns of Saint John of Damascus (AD 676-749) by which the ephemeral of this life and the eternity of life hereafter are poetically described.
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.
From very early in the Christian era, the faithful honored their beloved deceased by making contributions to the poor as a memorial in their name. This practice is prescribed in the Apostolic Constitutions, and it is eloquently spoken of by Saint John Chrysostom who wrote, “Do you wish to honor the departed? Honor him by giving alms and by doing works of benefaction.”
In contrast to the Orthodox tradition, the contemporary practice of “mourning” associated with death, is a later development that evolved as religion was viewed as an obligation of society or practiced to gain personal benefit. Beginning the Middle Ages, the bereaved began to express their love for the deceased by the erection of expensive and highly ornamented tombs and mausoleums. As Godlessness has increased in secular society, death has been regarded as a development full of tragedy for which there is neither remedy nor consolation.
In contemporary, secular, non-Orthodox society that service done when a person falls asleep is called a “funeral,” sometimes a “celebration of life,” and it is assumed that its purpose is to address and comfort the bereaved.
Who may Receive an Orthodox Funeral
The “Service of Burial” may be celebrated for any Orthodox Christian in good canonical standing (click here for more information) is entitled to a funeral service, with some exceptions. Individuals who are married outside the Orthodox Church, who are civilly but not ecclesiastically divorced, who have been or will be cremated, who have committed suicide, and certain other circumstances may not have a service in the Church. In some cases the Trisagion for the Deceased or the Memorial Service, but not the “Service of Burial,” may be read at a location other than in the church.
It is absolutely essential that every Orthodox Christian and their family members be fully informed regarding the Orthodox requirements for funeral services and burial.
If there is any circumstance that might preclude a funeral and burial, it must be discussed with tjhe parish priest as promptly as possible. If necessary, the parish priest may present these circumstances to the Metropolitan who may be able to exercise oikonomía in loosening the requirements if appropriate.
In the case of a non-Orthodox Christian who is not connected to any other faith community, the priest may be able, with episcopal permission, to celebrate a Service for the Deceased at a funeral home or some other venue to express the love and care of the church community.
Dying or Near Death
If a person’s health is declining quickly and death becomes imminent, the priest should be called as soon as possible. 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 the priest can, if the family so wishes, read prayers asking God to receive the dying person’s soul.
In general, funeral homes are very sensitive to the religious traditions of families and their deceased loved ones. They will work with the family and the priest to make all arrangements for the deceased. They will also help in arranging for the “wake” (the Trisagion Service) the night before the burial, casket, cemetery, marker, obituary, and other needs. Families should be aware that they can honor their loved ones with modest, inexpensive arrangements. There is absolutely no need for a person to be cremated instead of being buried simply for financial reasons; in cases of need the family should speak with the priest.
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.
The “Wake” or “Viewing”
The Trisagion for the Deceased is chanted by the priest the evening before the Service of Burial. This is commonly, but not altogether correctly, referred to in secular society as the “wake” or “viewing.” It may be done at the funeral home/mortuary, but would more correctly be done at the parish church. This is a time when people can express their respect and sympathy, especially if they are not able to attend the Service of Burial the following day.
The time following the Trisagion for the Deceased the evening before may be one appropriate time for eulogies by family and friends in honor of the deceased. These are usually delivered after the Trisagion, and the priest typically does not attend these insofar as they are not completely in keeping with Orthodox Tradition.
The ancient tradition of the Orthodox Church, a continuation of the Old Testament Jewish tradition, is for the faithful to take turns throughout the night, following the Trisagion, to continuously read the Psalter (the 150 Psalms in the Bible) over the casket of the one who has fallen asleep. This is especially appropriate if the Trisagion is held in the parish church and the body lies thee throughout the night. It is considered a great honor to be able to read the Psalms, and it is a most-sacred way to express love and respect for the one departed.
The Service of Burial
When scheduling the Service of Burial the priest absolutely must be consulted before any plans are set; funeral homes will generally not complete planning until a clergyman has been contacted. Generally, the Service of Burial may be celebrated on any day except as indicated below.
A beautiful tradition is for the priest to come to the church, or the funeral home/mortuary, in the morning before the Service of Burial to pray the Trisagion Service privately with the family.
