Guidelines & Traditions for Orthodox Funerals
Icon: Dormition of the Theotokos
Eligibility for Orthodox Funeral
Any parishioner in good standing with the Orthodox Church is entitled to a funeral service. Orthodox Christians who have expressed in their wills the desire to be cremated may not have a funeral in the church.
After a person dies, notify the priest as soon as possible by calling 860-442-2377. If it is after hours, select the "pastoral emergency" prompt to reach the priest.
The Funeral Service
The Orthodox funeral service emphasizes the reality of death and the new life of the deceased. It is a positive service featuring prayers for forgiveness and repose of the departed's soul. Priests wear white to symbolize the joy of the resurrection. Funerals take place within the Church and are only allowed at a cemetary or mortuary chapel with special permission.
The deceased and the family arrive at the church where the priest begins the service by meeting the family, friends, and casket at the front door of the church. Chanting, he leads them into the sanctuary for the service. Guests waiting outside enter the church and sign a guest book in the narthex. The family sits in the front row before the icon of Christ in the iconostasion.
The open casket is arranged so that he eyes of the deceased look east towards the altar, the direction for which Christ will rise again. The priest leads the bereaved in hymns, scripture, readings and prayers, asking God to give rest to the departed soul and forgive all sins. The priest then invites the visitors to "Come and kiss (pay respects) the one that was with us a short time ago."
Because we understand that the we are created as icons of God, and the body is the temple of the Holy Spirit, and that we believe in the resurrection of the dead, the casket is to remain open. Only when a situation is deemed extraordinary or unsafe can the casket remain closed.
The celebrant will offer a sermon as part of the service, focusing on the teaching and compassion of the Church and some of the lessons that the deceased gave us to be closer to Christ. In the church, no additional songs, eulogies, or ceremonies take place, as the church is consecrated for specific services. Any additional tributes (which are not required at any time) should be at the lunch, the funeral home, the home, and/or in the announcements. While the family can usually offer a better biography than the celebrant of the service, the purpose of the sermon is not to be primarily a biography or a tribute. Rather, the celebrant is to be the mouthpiece of the faithful regarding the worship of the Lord and the belief in the resurrection of Christ and for all. Loved ones are always encouraged to share with the priest the biography through which the Christ-like qualities of the person can be remembered in the sermon.
To conclude, the priest pours oil and dirt on the body in the form of a cross, saying, "Wash me with hyssop and I shall be pure, cleanse me and I shall be whiter than snow." The casket is closed and the service ends.
The funeral home transports the deceased and the immediate family to the cemetery. The priest again says the Trisagion service for the last time. Family members may stay and witness the lowering of the casket if they desire.
Makaria (Mercy Meal)
Mourners share a meal called a "Makaria" to celebrate the life of the deceased. It provides an opportunity for the relatives and friends to refresh themselves and remember their loved one in an informal setting. Traditionally, fish is served to remind participants of the resurrection of Christ, since Christ ate fish after he was raised from the dead. "And while they still disbelieved for joy, and wondered, he said to them, “Have you anything here to eat?” They gave him a piece of broiled fish, 43 and he took it and ate before them." (Luke 24:41-42)
The boiled wheat, known as kollyva, is a symbol of the Resurrection. When speaking of the Resurrection, our Lord said: "Unless the grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone, but if it dies it bears much fruit." (John 12:24)
RELATED ISSUES TO FUNERALS
Because the Orthodox Faith affirms the fundamental goodness of creation, it understands the body to be an integral part of the human person and the temple of the Holy Spirit, and is to share in the resurrection when it reunites with the soul. The Church considers cremation to be the deliberate desecration and destruction of what God has made and ordained for us. The Church does not grant funerals, either in the sanctuary, or at the funeral home, or at any other place, to persons who have chosen to be cremated. Additionally, memorial services with kolyva (boiled wheat) are not allowed in such instances, inasmuch as the similarity between the "kernel of wheat" and the "body" has been intentionally destroyed.
The Orthodox tradition does allow organ donation for those who have chosen to do so. Permission from the next of kin is always obtained prior to the recovery of organs and tissue. Telling your family now that you want to be an organ and tissue donor is the best way to ensure that your wishes are carried out, but please inquire with a doctor whether the specific type of organ donation may affect your ability to have a funeral!
Suicide, the taking of one's own life, is self-murder and as such, a considered a sin. More importantly, it may be evidence of a lack of faith in our loving, forgiving, and sustaining God. If a person has committed suicide because of a belief that: such an action is rationally or ethically defensible, the Orthodox Church denies that person a Church funeral, because such beliefs and actions separate a person from the community of faith. The Church shows compassion, however, on those who have taken their own life because of mental illness, severe emotional stress, or when a physician can verify a condition of impaired rationality.
Important Notes on Scheduling a Funeral
Funeral services are permitted on any day of the year, except for Sunday and Holy Friday, and major Holy Days. If you wish to have a service outside of the church, it will not be a funeral service but rather a simple memorial service. Orthodox services should not be accompanied by other prayer ceremonies offered by different organizations.