Are Orthodox Funerals Really Depressing?  Part 2

Are Orthodox Funerals Really Depressing? Part 2


This is the second article in a 3-part series. Read Part 1 here.

In the modern funeral service, the canon for the dead is replete with imagery focusing on the holy martyrs, whose struggles for Christ and corresponding rewards are compared to those of the dead, both of whom are imitators of Christ in their suffering, death, and resurrection. Little material in the canon possesses a disheartening thematology and chiefly that which reflects upon the consequences of the Fall. Sadly, this central element of the funeral matins service is absent from Greek parochial usage, although present in the modern Slavic and Antiochian recensions, but in a very abbreviated form. The Damascene Idiomela and the troparia of the final farewell are replete with macabre and dismal imagery, more so than the canon, which clash thematically with the more dominant theme of hopefulness and joy in the Resurrection. To be sure, most of these troparia conclude with a petition for rest, but the content is highly unbalanced. As we have said earlier, this hodgepodge of conflicting notions poses as much a theological as well as pastoral difficulty, for which several solutions are possible.

Throwing the Baby Out with the Bath Water – A New Service?!
Let us begin with the most radical and surely the most unpopular and unrealistic solution. The entire funeral service should be discarded and a new service written, one which would eliminate the frightful and depressing themes and instead borrow resurrection elements almost exclusively, much like the designated rite for the dead during Renewal Week. The issue here is that those themes perceived as “negative” cannot be discarded entirely because of their highly didactic value that requires the acceptance of a certain realism. Death is a fearsome, non-discriminating force that exerts its destructive potency on all living creatures. It naturally compels mortals to readily accept the transience of human life and to live in a morally responsible way in preparation for the afterlife. On this side of death, man reflects on the eschatological unknown; on the other side of death awaits the judgment. So fear indeed conditions man’s behavior. Nevertheless, in Christ the unknowability and sting of death are overcome, but in the service, the promise of resurrection and peaceful rest appear as a sort of afterthought. I propose that this hope should dominate the entire funeral liturgy and thus be interspersed more evenly throughout the service. This leads me to a more reasonable solution, which will take into careful consideration the suggestions made by my fellow liturgical scholars.

The Older and Sensible Episcopal / Priestly Prayers
To overcome this dueling thematology in the funeral rite, and since the presidential (clerical) prayers represent seemingly older material that preserves Biblical and early Christian notions centering on hopefulness in the resurrection, these prayers should be interspersed more evenly throughout the service. The typical prayer of repose (no. 264, “O God of spirits and all flesh”, a modified version from the oldest known extant Byzantine euchology from the eighth century A.D., known as the Barberini Codex) is read in the funeral service only once, as in the Trisagion conducted in the home and at the grave. The prayer is preceded by the usual diaconal litany and followed by the trinitarian doxological formula, “For You are the resurrection, the life, and the repose . . .”. In concelebrations, in the modern practice, each subsequent priest intones the doxological ekphonesis without a preceding litany but more importantly without a preceding prayer, for which the purpose of the trinitarian ekphonesis is to serve as the seal or katakleida. This is a liturgical anomaly, sadly repeated in other Byzantine services and most especially in the Divine Liturgy. So, it stands to reason in concelebrations that the liturgical unit comprising the diaconal petitions, presidential prayer, and ekphonesis should be interspersed throughout the entire rite, given the repertory of variant prayers for repose provided by Barberini and other sources.

In addition, the inclination prayer of consolation that follows the prayer of repose must likewise be incorporated into the service, since it traditionally forms an expanded liturgical unit common in cathedral vespers and matins. Perhaps existing variant prayers of consolation may be attached to the prayers of repose or new ones may be composed that match the general thematic flow of each prayer. As alluded to earlier, one cannot effectively conduct the funeral service without allotting equal attention to meeting the pastoral needs of the grieving survivors, for whom the content of the funeral service is more important than for the dead. Naturally, the resurrection of such cathedral elements in the funeral rite will not only encourage popular participation but also assist in the grieving process in a more constructive Christian way.



This series was excerpted and modified from a larger paper (“Revisiting the Orthodox Funeral Service: Resurrecting a Positive Thematology in the Rite for the Dead”), delivered at the International Conference on Liturgical Renewal, held at Hellenic College and Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology, Brookline, MA, from March 15-16, 2013. Copyright © 2013 by V. Rev. Professor Dr. Stelyios S. Muksuris, Ph.D. All rights reserved.



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About author

Fr. Stelyios Muksuris

THE V. Reverend Protopresbyter Dr. Stelyios S. Muksuris, Ph.D. [BA, MDiv, MLitt, PhD, ThD (post-doc.)], serves the Kimisis Tis Theotokou Greek Orthodox Church in Aliquippa, PA, and is Professor of Liturgy and Languages at SS. Cyril and Methodius Byzantine Catholic Seminary in Pittsburgh, PA. A native of Boston and a graduate of Hellenic College and Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology in Brookline, MA, he received his postgraduate degrees and his doctorate in liturgical theology from the University of Durham in the United Kingdom. He is an active member of several academic societies (AAR, SL, SOL, BSC, OTSA), a frequent conference speaker both nationally and internationally, the author of a monograph, Economia and Eschatology: Liturgical Mystagogy in the Byzantine Prothesis Rite (Boston, 2013), and the author of an introductory chapter for a textbook on Christianity, as well as numerous papers and studies in theological journals. He is a frequent consultant on liturgical matters for the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America and the Greek Orthodox Metropolis of Pittsburgh.