When the body of the one who has fallen asleep is brought to the church, the priest will normally meet the family with the casket outside and escort the deceased into the sanctuary.
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 people to offer their last respects, referred to as the “last kiss.”
The priests and chanters pray the service and the worshippers are encouraged to join in the singing of hymns and responses. After the final prayer, the priest will offer a sermon focused on the resurrection which we await on tje Last Day at the Lord’s Second Coming. It is not the Orthodox tradition to eulogize the deceased, although the priest may incorporate, where appropriate, important aspects of the deceased perso}s life in his homily.
After the sermon, the casket will be turned parallel to the altar so that last respects can be made to the departed loved one. For the sake of time, and out of respect for the church, which is a Temple of God, personal sympathies to the surviving family should be avoided at this time. They can be expressed afterwards at the Makaría. The faithful should return to their seats as the family comes forward to pay their last respects.
Then the priest seals the body with oil and sand, the casket is closed and the priest escorts the deceased out of the church to the hearse with family and others following behind.
Interment (Burial at the Cemetery)
For the interment (burial) service at the cemetery, the priest chants the Trisagion for the Deceased at the grave. Afterwards, the family may wish to stay for the lowering of the casket and the sealing of the vault.
When choosing a burial site (grave) consideration should be given to permit the body of the deceased to face East (feet towards the East) in expectation of the Second Coming of Jesus Christ.
Makaría, or Funeral Luncheon
After the burial service, it is customary (but not required) to have a funeral luncheon called the Makaría. This can be done in the church social hall or at another location. Fish is served as the main dish in remembrance of the fact that Christ Himself ate broiled fish after His resurrection (Luke 24:41-43). In addition, fish was an ancient symbol for Christians and it is also an acceptable food 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.
The Trisagion Service is read by the priest at the time of death (bedside at home or in the hospital), on the third day (in honor of the Holy Trinity and Christ’s three-day burial), the ninth day (in honor of the nine orders of angels), the fortieth day (in honor of Christ’s 40 days on earth after His Resurrection), at three months, six months, nine months, one year, or any time the family feels the need.
The Memorial Service (Μνυμόσυνον) is a σλιγητλυ longer service that is typically done on the forty day αννιωερσαρυ. The Μemorial Ρequires Kolyva, boiled wheat that symbolizes the seed of the body that has been placed in the earth to sprout forth new, resurrected life when all the deceased are resurrected at the Second Coming of Christ.
Scheduling Memorial Services on Sundays, or other days, in the church must be arranged directly with the priest. Additional ways to honor the beloved deceased on that day include baking the prósforon, bringing flowers and candles, providing refreshments for fellowship hour, and visiting the grave site.
Embalming: Although contrary to Orthodox Tradition, it is not prohibited since it is an accepted nonreligious practice which slow the natural decomposition of the body after death prior to a funeral. It is not, however, mandatory under most circumstances under civil law. The body should be buried as soon as possible or it can be cooled to slow decomposition until burial. The funeral home can advise family members regasrding city, county, and state requirements.
Organ Donation: Donating organs upon death is not a prohibited practice for Orthodox Christians. Usually wishes must be expressed ahead of time in a will or to family members.
Donating Body to Science: This not prohibited 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 not prohibited and may be required by law to determine circumstances of death.
Suicide: In principle suicide is considered self-murder. As such, it precludes celebrating the Service of Burial or any other service in the church. However, in the case of extenuating circumstances – typically when the person is suffering from a mental illness – the priest can submit a request to the Metropolitan (Diocesan Bishop) for oikonomía to be exercised and an exception to be made.
Cremation: This is the incineration or burning of the deceased body until most of it is consumed and the skeleton bones are ground up and given to the family as “cremains” or inaccurately as “ashes.” The Orthodox tradition respects the human body as created in the image of God and as a temple of the Holy Spirit. Thus the Orthodox Service of Burial, can not be conducted for those who have been, or will be, cremated.
Remembering the Deceased: Honor and love can be expressed by visiting the grave site, lighting candles at church and at home, donating to the church and other causes, submitting their name to the priest for prayers during services, baking the prósforon, 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 completely appropriate to rejoice that our departed loved one has left the struggles 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.