Funerals and Memorials

A pastoral letter by Melkite Bp. Nicholas (Samra)

Prayers for the Sick and for the Dying
anointing of the sickOur Church has a number of prayers and services interceding for the needs of the sick. Whenever a person is sick at home or in the hospital the parish priest should be notified to pray over the sick person, confer the Mystery of Holy Unction, and bring Holy Communion if possible. Family members should not hide their loved one’s sickness from the priest and deprive their loved one of the Church’s prayers out of a distorted sense of family pride. The priest is called to care for the sick and dying; it is one of his tasks as priestly mediator and is motivated by divine charity. It is not an inconvenience for him to visit the sick.

If family members are told that their loved one is near death, they should inform the priest at once so that he can offer the Prayers for the Departure of the Soul from the Body, sanctifying the last moments of the sick person’s earthly life.

The Funeral Proper
In the Eastern Churches the funeral service is basically a procession in which we accompany with prayer the body of the departed from the place of death to the grave. This represents the journey which the believer’s spirit takes to God. The prayers and hymns which accompany the departed on this journey speak to us of our creation in God’s image, the fall, and our consequent need for repentance in order to achieve the end which God has in mind for us: eternal life with Him.

In the past, when most people died at home, the funeral began there with the Trisagion Service, moved on to the church for the funeral service proper, and then processed to the grave for the interment.

Over the past century, as more and more people died in hospitals, and funeral parlors came to be the ordinary place for the preparation and viewing of the remains of their dead, the journey has generally gone from the funeral parlor to the church to the cemetery.

Sometimes, out of dislike for mourning, people try to eliminate anything other than the briefest service in the funeral parlor, leaving the disposition of the body to the funeral director to arrange out of sight. This is another way in which people who see bodily death as the end of existence seek to avoid facing that end. Christians, who believe in eternal life, while lamenting bodily death, do not see death as our final end. As Christians we must proclaim the reality of death and the fact that our true and eternal life is in Christ. We should resist attempts of unbelieving relatives or friends to avoid confronting death and the Gospel’s faith in the resurrection as proclaimed in the funeral service.

Trisagion in the Funeral Parlor
The viewing is first of all an occasion for prayer, not for socializing. The time spent in the presence of the departed’s remains should be spent in an attitude of reverence for the mystery of death and respect for the family of the departed. It is an ancient tradition that, in addition to the Trisagion Service, the Book of Psalms would be read continuously over the body of the deceased during the viewing. When family members and friends take turns reading the Psalms a party atmosphere is avoided. Such reading is also a more personal and prayerful experience than listening to recorded music.

Visiting and sharing refreshments, if desired, must take place in a room other than where the body is viewed.

Trisagion in the Church
In some parishes the church is now used instead of the funeral parlor. In this case it is mandatory that the prayerful atmosphere and respect for the church must be maintained. Cantors and readers should be invited to chant the Psalms or the Gospels to maintain the prayerful atmosphere. No pictures or videos may be displayed in the church. All care should be taken to keep the dignity necessary for the sacred place, the temple of the Lord. To reproduce the social aspect of the average American funeral home in the church is definitely wrong and not permitted.

It is preferable that the family of the deceased be greeted after the Trisagion service, possibly in the parish hall where a parish bereavement committee may serve coffee. The family may be greeted in the church during the chanting of the Psalms, it should be done in hushed voices with respect for the departed so that the socializing that generally takes place in funeral homes will not take place in the church.

A Trisagion Service should be chanted just before the body is taken to the church or the evening before if a funeral is celebrated in the morning.

Frequently funeral directors invite people for a final viewing before closing the casket. Since the casket is opened in church in our funeral service, the final viewing is best conducted at the end of the service.

Funeral Service in the Church
The service in church consists of psalms, hymns, prayers, and readings from Scripture, along with a homily setting forth the Scriptural teaching on death and the resurrection. At its conclusion, the body is anointed with oil and dirt is sprinkled over it. The anointing with oil is a reminder of the baptismal anointing marking the person as belonging to Christ. The soil is a sign of our return to the earth and signifies man’s earthly nature and the short time of life on earth. Finally everyone files by the casket to give the last kiss to the departed before the casket is closed. Then the procession moves on to the place of interment.

