The business of the Christian is nothing else than to be ever preparing for death. – St. Irenæus
In our contemporary times, we unfortunately experience an increasing estrangement to the basic events of life and death. Both events are handed over more and more to people that offer their services, so that we don’t have to take care of it. While on one side, this is certainly a help and sometimes a necessity, in most cases, we get so distant to the beginning and end of life that we have more difficulties to relate to it; and especially when it comes to the end of life the ability to cope and grieve in the appropriate way, and keep a Christian attitude towards it.
In the Orthodox Church we believe that God is our Creator and the only Giver of Life, and the One that has the only authority to allow our death. Founded in this basic truth, the Orthodox Church is guiding her children from their birth, throughout their life, and until the grave.
When it comes to the end of our life, it is important to know how the Orthodox Church is providing for her members and what steps one should know how to plan for this (as much as one is able to plan for it). The following guide is an attempt to give some guidance. Specific steps might need adjustments in specific cases. Your priest is the one that can guide you in those cases.
The care of a dying person actually starts before death occurs. If a person is ill, and cannot attend church anymore, a priest should be contacted so that he is able to visit on a regular basis throughout the sickness. He is there to give comfort in prayer, offer confession, and holy communion to the sick.
The mystery of Holy Unction should also be considered. This mystery is offered for severe illnesses and is usually administered only once during an illness. It should not be treated as a “last rite” mystery, but rather administered during the earlier stages of the illness. This mystery does not require a terminal illness, but is for severe illnesses where we beseech God in a special way to ask for healing and comfort.
If death is imminent, a priest should again be called immediately; if the death is sudden, then as soon as one has knowledge about it. The priest will come and say prayers for the departing of the soul from the body, listen, and offer comfort to the person about to die, and of course to the people present with him. If the person is still conscious, confession and Holy Communion will again be offered.
After the death, the priest will serve the first panakhida (memorial service) for the departed right at the place of death.
There is no reason to rush to get a funeral home. There is time for the people present to say their good byes and get adjusted about what happened. As it was normal to hold someone’s hands while they were sick, it is perfectly fine to touch the body after the soul departed it.
A funeral home will most likely take care of preparing the body for the funeral. In some states it is required to engage a funeral director, but which particular services one asks for are not regulated by law. Some funeral homes have their own in-house regulations, but it can widely differ from funeral home to funeral home, and most of the time it can also be negotiated.
To spare doing this at the time of death, where one is more vulnerable and occupied by a grieving mind, it is best to plan this ahead of time, with, for example, a funeral plan.
In planning for the funeral, the following considerations should be observed for an Orthodox funeral:
- Out of deep respect for the creation of God, as that body was created by God Himself, and was the “temple of the Holy Spirit” by Holy Chrismation, the Orthodox Church is not allowing cremation. A funeral with cremains is not possible, and neither is a funeral where it is known that the body will be cremated afterwards.
- It is very common in the U.S. to embalm bodies. Embalming is not the preferred way to treat a body in the Orthodox Church, but it would not be considered a hinderance to an Orthodox funeral. Funeral Home regulations will often prevent having an open casket funeral if the body is not embalmed, but it should be noted clearly that there is no federal or state law that requires embalming. Alternative ways of slowing down the decomposition of the body (refrigeration, dry ice) are preferred.
- Especially if death was sudden, we are often tempted to make up our loss in elaborate outward adornment, specifically the casket. However, for an Orthodox Christian it is far more important to pray for the soul of the deceased. The casket should be simple, and modest, but dignified. A simple wooden pine casket with a cross on the lid is most appropriate. It would be ideal if the lid of the casket can be totally removed during the funeral. The person should be dressed in modest clothing, according to the choice of the relatives.
- A simple cross, a burial shroud and a chaplet that will be put on the deceased after the funeral should be available. Icons of the Savior, the Theotokos, and the patron saint of the deceased are customary put into the casket as well.
It is customary to bring the body to the church, at the latest, the evening before the funeral. The casket is placed in the middle of the church, and the deceased is facing the altar. A panakhida is served and there is an opportunity to visit the deceased. When there is no service, family can participate in psalm reading which will provide a prayerful environment. The psalm reading can continue through the whole night with the deceased remaining in the church until the time of the funeral.
The next morning the funeral service will be held by the priest. The funeral service is a service for the deceased who needs our prayers, and equally for the attendees who will be educated what a Christian life is, and be comforted in their grief with the hope of the general resurrection. A sermon will be held by the priest. A eulogy by family and/or friends is not customary practice at an Orthodox funeral. If this is desired, there is time for this at the grave side after the committal of the body into the earth. At the end of the funeral, the priest will say the prayer of absolution over the deceased and everyone will come forward and give the “last kiss” to the deceased.
After the funeral service we will escort the body to the burial side while singing the Trisagion, “Holy God, Holy Mighty, Holy Immortal have mercy on us!” Pall bearers can be chosen from family and friends.
Arriving at the place of burial, the priest will bless the grave (if it is not an Orthodox Cemetery) and a short burial service is be held. Ideally the casket will still be open at the grave side, so that the priest can anoint the body with oil. If that is not possible the priest will do that at the end of the funeral service in the church. The casket will be then lowered into the grave, and everyone will come forward to give their last respect in form of throwing dirt into the grave. In a traditional setting, if possible, the attendees of the burial will help close the grave while singing hymns of the resurrection. The grave side should be marked with a cross. The position of the casket should be that way that the deceased will be facing the cross on the burial side.
People who have attended an Orthodox funeral can testify that it is one of the most beautiful and rich services that the Orthodox Church offers. It is rich in theology and a bright witness of our faith in the resurrected Christ, the overthrow of eternal death, and the hope of the general resurrection. It reinforces that death will not separate us from our deceased, and that as we cared for them in their lifetime, we also care for them in their death, while our brethren are now waiting as planted seed of wheat in the ground, to be reunited in soul and body.