From the St. Nicholas monthly bulletin…
On the Christian Life
End of Life
We offer the above petition at every major Divine Service in the Orthodox Church (Divine Liturgy, Vespers and Matins), but how much thought have we put into this small petition? Let us consider our lives. We are born, we grow up, and we die. At each major passage we ask the Church’s blessing: at birth – Baptism; when we settle down to raise a family – Matrimony; and when we die – Funeral of Christian Burial. Of these passages, perhaps the last is the most important, and, considering the theme of death in this issue of the Bulletin, it is this one we wish to discuss here. Even the pagan philosophers knew this and said to call no man blessed before his death. Why? Because death summarizes life and completes it.
In any serious illness we should take care to call for the Priest to hear our Confession and give us Holy Communion. We should also ask for Holy Unction: Is any sick among you? let him call for the elders of the church; and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord: And the prayer of faith shall save the sick, and the Lord shall raise him up; and if he have committed sins, they shall be forgiven him (James 5:14–15). Thus, whether we recover or not from our bodily sickness, we have taken care of the needs of our soul, and received strength for that final journey.
When our time comes to die, the Priest can read the Order of Prayer Before the Departure of the Soul from the Body. After we die, it is also desirable to have the Order of Prayer After the Soul Has Departed (the First Pannychida) read over us, and so we shall be accompanied by the prayers of the Church at that awful and dread moment.
The body is then prepared for burial: It is washed and clothed. If at all possible we should avoid embalming because the blood contains the Blood of Christ in Holy Communion, and it should not be poured into an unclean place. If the departed was baptized as an adult, it is desirable for him to be clothed in his baptismal garment as a sign of his faithfulness to the vows of Baptism, otherwise any good set of clothes will do. A Deacon or a Priest is buried in his vestments. The body is then laid out in church, and the Psalter is read over him continuously, day and night, by the faithful in turns, until the service begins. If the departed is a Priest, the Gospel is read over him.
It is appointed to serve the Vigil for the Departed (Vespers and Matins) the night before, and the Divine Liturgy of the Departed on the day of Burial. Thus the Bloodless Sacrifice of the Eucharist (Communion) can be offered on behalf of the departed.
The Funeral Service then follows (Отпѣваніе), in which we offer prayers for the departed and ask for the forgiveness of his sins, and for the mercy of God as he is being judged. Then he is taken for burial preceded by the Cross and censer to the singing of Holy God (the Trisagion). At the cemetery a short Litya is served and the coffin is lowered into the grave with the final prayer: The earth is the Lord’s and the fulness thereof, the compass of the world and they that dwell therein. And the faithful take turns scattering earth on the grave.
After the Burial we pray for the dead especially at the Divine Liturgy, if possible daily, for the forty days counting the day of death as the first. We serve a Pannychida especially on the Third Day, the Ninth Day, and the Fortieth Day, and annually thereafter. When we pray, Memory Eternal, we do not mean that we entrust them to human memory which is short. No, we entrust them to God’s memory which is everlasting.
The foregoing is the ideal state of affairs. Usually death comes on people unexpectedly and so the prayers of the departure are not offered. And rarely does the family of the departed think to ask for the Divine Liturgy, so the usual course of events is that only the Funeral is served, and occasionally a memorial service.
Since some of us have children who have drifted away from the Faith of Christ and from the Orthodox Church, and they might not know what is expected for a Christian ending to life and a proper burial, it is important to have a will in which we spell out in detail what we want done when we die. First of all we desire a Christian burial. And that means that, despite the higher cost of a burial as compared with cremation, we must insist on burial. We must ask in our will and in our instruction to our children and executors, that memorial should be made, and the proper prayers be said.
The Orthodox Church does not permit its members to be cremated. In fact, if the body of the departed is cremated, it is the standing policy of the Church that no funeral, and no memorial whatsoever may be served on account of disobedience to the will of the Church, and on account of the disrespect to the body of the faithful. Why does the Church insist on burial? Because since the Apostolic times cremation was deemed a vile, pagan custom (used by the ancient Romans). And also, the body is the temple of the Holy Spirit, and must be treated with reverence and respect. Indeed the body should be treated as the relic of a Saint, which is what we are supposed to become.
Fr George Lardas