Blessed Repose

"The Descent into Hades" - a detail of a painting of the Eastern Orthodox faith depicting Jesus.

As Orthodox Christians, we pray for the blessed repose of the soul of a recently departed loved one. In order to understand this, we need to understand everlasting life of an Orthodox Christian begins with his/her earthly life. We must nourish our spirit as well as our body – for there is a co-existence of our body and soul.

When the human body does, in fact, die; the human soul never dies. The only question is whether the soul will live eternally with Christ, “unto the resurrection of life” or “unto the resurrection of damnation.” This will be decided by God’s Judgment when the body and soul are separated – separated immediately at the moment of our earthly passings.

Death comes suddenly – whether or not we wish to believe this. For the righteous, death is a blessing; for it is a threshold leading to the gate where there is no pain, no suffering, and where there is a promise of eternal life with our Heavenly Father in blessed repose.

Blessed Repose- The Viewing, Funeral, & Burial

It is customary to have an open casket for viewing in the Eastern Orthodox Church. So too is it the custom to have the casket opened during the funeral service. There are instances wherein having an open casket is not possible. In that event, unless it be for the health and welfare of the public, the Priest should provide the final blessing privately.

We realize that the pain and sense of loss can be overwhelming even in the most positive situations. The Eastern Orthodox Church, through its customs, traditions, practices, and rituals offers the remaining loved ones a solid foundation to deal with grief and the reality of death. The belief in eternal life is so profound in the Eastern Orthodox Community, for it is the belief the deceased is alive with God.

For the purposes of continuing with the Customs, Traditions, and Practices in the Eastern Orthodox Church as they pertain to the wake for the recently departed, the first decision to be made by the person doing their Advanced Planning or for the family making arrangements at the time of death is “Do you wish to have the public viewing (wake) in the funeral home or in the Church?” Again, this is a personal decision to be made by you (the consumer) and not the funeral home!

In order to afford you the opportunity to make an informed personal decision, I shall present the process in each instance as it relates to Eastern Orthodox Theology. Do know that there may be minor deviations to the process I shall present by various Eastern Orthodox Jurisdictions, so it is imperative you (or your family) discuss the exact process and procedures to be followed with your parish Priest.

Viewing at the Funeral Home

With the casket now open, an Orthodox Cross is placed in the back head panel of the casket symbolic and a personal reminder of Christ’s personal sacrifice for our sins. Additionally, an Icon of the Resurrection of our Lord and Savior is either positioned adjacent to the hands of the recently departed or displayed in a prominent place near the deceased where the Icon will be reverenced by all in attendance. Many funeral homes display various icons for this purpose, unaware that the only applicable icon for this occasion is that of the Resurrection of Our Lord and Savior. The depiction on the Resurrection of Our Lord and Savior icon states – “The Decent into Hades” and oftentimes is unnerving to those who are unaware of its significance in the Eastern Orthodox Church. (I shall soon produce interviews I have had with several Eastern Orthodox Clergy vis-à-vis the Icon of the Resurrection and its true meaning to Orthodox Christians).

The obituary should indicate the hours of viewing (visitation) for the wake. The family should plan to arrive 30-45 minutes prior the public notice of the visiting hours, in order to have their personal time with the deceased prior to the arrival of visitors. If possible, the Priest will conduct a Trisagion Service prior to the commencement of the public wake – a prayer service of the three Holies – “Holy God, Holy Mighty, Holy Immortal, have Mercy of Us!”

With the onset of the visiting hours, family, friends and associates will have the opportunity to express their sympathies to you for the loss of your loved one. Being given the opportunity to do so is very important for all concerned. With each person’s presence and comments, the family’s acceptance of the fact that their loved one has now departed their earthly life for a new life with God, provides a solid foundation for acceptance of this fact. In addition, their presence provides them the opportunity to let you know they care, while affording them the opportunity to express this to you. Ultimately the presence of family and friends at the visitation enables you (the family) as well as the visitors to walk this very difficult path together in unison – at a time when a hug, a kiss, and comforting words are so needed.

Near the conclusion of the visiting hours, the Priest will generally perform a 2nd Trisagion Service – this time in the presence of the family and the public.

The following day (the day of the funeral), the family may return to the funeral home and proceed in procession to the Church for the funeral, or the family may go directly to the Church where their loved one will be taken directly by the funeral home staff and the funeral service will commence.

Viewing at the Church

As mentioned earlier concerning visitation trends in the Eastern Orthodox Church, having the wake in the Church is becoming more common and extremely well received by churches, parishioners, and the public at large.

What I shall now present are the processes and procedures to be followed when the wake is to be held in an Eastern Orthodox Church.  Do know that there may be minor deviations to the process I shall present by various Eastern Orthodox Jurisdictions, so it is imperative you (or your family) discuss the exact process and procedures to be followed with your parish Priest.

With visitation scheduled to be conducted in the church, the funeral home staff will transport the deceased to the church 45-60 minutes prior to the commencement of the public visiting hours. The Priest will generally greet the deceased in the Narthex of the Church and lead the casket to the front of the church censoring the casket during this process. The funeral home staff will guide the casket along during this procedure with NO funeral home staff between the Priest and the casket. The casket is immediately positioned north/south with the head to the north and the foot to the south, thereby allowing the public to witness the splendor of the arrangement as the deceased is positioned in front of the Iconostasis.

With the casket now open, an Orthodox Cross is placed in the back head panel of the casket symbolic and a personal reminder of Christ’s personal sacrifice for our sins. Additionally, an Icon of the Resurrection of our Lord and Savior is either positioned adjacent to the hands of the recently departed or displayed in a prominent place near the deceased where the Icon will be reverenced by all in attendance. Many funeral homes display various icons for this purpose, unaware that the only applicable icon for this occasion is that of the Resurrection of Our Lord and Savior. The depiction on the Resurrection of Our Lord and Savior icon states – “The Decent into Hades!”

