The Funeral and Memorial Services
For Christians, the parting of the soul from the body, is a painful but necessary stage in our progress from this life to eternal life with God. The Church honors the mortal remains of each of its members, burying them in the earth to await the second coming of Christ, and prays that God may forgive their sins, have mercy on them, and welcome them into His kingdom. This article describes the liturgical prayers for the departed Christian, as practiced by the Slavic churches that employ the Byzantine Rite.
The liturgical books assume that the burial of a Christian who has died will take place shortly afterwards, generally on the second or third day (counting the day of death as the first day). This was a practical necessity in cultures which did not practice embalming, and made sense when most relatives lived nearby. (Later in this article, we will discuss how the services are used today.)
The family and friends kept watch over the body of the one who has died, often reading or chanting the 150 psalms of the Psalter, together with prayers for the dead. In the morning, the priest would go to the home of the departed, incense the body, and celebrate a short liturgical service, the Small Panachida:
"Blessed is our God...."
introductory prayers (the so-called "Trisagion prayers": Holy God; Most Holy Trinity; etc)
Troparia for the dead ("With the souls of the just brought to perfection...)
Litany for the Deceased
The prayer at the end of the Litany of Supplication is the principal prayer for the dead in the Byzantine tradition:
O God of spirits and of all flesh, you trampled death and broke the power of the devil and granted life to your world. Now grant rest, O Lord, to the soul of your servant (Name) in a place of light, joy, and peace where there is no pain, sorrow, nor mourning. As a good and loving God, forgive every sin committed by them in word, deed, or thought, since there is no one who lives and does not sin. You alone are without sin; your justice is eternal justice; and your word is truth.
For you, O Christ our God, are the resurrection, the life, and the repose of your departed servant (Name), and we give glory to you, together with your eternal Father, and your all-holy, good, and life-creating Spirit, now and ever and forever.
At the end of the service, those present sing a hymn asking God to grant eternal life to the departed, by keeping him or her in mind:
Eternal memory. Eternal memory. Grant, O Lord, to your servant, blessed repose and eternal memory.
Then the body is taken to the church for the burial service.
The Burial Service (Funeral)
In the Byzantine Rite, the funeral service for a Christian bears a great similarity to the Matins service on Great and Holy Saturday, commemorating the Sabbath during which our Lord's body rested in the tomb, awaiting his Resurrection. In this way, the Church shows her basic attitude about death: the Christian's body honorably awaits the Resurrection, as we offer prayers for soul of the one awaiting judgment and the hope of eternal life. The Christian life is death to sin and life with Christ, and this is evident also in the way the Church approaches death.
The body is taken into the church to the singing of the ancient processional hymn, "Holy God". In the presence of the body of the departed, those present sing the burial or funeral service. (See this outline of the funeral service, which also contains a comparison to Matins of Holy Saturday). At the end of the service, the body is taken to the cemetery for burial, where a short graveside service is sung.
In the liturgical book for the funeral services, the Euchologion or Trebnyk, the Divine Liturgy is not celebrated as part of the burial service; instead, it was generally celebrated with special hymns for the departed on the third day (again, counting the day of death as the first), then again on the 9th and 40th days, and on the annual anniversary of the Christian's death.
The Memorial Services, or Parastas
Of course, on the anniversary of the death of a loved one, there may be a desire to celebrate an additional memorial service for the dead; this is especially the case for the five All Souls Saturdays, on which all our departed loved ones are remembered.
For this purpose, the Byzantine Rite provides a memorial service, called the Parastas ("standing service") or Great Panachida ("all-night service"). This service was celebrated as an extended night-time vigil for the dead, and was quite similar to the burial or funeral service (comparison chart):
- those portions of the funeral service that involved the body of the departed are omitted;
- a different canon is sung;
- the concluding parts of the burial service (hymns for the person who has just died, and procession with the body) are replaced with a short memorial service
This short concluding memorial service is exactly the same as the Panachida described above, which is called Short Panachida to distinguish it from the "full Panachida" of which it is simply the conclusion.
In the liturgical books and chant books, the Parastas is listed after the funeral service, since as a memorial for the dead, it is celebrated long after their burial has taken place.
Current Practice for the Funeral and Memorial Services
Over time, it became possible (and sometimes necessary) to delay the burial of a deceased Christian beyond the day after their death. As a result, the sequence of services changed:
- The Panachida was celebrated on the evening of the person's death, or as soon thereafter as possible.
- On each evening until the burial takes place, the Panachida or the Parastas (Great Panachida) is celebrated in the evening.
- On the morning of the burial, the Panachida is celebrated once more in the home or funeral home.
- Then the body is taken to church for the funeral (possibly combined with the Divine Liturgy).
- The body is borne in procession to the cemetery for a graveside service and burial.
Because there is significant overlap between the Parastas and Funeral services, each service was sometimes abbreviated, with parts omitted that had already been celebrated or would be celebrated the next day. This tended to hide the similarities and differences between the two services. Also, new practices such as cremation have had an effect on the funeral services.
The Parastas and (Small) Panachida continue to be celebrated as memorial services, usually after the Divine Liturgy; the Panachida can be found in the Divine Liturgies book on pages 432-440, immediately after the Divine Liturgy propers "for the faithful departed."
More recently, there have been attempts in various Churches to restore the understanding of the funeral service as a real vigil for the departed; to keep the name Parastas for the memorial service celebrated after burial; and (in some cases) to no longer combine the funeral service with the Divine Liturgy, but instead to have the Divine Liturgy celebrated for the departed on another day. (This is especially true when many of those present for the funeral may not receive Holy Communion, and may not even be Christians.) Some ancient prayers for the consolation of mourners have also been restored to the funeral service.
The Funeral Service for a Child
The funeral services for a baptized child who dies before the "age of reason" is much simpler than that for a youth or adult, since the services do not assume that the one who has died has committed serious sins. Instead, the prayers lament their death, and ask for consolation for their family and friends.
Funeral Services during Bright Week
Similarly, funeral services celebrated during Bright Week (the week after Pascha) omit much of the mournful character of an ordinary funeral; a pious tradition states that those who die during Bright Week go straight to heaven. Instead, Paschal hymns and the Paschal Canon are sung. The same applies to the memorial service (Parastas) when celebrated during Bright Week.
Funeral Services for a Priest
Funeral services for a priest are more elaborate, because during life they have borne greater responsibilities, and will be judged accordingly. Instead of the Psalter, the Holy Gospel is read during the nights from the priest's death until his burial. A priest's funeral services take place over several days, and culminate in the burial service, with the body clothed in new vestments for burial.
- Rev. Athanasius Pekar, OSBM. Funeral Services according to the Byzantine-Slavonic Rite (Pittsburgh: Byzantine Seminary Press, 1972).