When Someone Dies
A Byzantine Catholic Perspective
When someone we love dies, nothing can take away the pain we feel. The reality of the death of a loved one can be assuaged by the liturgical office of Christian burial and its accompanying traditions. Although there are a great variety of funeral and burial customs among Christians, some general approaches may be considered in order that a loved one may be mourned and buried in accordance with long standing customs of ancient Christianity preserved in so many Eastern Christian Churches.
When someone we love dies, it is a time of great stress and emotional discomfort. It may be difficult to make decisions or to know what to do, especially if the death is sudden and unexpected. Making a phone call to your parish priest, or asking a close friend or medical staff member to make that call is an important first step. If possible, he will respond to your home or the hospital where the deceased is and offer prayers. If the deceased has placed his hope in God and was devoted to the life of the parish, or, while home bound or in the hospital, was visited regularly by the parish with the Holy Mysteries, it is important that your pastor be involved in making the funeral and burial arrangements. It is unwise to make funeral arrangements without consulting with the priest as he may not be available at the time you wish.
Christian burial is a right of all baptized Christians and includes the prayers of the Church led by a member of the clergy. Funeral services in church are the right of parishioners who, when able, were committed to the parish through regular attendance and stewardship.
Body organ donations
Some individuals may have made arrangements to donate their organs for transplant to another individual who is in urgent need in order to preserve life. Often, medical personnel routinely ask the survivors for permission to use healthy organs. It is best to know in advance how to respond, always abiding by the wishes of the deceased. Organ donation is consistent with Church teaching on charity, as long as the body is handled respectfully and as long as the dying process is not hastened in any way for the sake of donating an organ.
Making the arrangements: This may be done through a funeral director (funeral home) or with certain full service memorial parks. Some Catholic Cemeteries offer this service as well. If at all possible, it is recommended that these arrangements be made prior to the death of a loved one when there is less pressure to quickly complete the arrangements. It is not unknown that, in some cases, funeral homes and memorial parks take advantage of grieving families and pressure them to purchase more expensive arrangements than normal. Therefore it is important to be aware of this before making arrangements and to deal with reputable companies. Often times, church wall calendars are sponsored by such reputable companies. Your parish priest may be of assistance in making funeral decisions. Regardless, a printed copy of any pre-planning should be kept on file in the parish office. Some families may wish for their loved ones to be buried in a Catholic Cemetery as this is consecrated ground and avoids the need for the priest to bless the ground at the time of burial. This, however, is not a requirement of the Church. Finally, be sure that the funeral director coordinates the time of the services with your parish priest before finalizing the arrangements. Also be sure to inform the funeral director that the deceased was faithful to an Eastern Catholic Church and specify to the director that you wish to make the arrangements in accordance with the church customs. This would include the style of icon cards, the cross or icon for the casket, and the manner of burial. If you fail to do this the funeral director may proceed in a manner consistent with the traditions of the Latin Church.
At the viewing: The viewing, also known as a “wake,” is often held in a funeral chapel or parlor. It may also be held at the parish church. This is a time for everyone to gather and pray for the soul of the deceased and perhaps to view the body for one last time. The hands of the deceased are often crossed in the form of an ‘x’ as customary during prayer. The body should be dressed in “festive clothes” that are in good condition. The priest, wearing vestments of a dark color or the color of the liturgical season, will offer special prayers in conjunction with the viewing. In the Byzantine Tradition this service is the Parastas and/or the Panachida. It is appropriate to read from the Psalter throughout the time of the viewing. This is also the time that individuals may offer eulogies. Normally eulogies are not given during the time of the funeral itself and are never given in the church. Eulogies are never required.
The funeral service is the main prayer for the soul of the deceased. This service may be held in the evening or during the day. It may take the place of the Viewing or follow the Viewing immediately or be held the following day. In cases where the funeral is celebrated at night, the burial takes place the following day. The funeral of one who participated regularly as a member and steward of the church (or who was visited regularly with the Holy Mysteries) should take place in the church and the Divine Liturgy may be celebrated as part of the funeral service. Individuals not regularly involved in the life of the Church without grave reason should have their funerals take place at a funeral chapel. The purpose of the funeral service is two-fold. First, prayers are offered for the deceased that God be merciful to him or her at judgment. The prayers remind us of a just, loving, and merciful God and that even death cannot separate us from the love of God in Christ. Second, the funeral serves as a reminder to those present of our own mortality and the necessity to repent of our sins and to maintain communion with God. Through such communion with God we remain close to the faithful departed. It is most proper for the priest to give a homily during this service to draw attention to these points. Custom varies regarding having the casket open during the service. The traditional preference is to have an open casket in order to reverence the body as “a temple of God,” although this matter is usually left to the discretion of the family. Any displayed images of the deceased (e.g. photographs) must remain in the narthex. In some traditions, at the conclusion of the service, mourners are invited to come forward to give a final kiss to the deceased. In some communities mourners may also extend sympathy to family members as they pass by. Then the casket is sealed for the final time and a procession begins to the place of burial.
