Strong faith and the support of a spiritual community are what you can expect when attending a Greek funeral service. The Greek Orthodox Church believes death is a sacred experience that the funeral offers time for spiritual reflection, expressing emotions, and giving praise while grieving.
Greek Orthodox Beliefs About Death and Dying
The Greek Orthodox believe that when an individual dies, the soul and body are separated. The body is returned to the earth and decomposes but is not lost to the soul. The soul does not "return" to heaven, it meets God for the first time and awaits the body's resurrection.
Body and Soul Are One
The Greek Orthodox church teaches that soul and body are created together at conception. Though separated at death, at the second coming of Christ, the body will be resurrected, spiritualized, and united with the soul to live together eternally in God's kingdom. This is why those of the Greek Orthodox faith do not cremate the bodies of their loved ones.
In the past, it was the practice of the Greek Orthodox Church for family members to prepare the body, by bathing and clothing it immediately after death. The body was then laid in bed and blessed by the priest in attendance with holy water. The priest would then lead a prayer service called the Panikhida. This began a three-day wake when family and friends stayed at the reposed body's side and recited the Book of Psalms.
Modern-day families may opt to have the funeral home prepare the body for the funeral. A wake is held before the funeral. Loved ones and friends are invited to give a eulogy and a priest presides over the Trisagion (Thrice-Holy) service.
Before a Greek Orthodox funeral is held, a brief Trisagion prayer service is chanted for the family usually on the day before the funeral. This service begins with the prayer, "Holy God, Holy Mighty, Holy Immortal, have mercy on us," repeated three times. The prayer is followed by the chanting of four hymns that ask God to give rest to the deceased. The language of the Trisagion is poetic, and the litany that follows speaks words of comfort related to scripture. The Trisagion service is ended with the singing of, "May your memory be eternal." The funeral service follows the next day.
The Greek Orthodox Funeral Service
Greek Orthodox funeral services are longer than average, lasting about 90 minutes. The service is chanted and continues the poetic imagery of the Trisagion service. The deceased may be referred to as one who is in repose or asleep. The readings, prayers, and hymns create a dramatic dialogue between those in attendance and God. The funeral service acknowledges the reality of human existence. It directs the hearts and minds of those in attendance to contemplate the blessings of God's kingdom and invokes the mercy of "Almighty God" for the departed.
Chanting of Psalm 119
The funeral service begins with the chanting of the Amomos, Greek for blameless. The first words of Psalm 119 are, "Blessed are those whose way is blameless, who walk in the law of the Lord." After the Amomos, a short litany is said with petitions for the departed.
Funeral Praises: Evlogetaria
After the chanting of Psalm 119 is the Evlogetaria. These are hymns of praise that have theological content and are solemnly chanted. Each Evlogetaria is preceded by Psalm 119:12, "Blessed are You, O Lord, teach me Your statutes."
After the Evlogetaria, the Kontakion is chanted: "With the Saints give rest, O Christ, to your servant's soul where there is no pain, nor sorrow, nor suffering, but life everlasting." As the hymn is chanted, the priest passes incense over deceased, those in attendance, the alter table, and icons.
Hymns of the Eight Tones
Following the Kontakion's chanting comes hymns that express the mixed emotions of grief and consolation in affirmation of the promise of rest and eternal life for the departed, known as the Idiomela. Each hymn is sung in the order of the eight tones of Byzantine chant.
The service also includes two Scripture lessons that reflect the Church's belief in the reality of the death and resurrection of Christ and the resurrection of the deceased's body to unite with their soul.
Prayers and Dismissal
Following the Scripture readings, the priest repeats an earlier litany and offers a prayer for the deceased's repose. The dismissal prayer once again introduces the hope of the resurrection. After this prayer, those in attendance sing, "May your memory be eternal."
The Kiss of Peace
The final farewell greeting to the deceased follows the dismissal prayer. As the family and others come forward to view the body. Hymns are sung, inviting viewers to offer a kiss to the deceased which is an expression of love and an affirmation that the departed is worthy of fulfilling God's promises.
After the family and others have said their farewells, the priest anoints the deceased with oil and sprinkles the body with earth, saying the words, "to earth you shall return." The casket is then closed, and attendees are invited to greet the family in the front pew and pay their respects.
After the funeral service, the priest, the family, and others proceed to the cemetery. Once there, the priest again chants the Trisagion. Flowers are often passed out during the prayer service at the gravesite. Before the body is lowered into the grave to await the resurrection, the priest usually sprinkles soil, in the shape of a cross, and each person present places one flower on the casket.
Meal of Mercy
A makarina or "Meal of Mercy" is provided by family members or the congregation of deceased. The Meal of Mercy may be held in the church hall, a restaurant, or the deceased's home shortly after the burial.
Greek Orthodox funeral services never take place on Sundays or on Holy Days. However, a special commemoration service is often held on the Sunday following the burial. After the death, it's typical for mourners to avoid gatherings for 40 days and to wear only black clothing during that time. Another memorial service takes place 40 days after death. It's customary to also have memorial services after six months and every year on the burial anniversary.
Dos and Don'ts of a Greek Orthodox Funeral
The following are some dos and don'ts when attending a Greek Orthodox funeral service.
- Women should wear dark, somber clothing. Men should wear dark jackets and ties.
- Make sure to sign the guest book
- Ushers at the service will advise where to sit. If you arrive late, enter quietly.
- Don't take photos or record the service in any way.
- Do stand when the congregation stands and participate.
- Do greet the family and offer condolences.
- Do make a brief visit to the home of the bereaved after the funeral.
Viewing the Body
Viewing the body is optional, but if you do, you should pause in front of the casket. Those of the Greek Orthodox faith traditionally bow and kiss an icon or a cross placed on the deceased's chest.
Acknowledging the Death
Upon learning of the death, it's appropriate to acknowledge the death with a phone call, a card, or visiting the family to offer your condolences. Flowers may be sent , but it's not considered appropriate to send food.
The actual practices of individual Greek families and congregations may vary. However, traditional Greek Orthodox funeral rituals are extremely choreographed and participatory. Those of the Greek Orthodox faith approach death with a strong belief that the body is simply in repose waiting to reunite with its soul and that they will once again meet their loved one in God's Kingdom. Even years after a loved one's death, the family remembers and memorializes their death.