Since the body will be anointed and the last kiss given, it is preferable that the casket remain open during the service if at all possible. No flags, palls, or floral sprays should be placed on the casket until after the anointing.

Bp Innocent Funeral

The following are not permitted during the funeral service in our Church:

  • Eulogies or reminiscences, whether by the priest, a relative or anyone else (Eulogies and reminiscences are appropriate only at the Mercy Meal.);
  • Music other than the chants of the funeral;
  • Services or prayers by fraternal organizations.
  • Military or civil recognition is most properly conducted at the graveside after the final Trisagion Service.

At the Grave
The funeral ends with a last Trisagion Service, the burial, and the emptying of the censer in the grave. Under secular influence the people are often directed to leave before the actual burial. We do not believe that the return to the earth is something to be avoided. It is a forceful statement that we are no longer to be concerned with our loved one’s body but with his soul. Witnessing the interment provides a certain closure and proclaims that it is now by our prayers that we express our concern and affection for the departed.

Contemporary Possibilities

In our American society so much takes place in the evening because of the daily work schedule of the people. At the time of a funeral also, most people who will pay respects to the family of the deceased will have more availability to do so in the evening. Generally only immediate family and very close friends come to the morning funeral service. Since the original funeral service was an “all-night” vigil, there is no problem with having the funeral service in the evening at the parish church. If this is done, then the Trisagion Service would be sung the next morning at the church or better yet at the cemetery so no dangerous car procession is necessary. Those going to the burial may meet directly at the cemetery. If both services take place in the church, the body of the deceased may remain in the church overnight. The pastoral guidelines of the Eparchy of Newton, established by the late Archbishop Joseph Tawil in 1970, remain in effect: “the funeral service is to be conducted according to the proper form in the Euchologion and separated from the Divine Liturgy.”

The Mercy Meal
After the burial, people may gather in the church hall, a private home, or a restaurant for the Meal of Mercy. This allows the family to show their appreciation for the presence of those attending and for everyone to comfort the family by sharing recollections of the deceased. The Mercy Meal is the appropriate place for eulogies, reminiscences, displays, and the acknowledgement of memorial donations.

KutyaIn some parishes the church community assumes the responsibility of providing the Meal of Mercy, usually in the church hall. This assures a certain uniformity of practice and assures that everyone is welcome at this less formal extension of the funeral rites. In many churches fish is the main course at Meals of Mercy. The Greek word for fish, icthys, was an early Christian code word for Jesus Christ, Son of God, Savior. Memorials. One of the oldest traditions in the Eastern Churches is the custom of holding memorial services for the newly-departed on the third, ninth, and fortieth days after death as well as on the one year anniversaries, usually in conjunction with the Divine Liturgy. In some places more emphasis is given to the memorial on the Sunday following the funeral; in other places the 40-day memorial is more prominent. We know that “earthly time” does not apply to our condition after death, and so these memorials on specific days are reminders to us who survive that the departed remain in the Body of Christ and are joined to us through prayer and the Eucharist.

In current practice the third-day memorial coincides with the burial while the ninth and fortieth-day memorials are generally observed on the nearest Sunday. Kolyva (sweetened boiled wheat) or sweet bread is blessed and shared, remembering Christ’s words, “Most assuredly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the ground and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it produces much grain” (John 12:24).

Memorial Services may be celebrated separate from the Divine Liturgy. Many people also offer a Mercy Meal after these memorials.

Special Funeral Services
The ordinary funeral service described above is the service for laypersons conducted during most of the year. At funerals during Bright Week a special order is observed, with the singing of Christ is risen and the Paschal Canon.

Each of the following categories of people has a distinct funeral service:

Priests and Bishops
There is a completely different funeral service for priests and bishops featuring different prayers and a number of Scripture readings. Sometime it is served in conjunction with the Divine Liturgy that follows.