At the cemetery
Usually a very brief service is held at the cemetery before the casket is lowered. Christians are to be buried facing East, so that at the time of the resurrection we will arise facing Christ who, according to Scripture, comes from the East. Not all cemeteries are laid out to accommodate burial in this manner, so it would be advisable to inform the funeral director of your wishes regarding this before selecting a plot. In some communities it is the custom to lower the casket while the mourners are present. Not all cemeteries may be willing or able to accommodate this custom so it is advisable to request it in advance if this be the desire of the family or if previously arranged.
Make every effort to attend the visitation or funeral service: Our presence on these occasions is a gift to the family of the deceased. Those who grieve draw comfort from the presence of others and know that they are not facing this hard time alone.
What to say
It may seem difficult to say something appropriate to the deceased’s loved ones. It may suffice to exchange a common greeting according to one’s usual custom or say, “May God grant you strength” at this difficult time. Do not say “it was God’s will” for God does not desire the death of anyone and it may cause additional suffering and confusion to family members.
Some families may make a request “in lieu of flowers donations may be made to our church or a designated charity.” Such donations provide a living testimonial in memory of the deceased. While such requests should be respected, it is not inappropriate to send or bring flowers to the funeral home or church as a symbol of condolence.
Often families may wish to offer thanks to those who come to pray for the deceased and to offer them comfort by inviting them to a meal of mercy. For those funerals that take place in the church, the mercy meal may be held in the parish hall. It may also be offered in a family home or at a restaurant. In some traditions a meal of mercy is also offered at the time of the 40 day memorial (see below). If it is a fasting Season or a day of abstinence, a meatless (and dairyless?) meal should be offered. It is not necessary to offer a meal of mercy following a viewing or after every subsequent memorial service.
Death separates us only bodily from our loved ones, not spiritually. Because of this and the immutable bonds of faith and love, Christians pray fervently for the departed. In some Eastern Churches, a memorial service is offered on the 3rd and 9th days – on the 3rd (this is usually the funeral, itself) for the sake of Christ’s third-day Resurrection and on the 9th making us mindful of the soul’s journey to judgment. On the 40th day (or the Saturday nearest) a separate memorial service may be arranged with your parish priest as the Lord’s ascension into heaven on the 40th day is recalled. Memorial Services or Commemorations at the Liturgy may also be arranged for the 6th month and One Year dates and each subsequent year. We should also remember that in the Byzantine tradition there are various Saturdays when the deceased are remembered.
What About cremation?
The Church believes in the resurrection of the body and therefore directs, as the ideal rite, that the body be buried intact in imitation of the Savior. Cremation, however, is not forbidden and during certain natural disasters may even be necessary. If cremation is requested be sure to confer with your parish priest regarding this matter before making arrangements. Only under the most extraordinary of circumstances and with episcopal permission may the cremated remains be brought into the church. Therefore, the full funeral rites should be celebrated prior to the cremation whenever possible. In any case, the cremains must be interred in the ground or inurned in a niche with the customary Interment rite. Cremains are neither to be scattered nor kept in the home or any other inappropriate disposition.
Keep in touch after the funeral
Family and friends should continue to remember the grieving both in prayer and in deed. Memorial liturgies may be requested through your church and the Eternal Lamp may be lit in memory of the faithful departed. Sometimes a short note, telephone call, or visit several weeks after the funeral means as much or more to the survivors as those that are sent immediately.
Liturgy and Lamp Intentions
To assure that a particular person is remembered at a liturgical service or through the lighting of the Eternal Lamp, use the Request envelope found in the information rack of the church narthex. Print the needed information and then place this with the collection or give it to Father. In making Divine Liturgy requests, the person making the request should plan to be present at the Divine Liturgy when at all possible, and request a date and time accordingly (usually a Saturday). Cards will be mailed by request. When possible, request intentions for specific dates at least four months in advance.