“When we wish to emphasize the impor- tance of something, we say that it is a matter of life and death. A matter of primary importance for those of us who believe in heav- en and hell – perhaps even the most important – is our departure from the world and the life after death. After we are born, the only thing we can take for granted is that at some point we will die. In Holy Scripture, death is calledthe way of all the earth (3 Kingd. 2:2) because it is the road which we will all travel. All of us, therefore, must contemplate our death and pre- pare to encounter it.” (Be Ready: An Approach to the Mystery of Death, Hieromonk Gregorios, Newrome Press)
Any parishioner in good standing with the Orthodox Church is entitled to a funeral service. An Orthodox Christian whose will expressly states a desire to be cremated may not have a funeral in the church.
When an Orthodox Christian’s death is inevitable, yet still conscious and in his right mind, a priest should be called so that the appropriate prayers may be said. This includes final Holy Confession, reception of Holy Communion, and the Prayers of the Parting of the Soul from the Body.
If the priest is not present at death he should be called, before the body is transported, so that he may come to say a Trisagion for the Dead at the bedside of the reposed.
Typically, following death the body of the deceased is transported to a funeral home for final preparations.
While surgical embalming is widely practiced in the United States, it is not an Orthodox practice, and should be avoided. Embalming involves opening the body and draining bodily fluids, which are replaced with formaldehyde-based chemicals through the arteries. Rather than treating the body as a temple of the Holy Spirit, it handles the body as something to be suctioned, plugged, stapled, painted, and put on display. Know your rights—embalming is not required by state law unless the body is being transported for burial across state lines.
Cosmetic embalming involves washing the deceased’s hair, applying makeup, and clothing the body. It is preferable if makeup is not used, since it creates a false impression that the person is not dead. Viewing the dead has a didactic purpose, as St. Kosmas Aitolos advised, “Have everyone gather around it [the reposed], including the children, and consider it well, because death is the best teacher.”
The evening before the Service for the Burial of the Dead is chanted, the family may choose to invite family and friends to the Funeral Home for a Viewing / Wake. In such cases, the priest is invited to chant the Trisagion for the Dead at the funeral home.
The Service for the Burial of the Dead emphasizes the reality of death and invites those gathered to consider the mystery before them. “What is this mystery which has happened to us? How have we been handed over to corruption, and yoked with death?” (Hymn from the Funeral Service)
The service includes prayers for the forgiveness and eternal repose of the departed's soul. Priests vest in white to remind those gathered of our Lord’s Resurrection, which has conquered eternal death. Funerals take place within the Church.
The funeral begins outside the Church where the priest meets the deceased and any family members. Chanting Holy God, Holy Mighty, Holy Immortal, he leads them into the Church for the service. The family sits in the front rows.
The open casket is arranged so that the deceased faces eastward towards the Holy Altar—the traditional orientation of prayer in the Orthodox Church— since For as the lightning flashes from the east and is seen even to the west, this is how the coming of the Son of Man will be. (Matthew 24: 27) The priest leads those gathered in the chanting of Psalms, hymns, the reading of Holy Scripture, and the recitation of prayers, asking God to give rest to the departed’s soul and forgive his sins. The funeral service does not include a eulogy, but rather a teaching sermon on the Resurrection and the Last Judgment.
At the end of the service, the priest invites those gathered to offer a final kiss to their departed loved one. Following this the priest pours oil and dirt on the body in the form of a cross. The casket is closed and the service ends.
Following the funeral service, the funeral home transports the deceased to the cemetery where the mourners will gather for the internment. At the grave, the priest says the Trisagion for the Dead for the last time. Family members may stay and witness the lowering of the casket if they desire.
It is a common custom for Orthodox Christian mourners to share a meal following the funeral service, called a “Makaria," to celebrate the life of the deceased. It provides an opportunity for the relatives and friends to gather in honor and memory of their loved one. Traditionally fish is served, in remembrance of the meal our Lord shared with His disciples following His Resurrection. (See John 21:9-13)
The Church considers the cremation of the body to be the deliberate desecration and destruction of the Temple of the Holy Spirit. The Church does not grant funerals, either in the Church, at the funeral home, or at any other place, to persons who have chosen to be cremated. Additionally, memorial services with kollyva (boiled wheat) are not allowed for those who have been cremated.
According to the Canons of the Orthodox Church, a funeral may not be celebrated for a person who has intentionally taken their life. The Church understands suicide as a rejection of God's gift of physical life, a failure of stewardship, an act of despair, and a transgression of the sixth commandment, You shall not kill (Exodus 20:13). However, suicide is a complicated issue, since it is often not an act of spite against the Creator, but an act of desperation and response to emotional pain and suffering caused by psychological conditions beyond the control of the individual. Since every case is unique, the priest must be consulted for his pastoral guidance in such situations.
The issue of organ donation is a difficult one, specifically concerning the tension that exists between what the Lord teaches in John 15:13, No one has a greater love than this: that someone would lay down his life for his friends and St. Paul’s counsel in 1 Corinthians 3:16-17, Do you not know that you are a sanctuary of God, and that God’s Spirit lives in you? If anyone destroys God’s sanctuary, God will destroy him because God’s sanctuary is holy, and this is what you are!
While helping others in need is commendable, is it not a desecration of the body to cut it up into parts following death? These are difficult questions, and the Church has not made any definitive judgments on the topic. Therefore, each person must carefully consider, according to their conscience, what they believe to be the best course of action in consultation with their Spiritual Father. That being said, the following guidelines must be followed:
No one should be coerced into donating their organs, or the organs of a loved one. Every donation must be preceded by an verification of the clear intent of the donor—without clear intent, no donation may be made.
No one should endanger their own lives by making a donation. In other words, any donation that involves vital organs that may hasten the death of the donor is disallowed.
No faithful Orthodox Christian should be condemned for choosing not to be an organ donor.
Except in the case of a living donation of a kidney, it should be noted that donors are not permitted to specify the usable parameters of their donation.