Orthodox Funeral Questions
One aspect of funeral planning is disposition of the body. However, for those of the Orthodox faith, cremation is specifically forbidden. According to the Holy Canons of the Church, the body must be returned to the earth; Placed in a casket and set in a grave.
Liturgical Rites for the Dying, Burial and Remembrance of the Dead
The relatives or close friends of the gravely ill should invite the priest to his bedside so that last rites may be given. Together with the priest, we sing prayers asking God to have mercy and let your loved one depart in peace.
For the burial, canon and other hymns will be sung. This rite would ideally be performed in the church, with the body facing east and the feet facing the altar, but exceptions are made as this rite can be performed at a funeral home or cemetery chapel.
A wake is a social gathering that is held before a funeral. This allows both family and friends to gather in remembrance of the one who has passed and allow them time to grieve. During a wake a priest will perform the First Panachyda, a prayer service for the deceased. At this time the Psalter (Book of Pslams) is read by family and friends.
After the wake, the body is transported to the church for the funeral service. The procession of the casket is led by the priest while the processors sing hymns. The casket enters the church feet first so that the body faces east. Typically, the casket will be open, with a small table placed towards the head for Koliva (aka Zhito). Koliva is a dish of boiled, soft-shell wheat or barley that should be prepared by the relatives or friends of the deceased. It should be sweetened with sugar, honey, raisins, or other dried fruit. This dish symbolizes the cyclical nature of life and the sweetness of Heaven.
A crown or wreath may be placed on the forehead of the departed. A small icon of Christ, the deceased patron saint or a cross is placed in their hand. The priest will swing a censer throughout the service while mourners stand holding lit candles. Near the end of the service, mourners extinguish their candles, or place them in a candle holder by the memorial table. Each candle symbolizes the individual soul, extinguishing (or giving up) of the candle, at the end of the service, symbolizes the fact that each person will have to surrender their soul, at the end of their life.
After the service, mourners are encouraged to approach the casket for a final farewell. They may kiss the icon or the cross in the hands of the departed. Then the casket is closed and carried out from the church to the hearse. The choir sings and the bells are rung slowly.
Once at the cemetery, a short burial service is performed by the priest. A large cross is traditionally used to mark the grave, relatives of the deceased may invite the priest to bless the cross.
After the graveside service, family and friends may gather for a luncheon, which can be held at a family member or friend’s home, a restaurant, event space, or a social hall of a church. Mourners connect with one another and reflect on the life of the departed. This is traditionally referred to as a “Mercy Meal”.
Mourning Periods and Memorial Events
Eastern Orthodox mourning periods last for 40 days with the third, ninth and 40th days having special significance. After the 40 day mourning period, memorials are celebrated at three, six & nine months, one year and on the anniversary of the death up to seven years.