Inspired by the description of the burial of our Lord in the Gospels, Christians from the very beginning buried their dead with proper care and ceremonies. They believed that the body of every Christian was indeed “a temple of God” and, as such, it also was holy (I Cor. 3:16-17). In expectation of the “resurrection of the dead,” Christians believe that their bodies will once again be united with their souls and live forever.
The Christian belief in the resurrection of the body was then the main reason why, since ancient times, the “funerals were arranged, the obsequies celebrated and the tombs prepared with a reverent piety” among the Christians (cf. St. Augustine, The City of God I, 13). The burial of the Christian has a deeply religious meaning and, therefore, embodies certain religious ceremonies and customs which will be the topic of this pamphlet.
1. The first Christians, anchored by their faith in the Risen Savior, considered death as their final liberation from earthly exile and their triumphant entry into the Promised Land. For them, death was the last major obstacle in reaching their eternal happiness. Therefore they buried their dead with thanksgiving and accompanied the bodies of their departed to the grave in a triumphant procession, reminding us of the victory marches of ancient war heroes. By dying in the Lord, St. Paul explains, the death of every Christian is ” swallowed up in victory” (I Cor. 15:54).
Thus, every deceased Christian becomes a victor, marching triumphantly toward his immortality in order to be ” crowned with honor and glory” (Hebr. 2:7). Consequently, even the body of a deceased Christian was arranged in such a way as to give the corpse a triumphant look. The first gesture of respect for the deceased is to close his eyes. Usually this is done by the closest relative of the departed. In his book, the Life of St. Macrina, St. Gregory of Nyssa (d. 395) tells us that his sister Macrina asked him to close her eyes after she dies. And he continues:
” So, I placed my hand, deadened by grief, upon her holy face so as to seem to disregard her request. Actually, her eyes required no attention, since her eyelids were becomingly lowered as if she was asleep. Her lips were set naturally and her hands were crossed on her breast. The whole position of her body was so natural that there was no need of any further arrangement.” This insignificant service to the deceased was regarded not only as a duty, but as an honor.
2. When a Christian dies, his body should be washed clean. This is mentioned in the Acts of the Apostles (9:37) about a certain convert, Tabitha: “They washed her body and laid it out in a room upstairs.” This ceremonial washing symbolizes the purity of the soul, for ” nothing unclean” can enter into the Kingdom of heaven (Rev. 21 :27). St. Gregory of Nazianzus (d. 389), reprimanding the Christians for delaying the baptism of their children, says: “Are you waiting to be washed when dead?” (cf. Oration 40, 17). Then the body should be dressed in new, festive clothes, symbolizing the garment of incorruption in which the body is clothed at the time of its resurrection : “This corruptible body must be clothed with incorruptibility, this mortal body with immortality” (I Cor. 15:53). St. Dionysius of Alexandria (d. 265) tells us that the pious Christians, even during pestilence, prepared the dead ” suitably” for their burial by “washing their bodies and adorning them with funeral clothes.”
St. Gregory of Nyssa offered his new episcopal robe for the burial of his sister St. Macrina, since she did not set aside any new garment for her own funeral. And the saintly brother remarks: ” It was necessary for her sacred body to be dressed in festive garments.”
3. The body of the deceased is then laid out on a catafalque, an elevated stand draped with covers, which represents a bed, since Christians considered their dead only as fallen asleep. St. Jerome (d. 420) explains: ” For us Christians, death is not death but rather a sleep or rest” (cf. Epistle 75).
St. Luke, describing the stoning of St. Stephen, the First Martyr, tells us that he ” fell asleep” (Acts 7:60). St. John Chrysostom, explaining a certain passage of St. Paul (I Thess. 4:13) says: “He (St. Paul) did not give us instruction concerning the dying, but concerning them that are asleep. With this the Apostle proved that our death is only a sleep . .. , a longer one of course, but still a sleep” (cf. Homily on Paral., 8). Our Lord Himself referred to the dead daughter of Jarius (Mt. 9:24) and to His friend Lazarus (In. 11 :11) as asleep.
The hands of the deceased should be folded on his chest in the form of a cross, as though he would be still praying together with those around him. It is also proper to put a prayer book, or a holy icon, into his hands. A more recent custom is to put a rosary into the hands of the deceased. But this should be done only if the deceased had a devotion to the Rosary and used to pray it during his life. Folding the hands of the deceased in a praying fashion also is to remind the mourners to pray for the repose of his soul.
