Are Orthodox Funerals Really Depressing? Part 3, Final

Are Orthodox Funerals Really Depressing? Part 3, Final


This is the third article in a 3-part series. Read Part 1 and Part 2 here.

The Rite of Anointing the Dead
Another vital modification to the rite is the restoration of the baptismal and paschal vision, “to which, as we have seen, the earliest ritual for the Byzantine Rite bears unequivocal witness.” Elena Velkovska has noted that the blessing of the oil for the anointing of the dead uses the same formula as in the blessing of the oil for the pre-baptismal anointing. The prayer requests that the oil become “an anointing of incorruption, a weapon of justice, a renewal of soul and body, a defense against every influence of the Devil, and a release from evil, to all those who are anointed with it in faith. . . .” The tomb, like the baptismal font, should be understood as a locus of transformation and transition that propels the person of faith who descends into it into eternal life, as a womb that gives new birth in Christ. The anointing today, together with the pouring of earth over the deceased, is done at the conclusion of the funeral service or at the grave, but it is not accompanied by any prayer that suggests this paschal connection. The usual verses associated with these last rites are Psalm 50:7 (LXX) for the oil, Psalm 23:1 (cf. Ecclesiastes 3:20 and Psalm 102:14) for the earth, the second of which is avowedly abrupt and dejecting.

Diversity in Funerary Readings
Peter Galadza has recommended a greater diversity in the readings, hymnography, and eulogies, from which the modern rite suffers terribly. The historical precedent for such diversity is accounted for in the comparison of the modern received text, which received its final form in the sixteenth century, and the earliest complete funeral rite in any Byzantine manuscript, the tenth-century Crypt. gr. Γ.β.Χ. However, he is also cognizant of the challenge of diversity when he writes:

Anyone familiar with funerary practice among Western Christians, especially Protestants, realizes the extent to which funerals are “customized.” While this sometimes carries the danger of suppressing or ignoring fundamental aspects of revelation, and may hamper popular participation because of the infinite number of options that are provided . . . the Byzantine “one-size-fits-all” approach for funerals of laypersons (small children excepted) carries the danger, on the other hand, of not incarnating the word in concrete, or particular, flesh, as it were, or reducing this enfleshment, at best, to the homily.

Galadza advocates for a “middle-road” solution, which entails the avoidance of an excessive variety common in the West and the incorporation of a “sustainable diversity”, more in line with the Byzantine ethos. For example, the petitions need to be rewritten so as to reflect the different categories of the deceased. However, the litanies should go a step further by making specific requests not only for the dead (by progressing beyond the “forgiveness” and “rest” language) but also for the surviving relatives and for the healing of the community, which has lost a member. In addition, Galadza offers examples of alternate New Testament readings that were included in the antiphons comprising the tenth-century rite, and he even advocates for a restoration of Old Testament readings to the funeral, especially those from the Isaian corpus with their emphasis on social justice and God’s righteous judgment. I propose as alternate lections the raising of Lazarus in John 11:1-45, as well as the Synoptic and Johannine accounts of the Resurrection; in other words, the Morning Gospels of Sunday Matins. This selection will ensure that the funeral service retains a strong resurrectional character, sadly eclipsed in the rite or relegated to the status of a consolatory afterthought.

New Funerary Canons for Different Death Situations
A final consideration has to do with the composition of new hymnographical canons for different categories of deceased persons and for different existential situations (suffering and death due to illnesses, accidents, etc.), which could also incorporate more resurrectional and Biblical material. Galadza reminds us that in the Middle Byzantine era, euchologia typically lacked the kontakion and canon and only included the rubrics specifying where in the rite these forms were to be inserted. Usually chanters had the freedom to select their material from the kontakaria or canonaria. New compositions today can be constructed to fit into traditional known melodies, which can facilitate lay participation.

As Robert Taft and Alkiviadis Calivas have correctly stressed time and time again with regard to the liturgical life of the Church, we are never guided by a retrospective ideology but by the living Holy Spirit, who not only reveals divine truth but also bestows upon the faithful the wisdom to adapt a meaningful liturgical expression in creative continuity with the past. Insofar as the funeral service in the Orthodox Church has sought historically to minister to the living both theologically and pastorally (in addition to formalizing the rite of passage for the dead within a Christian context), it maintains a certain level of sacramentality that is too often ignored or forgotten. The centrality of resurrectional hope and victory is paramount in the Christian faith; it should condition Christian thinking and behavior and so permeate all liturgical rites, most especially the Divine Liturgy and the funeral service. Hopefully this blog has built yet one more case for the latter’s much overdue revision toward a more positive thematology.

Before concluding, I wish to recall St. Symeon of Thessalonike’s striking eschatological vision in his most important commentary, On the Sacred Liturgy: “And this is the great mystery: God among men and God in the midst of gods, made divine from him who is truly God by nature, who was incarnated for them. God in the midst of gods.” When the funeral rite is conducted within the context of a eucharistic liturgy, the aforementioned paschal themes are celebrated by the entire Church on both sides of death. Both the living and the dead not only appear “ὁμοθυμαδὸν ἐπὶ τὸ αὐτό” (“with one accord in one place”; Acts 2:1), offering petitions for the welfare of each other, but they also visually comprise the redeemed Church present before the divine throne – sanctified and united in the fellowship of Almighty God.

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.