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An Easy Guide to Orthodox Funeral Traditions

Orthodox funeral traditions are deeply rooted in religious beliefs and are filled with love, reverence, and respect for the departed. Some traditions may differ among different Orthodox variations – such as Greek Orthodox funerals or Serbian Orthodox funerals however, many core themes remain the same.

Above all, Orthodox funeral traditions reflect the Orthodox Christian view of death as a transition to the afterlife and emphasise the importance of honouring the departed with sacred rituals.

Orthodox funeral traditions

Before Death

When an individual of Orthodox faith approaches their final moments, a priest is summoned. This allows the person to partake in Holy Communion and have their final confession heard before passing on.

The ‘First Panikhida’

A significant Orthodox funeral tradition is the ‘First Panikhida’, also referred to as the ‘First Memorial Service.’

This ritual takes place immediately after an individual’s passing, typically at the place where the death occurred. It marks the beginning of the mourning process and involves offering prayers for the soul of the departed. It is often conducted by a priest or occasionally a family member.

During the first Panikhida, prayers, and psalms are recited, requesting God for mercy and comfort for the departed. This observance is a reminder of the Orthodox belief in the power of prayer and of God's love and mercy.

Preparation of the Body

In Orthodox funerals, the preparation of the body holds deep spiritual significance. Preparation begins with gently washing the body, a symbolic act of purification and respect for the departed. This ritual is commonly carried out in the presence of a priest, with the participation of family and close friends.

The deceased will then be dressed in respectful attire. The choice of burial attire and items placed in the coffin or casket often varies from one Orthodox community to another, however, some Orthodox Christians adopt the practice of preparing a white garment for their own burial.

Following the dressing, the priest will sprinkle holy water onto all four sides of the coffin before gently placing the deceased inside.

Icons hold a significant place in Orthodox funeral traditions. It is a common practice to place icons of the Savior, the Theotokos (the Virgin Mary), and the patron saint of the departed individual inside the coffin or casket.

Orthodox Funeral Service

An Orthodox funeral service often begins with a procession, during which the coffin or casket is carried into the church by family members, friends, or pallbearers. With a censer (otherwise known as an incense burner) in hand, a priest will guide the mourners to the church, reciting the Trisagion Hymn as they move forward.

When mourners enter the church, they are typically provided with lit candles, and it is customary to keep these candles lit throughout the funeral service. This act symbolises the light of Christ, representing hope and salvation in Orthodox belief.

Throughout the service, the priest takes the lead in conducting the Divine Liturgy, offering prayers, leading the Dismissal (the final blessing), and reciting the "Memory Eternal" prayer.

Orthodox funerals

The Last Kiss

In Orthodox funeral traditions, it is customary to have an open casket. This allows mourners to pay their respects to the deceased and offer their final farewells.

The casket remains open until a point in the service known as the "Last Kiss". This is a symbolic farewell, during which the mourners are encouraged to come forward and place a kiss on the departed, choosing to either kiss the icon or cross in the casket.

Orthodox Burial

In Orthodox tradition, it is prohibited to have a cremation. The deceased should always be buried. At the graveside, the priest performs a brief Trisagion or delivers the final committal prayers, and then the coffin is gently lowered into the grave.

A cross is placed at the graveside as a marker and the casket is typically positioned so that the deceased is facing the cross on the burial site.

Orthodox funerals

The Makaria (Mercy Meal)

Another significant Orthodox funeral tradition is the Makaria, also known as the ‘’Mercy Meal.’’ This takes place after the funeral and burial service. This meal serves as an opportunity for family and friends to come together to share food and offer comfort and support to one another during a time of mourning. During this gathering, it is customary to serve fish because of its scriptural significance.

Having served our local communities for over 130 years, our funeral directors have extensive knowledge and experience in delivering culturally specific funerals such as Orthodox Greek, Macedonian, Serbian, and Russian along with Hindu, Islamic, Buddhist, and the more traditional Christian and non-denominational styles of funerals.

You can learn more about our religious and cultural funeral services here.

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