Monastics and Religious
There is a special service for monastics and religious priests, deacons, and non-ordained religious.

Deacons, Lesser Clergy
Their service is the same as that of a layperson except that their title is mentioned (e.g. “the newly departed servant of God, Deacon X”) and they are clothed in their appropriate vestments or habit.

The service for innocents (young children not yet expected to confess sins) contains no requests for forgiveness but only for eternal blessedness.

Un-baptized Persons
It would not be appropriate to offer for non-Christians the usual funeral prayers with their frequent references to Christ and the departed’s faith in Him. The order of service suited for non-Christians includes the singing of the Trisagion, the chanting of psalms, and Scripture readings.

Baptized Members of Other Churches
It is permitted to serve the ordinary funeral service for members of other Christian churches when requested by family members.

Closed Times
This term refers to days when certain services may not be conducted lest they conflict with the spirit of the mystery commemorated in our Church’s liturgy. They are as follows:

No church funerals may be held on Sundays, the Twelve Great Feasts, the feast of the parish patron, or on the Thursday, Friday, or Saturday of Holy Week.

No church memorial services may be served on the Twelve Great Feasts, the feast of the parish patron, during the first week of the Great Fast, on the Thursday, Friday, or Saturday of Holy Week, and for the whole of Bright Week.

Special Questions

Arranging a Funeral
“Certain funeral directors in every community understand our Church’s way of burial. Your priest will help you choose one if you do not have one in mind. It is wise to discuss your preferences and your options with your priest before signing a contract with a funeral director. In any case, have the funeral director contact the priest to discuss the arrangements as soon as possible.” (The Melkite Handbook, 2008)

Bereavement Ministry
In some churches bereavement committees have been ‘established to assist families on the death of a loved one. In some places these committees involve those who assist in liturgical services and mercy meals, as well as greeters, ushers, and home visitors to assure fitting observances in accordance with a standard parish protocol for funerals. In some places parish societies assume the responsibility of attending the funerals of those who die alone. In other places ongoing support groups for mourners have become a regular part of parish life.

Survivors are often steered into buying “the best” caskets for their departed loved ones. Increasingly, however, simpler six-sided coffins, more in line with Eastern Christian traditions, are available at approximately half the cost. Review the possibilities at Similar caskets are available from several monasteries, both Eastern and Western. Consider using one for simplicity and to help support the monastery. See websites such as www,, or See the website, www, for other distributors around the country.

Comforting Those Left Behind
“We often don’t know what to do or say when someone dies. Some people think it is ‘God’s will.’ This is neither comforting nor true.

“God’s will is that we live eternally with Him; it is through sin that death came into the world. Yet God, who `works in all things for those who love Him’ (Romans 8:28), can also work in death and lead us from life through death to eternal life.” (The Melkite Handbook, 2008)

According to the tradition of the Eastern Churches, survivors should not be discouraged from mourning the loss of their loved one or from acknowledging the pain they feel. The Lord Jesus himself wept at the death of his friend Lazarus (John 11:36). Survivors must know, however, that in Christ their loved one still lives and that, through prayer, we on earth can maintain our contact with them and further them in their journey to God.

From time immemorial, the Church has taught reverence for the human body as the good and beautiful creation of God: “So God created man in his own image, in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them” (Genesis 1:27). For the Christian, baptized and chrismated, the body is the material edifice of the immortal soul which is the temple of the Holy Spirit. “Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ?” (1 Corinthians 6:15).

The human body is revered and respected even in death more so because of the mystery of the burial Jesus’ own body in the tomb and his victory over death at his bodily resurrection. We too will be victorious in the coming resurrection of the dead: “For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive” (1 Corinthians 15:22). Like the seed sown in the ground, so is the body buried in the ground to await rebirth to new life in the Resurrection on the last day. “So with the resurrection of the dead. . . What is sown a natural body rises a spiritual body” (1 Corinthians 15:42-44). Thus, from ancient times, the relics of the saints’ bodies have been venerated, and the great churches built over their tombs have been popular places of pilgrimage for the faithful.