The obituary should indicate the hours of viewing (visitation) for the wake. The family should plan to arrive 30-45 minutes prior the public notice of the visiting hours, in order to have their personal time with the deceased prior to the arrival of visitors. If possible, the Priest will conduct a Trisagion Service prior to the commencement of the public wake – a prayer service of the three  Holies – “Holy God, Holy Mighty, Holy Immortal, have Mercy of Us!”

As the family enters the church, it is customary in the Eastern Orthodox Church to light candles. We light them as we offer prayers to God, in this case for the soul of the recently departed. As the candles are lit, the individual lighting the candle(s) stands momentarily in prayer. In comparison to the funeral home, walking into an Eastern Orthodox Church, one experiences the fact that you are walking into a “holy place” – a sense of the power and presence of God! As one Orthodox theologian expressed to me, “Mr. Haddad, entering an Orthodox Church is to leave the world outside, to abandon time, and to enter God’s Time. You leave your temporal existence for the eternal.”

As family and friends arrive at the Church for the wake (visitation), they are asked to sign the register book, asked if they wish to light a candle and/or venerate an icon, after which they are directed to the front of the Church where they may approach the deceased, say a prayer, reverence the Icon of the Resurrection, and step down and be greeted by the family.

As an aside, all must understand “Icons are windows into heaven” and must be respected and reverenced accordingly. That means women should remove lipstick, and when kissing an icon always avoid putting your lips on the face of the icon. It is appropriate to kiss the hand, foot, or clothing depicted on the Icon.

It is imperative that an individual visiting an Orthodox Church on the occasion of a wake for a recently departed be reminded that the church is a place of worship, where respect for the dignity of the recently departed is paramount. Therefore we all must remember that excessive conversation, laughter, and noise must be avoided while in God’s House. The Orthodox Church realizes that with the passing of a loved one, family and friends travel great distances to be with and console one another. It also is a time whereby family and friends reunite after years of separation. As such, each Orthodox Church has a hall whereby conversations of this nature can take place outside the confines of the church worship area.

Near the conclusion of the visiting hours, the Priest will generally perform a 2nd Trisagion Service – this time in the presence of the family and the public. At the conclusion of the visiting hours, those remaining will generally be invited into the church hall for light refreshments.  Dismissal will begin from the rear of the church forward, with the family being the last ones at the casket of their departed loved one. Once all family and friends have departed the church and proceeded into the Church Hall, the funeral staff will transport the deceased back to the funeral home.

Why not leave the deceased in the Church overnight, you ask?  Quite frankly, there is a liability factor for both the Church as well as the funeral home in the event there was a problem during the absence of someone in authority left to be with the deceased. There have been instances wherein family members wished to remain overnight or a police officer was assigned to remain with the deceased until the next day (day of the funeral). It is highly recommended that the deceased be returned to the funeral home at the conclusion of the visiting hours and transported back the next day for the funeral service.

Day of the Funeral

In recent times, families have asked and been granted permission to have one hour of visitation in the Church prior to the Funeral Service being held. The reason for making this request is to accommodate those who were unable to attend visiting hours the night before. This request has prompted concern in some Eastern Orthodox Churches as tradition in the Orthodox Church is that the casket face east once it is brought into the Church on the day of the funeral. This long standing tradition is based upon the funeral service commencing immediately upon the deceased being brought into Church.

A review of Eastern Orthodox Church customs, traditions, and rituals finds no prohibition for having visiting hours in the Church for an hour before the funeral service, so long as the casket is turned toward the East (with the foot of the casket closest to the Iconostasis and the face of the deceased looking forward and facing east) prior to the commencement of the funeral service. In order to maintain the Eastern Orthodox Tradition on the day of the funeral, no prayers (Trisagion or otherwise) are to be said in Church until the conclusion of the visiting hour and the casket being turned and facing to the East.

Funeral Service

The funeral service in the Eastern Orthodox Church has not changed since its inception and is universally accepted in all jurisdictions. The casket is traditionally opened for the entire service; after which, in most Orthodox churches, those in attendance are invited to pass by the deceased once again for the last kiss. The Priest will then bless the deceased with the earth and oil and have the last kiss before the casket is closed for the last time.

At this point, the casket is turned, the pall bearers asked to come forward, and the Priest leads the procession down the main aisle and outside the Church. The order of the procession is as follows: candle bearer(s), cross bearer, chanter(s), Priest, casket, family, and friends.

(Note: At No time is anyone including funeral home staff to lead the funeral procession into or out of the Church on the day of the funeral. No one including the funeral home staff is to be between the Priest and the casket during the procession into and out of the Church. No one including the funeral home staff is to be between the casket and the family during the procession into and out of the Church).

The Burial

Upon arrival at the cemetery (gravesite), it is the custom in the Eastern Orthodox Church that the Priest leads the procession from the funeral coach to the gravesite followed by the pall bearers carrying the casket, followed by the family and friends. Once at the gravesite, each person in attendance is to be given a flower to hold during the Trisagion Prayers offered by the Priest.

At the conclusion of the Trisagion Prayers, the Priest instructs everyone in attendance to come forward and place the flower they were given onto the top of the casket – the flowers to remain on the casket and to be buried with the deceased prior to the casket being enclosed in the burial vault.

Traditionally after the burial is completed, all are invited to a Meal of Mercy in honor of the deceased normally held in either the Church Hall, a restaurant, or sometimes at the home of the deceased. At this time, attendees are often asked if they wish to relay a story or make an observation concerning the recently departed – after which a family member routinely thanks everyone for their presence, their thoughts, and most importantly their prayers.