This post highlights funeral practices of the Greek Orthodox Church in general. The actual practices of individual families and congregations may vary.
Greek Orthodox and Other Orthodox Churches
Greek Orthodox funeral traditions have a number of similarities to other Orthodox sects, as well as some significant differences. Other Orthodox Churches include: Antiochian Orthodox, Carpatho-Russian Orthodox, Romanian Orthodox, Russian Orthodox, Serbian Orthodox, and Ukranian Orthodox. The total number of Orthodox adherents in the US is estimated at almost 4.2 million.
Cremation is frowned upon by the Church and can be a cause to deny holding an Orthodox funeral. A wake or viewing may be held at the mortuary the night before the funeral — an appropriate time for eulogies by family or friends, and a priest may hold a Trisagion Service, which includes the singing of hymns and a homily. The body is usually viewed during the funeral.
The Greek Orthodox funeral ceremony is typically held in a church, usually within two to three days of the death (can be up to one week after). The ceremony can last thirty to sixty minutes, and is not part of a larger service. The priest will lead the Trisagion Service, and several books may be used, including The Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom. The casket is open throughout the service with a procession passing the casket to pay last respects to the deceased. Greek Orthodox will not schedule a funeral on a Sunday or on Holy Saturday.
In other Orthodox churches, the officiants at a funeral include a bishop and/or priest, and the deacon, subdeacon, and altar server, all of whom assist the bishop or priest. In most Orthodox churches, only officiating bishops and priests use a text at a funeral ceremony.
In the American Carpatho-Russian Church, the Eucharistic liturgy is often celebrated in addition to the funeral service at the discretion of the family, a ceremony of up to ninety minutes. If there is a Eucharistic liturgy celebrated at a funeral, guests who are not Orthodox do not partake in Holy Communion.
When viewing the body, which is optional but often expected, approach and pause briefly in front of the casket. A Christian might also cross himself or herself and kiss the cross or icon resting on the casket. Greek Orthodox adherents traditionally bow before the casket and kiss an icon or a cross placed on the chest of the deceased.
Traditional Greek Orthodox greetings to the bereaved family are: “May you have an abundant life,” “Memory eternal,” and “May their memory be eternal.” Antiochian Orthodox expressions of sympathy include “May God give you the strength to bear your loss,” and “May his [or her] memory be eternal.”
At graveside, there is a brief prayer ceremony. The officiating priest or bishop usually puts soil on top of the casket formed in the shape of a cross and each person present places one flower on the casket or spreads the soil. The flowers usually come from those sent to the church for the funeral and then conveyed to the cemetery with the casket.
It is appropriate to briefly visit the bereaved at home after the funeral. Religious objects that a visitor may see there are icons (two-dimensional artistic images of saints), a lighted candle, and burning incense.
A “Meal of Mercy,” also called a makaria, is provided by members of the family or the deceased’s congregation. This reception may be held in the church hall, a restaurant, or the home of the deceased shortly after the burial. Antiochian Orthodox Church funeral receptions usually feature coffee, pastries, and/or fruit.
The bereaved usually stays at home from work for one week. In some cases, widows may avoid social events for a full year. Mourners usually avoid social gatherings for the first forty days after the death and may also wear only black clothing during that time period. Greek Orthodox widows may wear black up to two years. A memorial service is held on the Sunday closest to the fortieth day after the death. A memorial service is then held annually on the anniversary of the death.
Father Conan Gill with the St. George Greek Orthodox Church did an interview on A Good Goodbye Radio where he talked these and many other aspects of the church’s funeral traditions. Click to download a free podcast MP3 file of the interview.
You can read a description of a Trisagion Service and Greek Orthodox funeral in the 30 Funerals in 30 Days post about Angelo James Gineris or take a peek at this report from this funeral.
Do’s and Don’ts: Sign the guest book. Ushers will advise where to sit. If arriving late, enter quietly. It is not appropriate to take pictures or record the service (both audio and video). Stand when the congregation stands up and pay your respects to the bereaved family. When viewing the body, which is optional, approach and pause briefly in front of the casket. Greek Orthodox traditionally bow before the casket and kiss an icon or a cross placed on the chest of the deceased. Express your condolences to the family. It is appropriate to briefly visit the bereaved at home after the funeral.
Gifts: Upon learning about the death, telephone, send a card, or visit the family to offer condolences. Traditional Greek Orthodox sayings are “May you have an abundant life” and “May their memory be eternal.” Flowers may be sent, or the family may suggest memorial contributions be made in lieu of flowers. It is not appropriate to send food.
Notes: Funerals may not be scheduled on a Sunday or on Holy Saturday.
This information is included in A Good Goodbye: Funeral Planning for Those Who Don’t Plan to Die by Gail Rubin, author of The Family Plot Blog. The book, which includes funeral traditions for many major faiths, is available in print and ebook formats at Amazon.com, BarnesandNoble.com and at AGoodGoodbye.com.
Please post a comment to let me know if you find this information helpful, or if there are specific details you were looking for that this post did not address.