During the course of my work as a parish priest, I always hear much discussion about the Orthodox Rite of Burial. Outsiders who attend our funeral Services constantly raise questions and comments about the practices which they observe to be distinctly different from those common in the churches with which they are familiar. Orthodox themselves, particularly those of the younger generations, frequently raise questions as to why things must be as they are. Some Orthodox say that they find our funeral practices meaningless and even distasteful. An article by an Orthodox author published in Pravda, but excerpted from the “Church Messenger,” stated that much of contemporary Orthodox burial practice is a throwback to the ways of ancient paganism.
That which follows will be an attempt on my part to answer these questions and criticisms. It will be an endeavor to illustrate the view that an inner, deeply Christian logic stands behind our present Rite of Burial, and that what we perform as the Liturgy of Burial for one of the members of the Church is, and indeed must always be, an external expression of the Church’s internal beliefs and Faith.
Pattern Behind All Liturgy
“Death is swallowed up in victory. [. . .] If Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain” (I Corinthians 15:54, 14), writes St. Paul. “Christ is risen!” we exclaim at Easter. This fact, the Resurrection of Christ from the dead, is the central point of the Christian “Good News” and the cardinal proclamation of the liturgy of the Orthodox Church. All of our services are permeated by this sense of the celebration of Christ’s Resurrection. The celebration and glorification of this event, as well as our own integration into it, form the inner pattern around which the entire liturgical life of the Church unfolds. The Burial Service is no exception to this pattern.
During the course of this wonderful service the whole of the Orthodox view concerning man, his origin and ultimate destiny is imparted to the community gathered. A multitude of themes is opened. One hears of Paradise and the original beauty and calling of man before God. The Fall of man and the power of sin and death are related. Deliverance is shown to come through Christ by His Death and Resurrection. Yet, the themes can be quickly reduced to two: death and life.
The Rite of Burial exposes the character of death in all its realism. The fact of death is not avoided, brushed casually aside in the philosophy of “Positive Thinking,” or poetically explained away. Death is seen as the final enemy and the greatest tragedy to confront man. It is that which is prefigured in all of man’s illnesses and sufferings. It snuffs out his life and potential. It shatters the notion of man being created in the image of God, Who is the abundance of life. The inner reasoning of the service does not forget certain tragic moments from the ministry of Christ, e.g., when He, being the “Resurrection and the Life” and having full knowledge that He would soon raise His dead friend, Lazarus, still wept before his tomb (John 11:25 and 35); or at a later time, when He, being fully conscious of Himself as the Son of God, still prayed in Gethsemane that the cup of His own Passion and Death might be removed (Luke 22:39‑44). He who is full of life wept and shuddered before the ominous tragedy of Death.
In this very same sense, St. John Damascene, a devout believer with full faith in the Resurrection, unflinchingly conveys his feelings toward death in one of the hymns, which he composed and which are used in the Burial Service:
I weep and I lament, when I contemplate death, and see our beauty, fashioned after the image of God, lying in the tomb disfigured, dishonored, bereft of form (Verse in Tone 8).
The service is replete with many other hymns, which speak in the same, direct manner concerning the catastrophe of death.
What is our life like unto? Unto a flower, a vapor, and the dew of the morning, in very truth. Come, therefore, let us gaze keenly at the grave. Where is the beauty of the body, and where its youth? Where are the eyes and the fleshly form? Like the grass all have perished, all have been destroyed. Come, therefore, let us prostrate ourselves at the feet of Christ with tears (Verse in Tone 2).
During the course of the service the deceased lies in the center of the church facing the Altar. For the last time during this earthly existence he is in the midst of the congregation, in the open, familial atmosphere of the church, for the offering of praise to God. As a direct extension of the realistic approach toward death, as well as the above‑described open, familial atmosphere of the church, the coffin in which the deceased reposes is generally open, so that his body is in full view.
Many of the hymns of the service, like the one quoted earlier, refer to the “disfigured, dishonored, bereft” form of the deceased man. This reference is to be applied not only to the man’s nonfunctioning body. It refers to the whole of man. In his wholeness, man is the unity of soul and body. Death is the ultimate tragedy precisely because it destroys the whole man, not just his body. In death man’s body becomes a lifeless corpse, and his soul a bodiless ghost. In effecting this breakdown of man as he really is, as he was created by God, death becomes the greatest sign of man’s separation from God.
Therefore as sin came into the world through one man and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all men sinned (Romans 5:12).
Separated from God by sin, man stands under the dominance of death and disintegrates. In these sober and realistic categories, the Orthodox Burial Service reveals the character of death.
This open appraisal of death becomes the springboard for the true appreciation of the victory of Life accomplished by Christ’s Death and Resurrection. The great tragedy must be known before the mighty power behind the triumph can be realized. Christ shattered death by initially dying Himself, by entering into the very depths of death, by “trampling down death by death.” He who resurrected is He who was first within the tomb. But even within the tomb, Christ was the “sleeping lion” who made Hell shudder. Even in His death, the power of His Resurrection began to shine forth.
In a similar manner the light of the Resurrection begins to shine through during the Rite of Burial for the deceased Christian. The order of the service is that of a Matins, the same resurrectional type used on Sundays throughout the year as well as on Great and Holy Saturday, the day when Christ Himself reposed in the tomb. During the service the clergy wear light‑colored vestments. The external actions of the service are dominated by an abundance of liturgical expressions typically used by the Orthodox Church as signs of the victorious presence of the Risen Christ, e.g., open lights, many burning candles, in some places held by the faithful, and the continuous usage of incense. These are the same external actions that characterize the Resurrectional Matins of Easter. The body of the deceased in particular is repeatedly censed. This is a sign that “the redemption of our bodies” (Romans 8:23) has already begun. The deceased is a baptized, chrismated and communing member of the Body of Christ. Sacramentally, his whole substance, soul and body, is permeated by Him who, having risen, is “the first fruits of all those who have fallen asleep” (I Corinthians 15:20).
The Usage of Scripture
A large portion of the text of the service is occupied by Psalm 119, the psalm in praise of the Law of God. It is unfortunate that in some places even the usage of a small portion of the psalm is omitted. The psalm is designed to play an essential part in the structure of the service. It conveys the principle that the love of the Law of God is the love of and obedience to Him in whom this Law is completely fulfilled — Christ. Love and obedience to Christ is, ultimately, deliverance from the sting of death. This principle is supported by the Gospel text, John 5:24‑30, which is read at the service. It says: “He who hears My word and believes Him who sent Me, has eternal life” (John 5:24).
The hope that is engendered through Christ’s Resurrection is strongly emphasized in the Epistle lesson (I Thessalonians 4:13‑17) read at the service: “… that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope” (I Thessalonians 4:13). The “funeral dirge,” or song of lamentation for the Burial Service, is the chanting of “Alleluia,” as is pointed out in the Kontakion. “Alleluia” is an ecstatic Hebrew word meaning: “Praise be to God!” In this case, it praises and glorifies the presence of Christ — the deliverance that comes even into death.
The destiny of all Christians is revealed in the Burial Service. The pattern for this destiny is the experience of Christ Himself. He came to death in all its power and tragedy, yet shattered it from within by His Resurrection. In the same way the individual Christian, living in communion with Christ who is the Resurrection and the Life, must still come to death in all its destruction and vanity. But he already possesses the token of his deliverance:
Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into His death? [. . .] If we have been united with Him in a death like His, we shall certainly be united with Him in a resurrection like His” (Romans 6:3, 5).
The Orthodox Church, November 1970