Death, Funeral, Requiem -- Orthodox Christian Traditions, Customs and Practice

Archpriest Victor Sokolov

Death is something that awaits all of us and yet we often wish to avoid thinking about it. As Christians, we understand earthly death as a gateway to life eternal. Preparing ourselves spiritually and making practical arrangements in advance for our funeral is very important. Here is some practical information about Orthodox rites and funeral planning.

Why Funeral Planning is Important

Funeral planning helps ease the pain. By planning now, you can relieve stress and take away some burden on family and friends later.

The Basic Funeral Question

One of the most basic decisions in funeral planning is what to do with the body. However, for the Orthodox Christian there is no choice: according to the Holy Canons of the Church, the body of a deceased Christian must be returned to the earth. Cremation is specifically forbidden. The body is placed in a casket and set in a grave. It is necessary to have a cemetery plot, a grave liner or vault (if required by law), and a marker or monument with the image of the Cross.

Organ Donation

There is nothing in our Church's doctrine prohibiting the donation of needed organs after a person's death. On the contrary, the Lord enthusiastically approves the laying down of one's life for his friends (John 15:13). He would surely welcome the sharing of organs no longer needed with those whose lives could be prolonged and saved. At the Department of Motor Vehicles, they have special Organ Donor cards which are signed in the presence of a witness and carried in your wallet or purse.

Orthodox Burial Rites

The mystery, the human anguish, the sense of loss, the desire for continued communion... these things have from antiquity found their ritualized form of expression in each culture and age. Some of these expressions have been sanctified in the liturgical life of the Church. One needs only to call to mind the Church's orderly way of visiting the graves of the departed (St. Thomas Sunday, the Day of Rejoicing) and how we remember them liturgically.

Orthodox liturgical rites for the dying, the burial of the dead, and the remembrance of the dead include the following:

Funeral Service in the Church

The Blessing of the Cross at the Grave

Since pre-Christian times, it has been customary to mark the place of burial by the erection of a grave mound. The Christian Church has adopted this tradition, beatifying the grave mound with the victorious sign of our salvation -- the Holy Life-giving Cross, which may be depicted on a gravestone or elevated over it. The cross on the grave mound is placed at the feet of the buried Christian, so that he will be facing the Crucifix.

When the monument is placed on the grave, the relatives of the departed invite the parish priest to the cemetery for The Rite of Blessing of the Cross.

Other Questions

Again, there are many questions and problems which the relatives of the departed may face. For example, they may like to have flowers specially arranged; to have a guest book; acknowledgment cards; prayer cards; to arrange a memorial meal, etc. Whenever these question arise, feel free to ask the funeral director and/or your parish priest: they understand how you feel and will do everything possible to ease your burden.

They will advise you on gifts or donations that you may give on behalf of the deceased: it is always a good idea to commemorate the conclusion of the earthly journey of a believer by making a memorial donation to his or her church.

-Fr. Victor Sokolov

[This article is Copyright © Archpriest Victor Sokolov and is used on with permission.]

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Modified 5/17/97 -