Turn to me and be gracious to me, as is Thy wont toward those who love Thy name.

Psalm 119:132

We turn now our attention to the funeral service. Much of this service was written by St. John of Damascus in the eighth century. This brilliant composition has not been changed in centuries. It combines a plea for mercy on behalf of the deceased, some education for those who are mourning, as well as contemplating their own death, two thought-provoking Scripture readings, as well as a beautiful parting farewell hymn, “Memory eternal.” It also contains several meaningful rituals. We will spend the next several reflections discussing the funeral service and both the comfort and thought it provides for those who are grieving.

When the body of the deceased is brought to the church, it is met at the door of the narthex by the priest, who offers incense over the casket before it comes into the church. Some icons of the Virgin Mary depict her sitting on a throne holding the Christ child, with angels on each side offering incense. When I think of this ritual, I think of an angel standing at the gate of heaven offering incense over the soul of the newly departed. It is a comforting thought for sure.

Allow me to share in a personal way that one of the toughest things I do as a priest is walk down the aisle before a funeral to meet the casket in the narthex. The phrase “walking down the aisle” usually evokes the image of a bride at her wedding, where she lingers on her walk, soaking in the moment. My walk at a funeral is totally the opposite. I move down the aisle quickly, because it is always a lonely and sad walk, even for the people who are old and have lived a long and full life. It is especially difficult when I make it for a friend.

The funeral service begins with three groups of six verses each from Psalm 119 which are sung. (Psalm 119 has 176 verses and in certain Orthodox jurisdictions, all of them are sung. In the Greek Orthodox funeral, 18 of them are sung.) This Psalm is written in the first person, so as we sing these verses, it is as if we are singing them on behalf of the deceased, and in anticipation of our own death and account before the Lord.

Each of us will have an accounting before the Lord. The Bible states this very clearly. He will be the judge of who inherits His Kingdom and who does not. Much as it is tempting to place a person in heaven, that decision rests with the Lord. There are many people I have met, some of whom I have written about in this unit, who I considered to be righteous. I would like to think that they are in heaven. I would think that if they are not in heaven, I certainly won’t be. But to place someone in heaven, or in hell, belongs to the Lord and not to us.

Admitting someone into heaven is an act of mercy on the part of God. In Romans 6:23, we read For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.  Because we all sin, we all deserve death, meaning separation from God, and also physical death. Eternal life is a gift from God, one that He offers freely. Because we “owe” death because of our sins, none of us is worthy to “claim” heaven. Thus, we plead for the mercy of God, to overlook the “wages” we deserve for our sins, and instead to offer us mercy and the free gift of eternal life.

Having officiated hundreds of funerals in my life, I am cognizant that one day, there will be a funeral for me. I will need God’s mercies, because I sin, just like everyone else, and the wages of my sins are my physical death. Yet, we believe in the mercies of God and so we pray for them, on behalf of the deceased and in anticipation of our own death.

There is a beautiful icon called “Christ the merciful judge.” It is found in the Monastery of St. Katherine on Mount Sinai. If you cover the left side of Christ’s face, you will see that the right side has a look of serenity and peace. If you cover the right side, you will see that the left side has a look of a combination of anger and sadness. This difference is because of the ways that the eyes are painted. We know that we will stand in judgment before Christ. We know that He is merciful. Just how merciful and how judging He is is unknown. We believe in the power of prayer. We believe that one will always be part of the Church. Allow me to introduce two new terms—the church militant and the church triumphant. The church militant is the fighting church on earth, those who are alive and are in the spiritual struggle. The church triumphant is the church of heaven, those who have passed on. We will always belong to the Church—either the church militant or the church triumphant. Thus, we pray for those who are no longer part of the church militant, and so it is appropriate for us to pray for the mercy of God over the person who has left our company. They may have ceased living on earth, but that does not make them a non-entity. For each of us has a soul that will live eternally. We begin the funeral by praying for the mercies of God for the newly departed, so that he or she may find rest in the Kingdom of God. We do that in the first person, offering that on their behalf, and in anticipation of our own end of life and judgment before Christ, the merciful Judge.

Bless the Lord, O my soul; and all that is within me, bless His holy name! Bless the Lord, O my soul, and forget not all His benefits, Who forgives all your iniquity, Who heals all your diseases, Who redeems your life from the Pit, Who crowns you with steadfast love and mercy, Who satisfies you with good as long as you live, so that your youth is renewed like the eagle’s. The Lord works vindication and justice for all who are oppressed. He made known His ways to Moses, His acts to the people of Israel. The Lord is merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. He will not always chide, nor will He keep His anger forever. He does not deal with us according to our sins, nor requite us according to our iniquities. For as the heavens are high above the earth, so great is His steadfast love toward those who fear Him; as far as the east is from the west, so far does He remove our transgressions from us. As a father pities His children, so the Lord pities those who fear Him. For He knows our frame; He remembers that we are dust. As for man, his days are like grass; he flourishes like a flower of the field; for the wind passes over it, and it is gone, and its place knows it no more. But the steadfast love of the Lord is from everlasting to everlasting upon those who fear Him, and His righteousness to children’s children, to those who keep His covenant and remember to do His commandments. The Lord has established His throne in the heavens, and His kingdom rules over all. Bless the Lord, O you His angels, you mighty ones who do His word, hearkening to the voice of His word! Bless the Lord, all His hosts, His ministers that do his will! Bless the Lord, all His works, in all places of His dominion. Bless the Lord, O my Soul! Psalm 103 

God allowing us into His Kingdom is an act of mercy, which we will all need. This is why the funeral service begins with “mercy” and is offered in the first person.


Fr. Stavros Akrotirianakis

Fr. Stavros N. Akrotirianakis is the Proistamenos of St. John Greek Orthodox Church in Tampa, FL. Fr. contributes the Prayer Team Ministry, a daily reflection, which began in February 2015. The Prayer Team now has its own dedicated website! Fr. Stavros has produced multiple books, you can view here: https://amzn.to/3nVPY5M


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