Hence, the Christian ideal has always been and remains the burial of the body. All necessary measures must be taken to preserve the practice of reverently burying the faithful departed. At the church funeral, we pray for spiritual assistance for the departed, we honor their bodies, and at the same time we bring the solace of hope to the living. Cremation. In the ancient world, cremation was the “pagan” way of disposing of bodies. In addition, bodies were often burned as a sign of vengeance, unrighteousness, or punishment of criminals. Indeed, for this reason, the Orthodox Church forbids the cremation of the body and considers cremation to be the deliberate desecration and destruction of what God has made and ordained for us. However, by special concession, the Catholic Church now permits cremation if that choice is not “motivated by reasons opposed to Christian life” (Canon 876:3), and “provided that it does not demonstrate a denial of faith in the resurrection of the body” (CCC 2301). Moreover, if cremation is chosen, it remains the clear intention of the Church that the cremation take place only after the funeral service, so that the body of the deceased may be present in the church for the funeral rites to be conducted over it. The celebration of the funeral rites after cremation, in the presence of the ashes of the deceased, is permitted only by exception.

In any case, it is imperative that the cremated remains (cremains) be treated with the same respect and dignity one accords the human body of the deceased. The ashes must be buried reverently in a grave or entombed in a mausoleum or columbarium. It is never permitted for the ashes to be scattered or kept at home or disposed of in any other way, as this shows a lack of respect for the deceased.

The clergy must take great pain to catechize the faithful, making them aware of the tradition and teaching of the Church on these important matters.

Burying the dead is a work of mercy blessed by God. Parishes cannot deny anyone burial for financial reasons. Parishes may establish financial guidelines for funerals, weddings or other services. If anyone is truly unable to comply with these guidelines, the parish leadership should be prepared to assist them in their time of need.

Families who are more than able to comply with these guidelines should consider making an additional contribution in memory of their newly-departed loved one to assist those who may not be able to afford a proper funeral in the church.

All donations given at a funeral are given to the church and not the priest. The survivors are free to make any additional donation to the parish priest, other priests, deacons, cantors, and others assisting at the service as they are able.

The practice of embalming in modern times came into being in the nineteenth century to retard decomposition before refrigeration was common and when bodies were shipped in methods much slower than those available today. It became popular as more people who did not believe in life after death sought to preserve the physical presence of their departed at all costs.

In some states embalming is required in all cases; other states do not require it except in medical emergencies. In some communities (e.g. among Orthodox Jews) bodies are never embalmed. In a case where a body will be buried within a few days of death, embalming may not be necessary. Most funeral homes have sufficient refrigeration to preserve a body for as long as ordinary embalming would. Embalming is a costly practice which may not be necessary in every case. Responsible funeral directors will inform survivors if embalming is a legal requirement in their area.

Eulogies & Reminiscences
No layman may speak a eulogy in the church. The priest himself is to give a sermon or homily at the funeral service centering on the “end” of our earthly life and the beginning of new life, restored to us through the resurrection of Jesus Christ as celebrated in the Mysteries of Christian Illumination, Baptism and Chrismation. This homily is not a glorification of the deceased. The priest may also consider a brief homily at the Trisagion service. The Mercy Meal is the appropriate place for relatives and friends to offer eulogies or reminiscences of the departed. This gives survivors an opportunity to respond to these words. Eulogies or reminiscences may never be given at the funeral service itself.

Some people welcome floral wreaths or sprays in memory of the departed; others prefer that memorial donations be given to the church or a designated charity. If this is the choice of the family, mention should be made to the funeral director so that notification can be placed in the obituary notice. If an abundance of flowers is donated, survivors should consider leaving some at the church after the funeral to adorn the icons. Fraternal Organizations. Some organizations have rituals which they observe at the death of a member. These may be conducted at the funeral parlor, but not at the funeral service in the church.