Usually, four burning candles are placed around the body to remind us that the deceased, as a baptized person, was indeed “a child of light” (I Thess. 5:5) and that, after following Christ, the Light of Life (In. 8:12) during his earthly life, he finally reached the “perpetual light” in heaven (cf. explanation in P. G., vol. 155, col. 676).
4. The Christians always considered it their sacred duty to take part in the prayers for the deceased members of their community. During the persecutions, however, they were able to come together for such prayers only under the cover of night.
Usually, they spent all night watching the body of the departed, reciting various prayers and psalms. Only at sunrise, after the celebration of the Holy Liturgy, did they bury the body in a prepared place. Through the influence of monastic custom, these all-night vigils became part of the Christian burial, as attested to by St. Gregory of Nyssa in his description of the funeral of his sister, St. Macrina : “There was an all-night vigil with singing of psalms as was the custom.” These all-night vigils with burning candles and singing of psalms symbolize the entrance of the Christian soul into the company of the Angels, praising God ” day and night, without pause” (Rev. 4:8).
Later the all-night vigils were somewhat shortened and they became our present day wakes, which usually are initiated by the celebration of Parastas (Gr. parastedzein means: to stand beside) , the standing service beside the body of the departed. Then follow the prayers of various groups or church societies. After having rendered their respects to the deceased by their prayer, the people gathered together in the reception room to express their personal condolences to the bereaved members of the family. In gratitude, the family of the deceased served some food and refreshments to those who came to offer their condolences.
After the refreshments, the second part of the night-vigil began with the reading of the Book of Psalms. In the case of the funeral of a priest, the Book of Gospels was read. On the morning of burial, when the body of the deceased was already placed in the coffin, a short service, known as Panachida was chanted by the priest, who also sprinkled the coffin with holy water so that the evil spirits would not disturb the peaceful rest of the deceased. This marked the conclusion of what one time used to be the All-night Service (in Greek Pannychis, meaning all night vigil), from which this short, concluding part of the all-night services retained its name.
5. The early Christians, as mentioned before, considered the death of a Christian a victory. Therefore, they arranged the funeral procession in a way of triumph, as a triumphant march of victory. The tenth century Saint says: “Death prevents me only from staying alive, but not from my living. In this sense, as a Christian, I triumph over death” (St. Athanasius the Athonite, d. 1003).
The funeral procession should be headed by the holy Cross, which is “a trophy of victory over the tyranny of death” (cf. St. John Chrys., Homily on In ., 85, 1). A wreath of flowers is placed on the top of the coffin (or sometimes carried separately) which is a symbol of the victorius “crown of life” which Our Lord promised to give to all those who “remain faithful to Him until death” (Rev. 2:10). The clergy were instructed to take part in the funeral procession, as a fourth century document prescribes (cf. Apost. Const., VI , 30) saying: “in the funerals of the departed, accompany them with singing (of Psalms) if they remained faithful to Christ, since ‘precious in the eyes of the Lord is the death of His faithful ones’ ” (Psalms. 116:15).
The clergy, in the funeral procession, should precede the coffin just as the adjutants preceded their victorious commander. The priest, by his prayers, teachings, and the administration of the Sacraments, assisted the departed during his life in his struggle and victory over the enemy of salvation. It is appropriate, therefore, that the priest now accompanies the deceased to his final rest with his Maker.
The funeral procession then proceeds to the church where the Divine Liturgy is offered for the repose of the soul of the departed, as was customary from the early centuries: “For your Brethren that fall asleep in the Lord, in your church, offer the acceptable Eucharist … ” (cf. Apost. Const., VI , 30). The Liturgy is followed by the proper Funeral Services, bidding our farewell to the deceased.
From church, the body of the deceased is once again carried out in triumphal procession to the cemetery (Gr. koimeterion-a sleeping place, a place of rest) where, according to the disposition of God, it is returned to the earth: “You are the earth and into the earth you shall return” (Gen. 3:19). And there, in their “sleeping chambers” in their graves, the bodies of the departed Christians are peacefully awaiting the ” resurrection of the dead,” for their and our “hope is full of immortality” (Wis. 3:4).