Since neither Catholics nor Orthodox are permitted to join the Masons, it follows that no Masonic rites may be conducted even at the funeral parlor.

The Church prescribes that a grave (or mausoleum) be blessed before the body of a Christian is interred in it. Catholic cemeteries or sections in non-denominational cemeteries are consecrated; hence the graves are all blessed. In other cases the priest will bless the grave before the burial. The survivors advise the parish priest whether the grave has been previously blessed or not.

The Eastern Churches desire that their members be buried beneath the sign of the cross. Some cemeteries permit standing memorials, in which case a cross may be erected. If this is not possible, a cross should be inscribed on the tombstone or the niche where the deceased’s name is engraved.

See for Byzantine-style grave crosses.

Once erected or inscribed, the gravestone cross should be blessed by the parish priest. A Memorial Service may be served over the grave at the same time.

Recently, photo displays or videos showing the life of the deceased have become part of many funerals. These should be exhibited at the funeral parlor or at the Mercy Meal, not at the church.

Prayer Cards
These mementos have traditionally featured a religious image and a prayer text. Any such prayer cards used at funerals in our churches should depict the iconography and prayer texts from our Tradition, as well as appropriate Scripture quotations.

Cards displaying a picture of the deceased are also acceptable. They too should include an appropriate biblical quotation or liturgical text.

The parish priest should be consulted when preparing prayer cards or other souvenirs distributed at a funeral.

Everyone should become aware of the regulations which affect us in sickness and old age and make appropriate provisions so that our loved ones are not unnecessarily burdened if for any reason we are unable to manage our own affairs. Most localities urge or require that we appoint a health care proxy to authorize medical procedures in the event that we cannot. He or she should know our wishes and also be aware of the Church’s guidelines on such procedures.

Each person, particularly those without any immediate family, should also name an executor to manage one’s affairs after death. A legally appointed executor is needed to make funeral arrangements and even to have the body removed from the hospital after death.

Finally, most funeral homes offer Pre-Planning: a person may determine the preferred arrangements for their own funeral, including the type of casket or coffin, the church and others to be notified, etc. Some Pre-Planning arrangements allow for advance payment but this is not required. Most funeral directors are willing to advise anyone interested in this service.

The National Funeral Directors Association has developed the Bill of Rights for Funeral Preplanning as a resource for understanding what to expect from a pre-need contract.

Reader’s Service
As the father of the local church family, the parish priest fittingly presides at all funeral and memorial services in our Church. If for some reason no priest is available, a deacon, minor cleric, or layperson may conduct a funeral with permission of the bishop, using the formula of a Reader’s Service.

Rosaries and Icons
icon of the resurrectionIt is not appropriate for a Melkite to be buried holding a Western rosary unless this is requested. If the deceased was accustomed to use a prayer rope for saying the Jesus Prayer, this may be wrapped around the wrist. In any case, an icon of the Lord should be placed in his or her hands. People viewing the body or giving the last kiss to the departed would also kiss the icon.

It is customary in many places for a linen burial shroud to be draped over the body of a layperson in the coffin. This rectangular cloth, inscribed with various Christian symbols and texts, is draped over the shoulders and hangs to the feet. Shrouds inscribed with various images and the kontakion from the funeral service in English are available from www or

For centuries the Churches of East and West alike forbade funeral services and burial in consecrated ground to suicide victims. Today most Churches recognize that those who commit such a drastic and irrevocable act do so “when the balance of their mind is disturbed.” Unless other circumstances warrant, a suicide victim as such cannot be refused a funeral service.

Vestment Color
In the Middle East, burgundy seems to be the preferred color for vestments at a funeral. In other places white is commonly used. White is always used at Paschal funeral services and generally at the funeral of a priest.

Note – While this pastoral letter is not from a Ukrainian Catholic bishop, it is written from the Byzantine theological and pastoral perspective. We believe that this is a beneficial article for our readers. See the Eparchy of Newton website.