Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.

Hebrews 4:16

This reflection is more practical than inspirational and offers some ideas of practical and meaningful things to do when someone has passed away. First of all, it is necessary in all instances that a person is pronounced deceased by medical personnel. This happens in a hospital or hospice facility. If someone passes at home it will be necessary for someone to pronounce him or her deceased. This could be a hospice nurse, if the person is under hospice care. It could be a paramedic or other medical personnel.

Whether a hospital or a home is the place where death occurs, it will be necessary to call a funeral home to come and take the remains to prepare them for burial. If a person or a family has not pre-planned with a funeral home, calling a funeral home and signing over the body of a deceased loved one might be seen as an implied contract to work with a funeral home. If the family visits the funeral home a few hours later and is shocked to learn how much that funeral home charges for services, it might be hard to have the remains transferred to another funeral home. A practical piece of advice, when a loved one is very sick, or death is imminent, or even if a person is well up in years, pre-planning for a funeral while not under duress is a good idea.

When the funeral home arrives to remove a loved one from a home or hospital, it is customary, and in many instances required, that their body be completely covered in order to be removed and transported to a funeral home or place of preparation for the body. We’ve all seen murder scenes on the news where a victim is placed in a body bag for transport. This happens when funeral home personnel come to transport a body. We have so many images of our loved ones coming in and out of their home, this is an image that none of us needs to have. As a practical matter, I advise families to step into another room when the funeral home personnel come to take the remains of their loved one out of the house for the last time.

Some additional practical things regarding working with a funeral home. They are going to need biographical information in order to process a death certificate, so have things at the ready such as their mother’s maiden name and their social security number, things we might not know. Secondly, the funeral home will want a complete set of clothing, including undergarments and shoes. In trying to only make one trip to the funeral home (since this can be traumatic), make sure you take all the clothes that are needed. How obituaries are disseminated by a funeral home or news source varies from place to place. Having pallbearers is a nice tradition, having meaningful people in the life of the person who has passed bear their casket is certainly preferable than paying funeral home staff to do it. Usually 6-8 is the appropriate number.

Because there has to be coordination between funeral home, cemetery and church, it may take several days before a funeral can be held. Most Metropolises of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America do not allow family members to speak in church at a funeral. Ask your parish priest about this. In the Metropolis where I currently serve, family members are not permitted to speak in church, and so we encourage those who want to speak to do so at a wake the night before, or at a meal (called a Makaria, or mercy meal) after the funeral. Neither a wake nor a makaria are required by the church. A wake is generally held at a funeral home the night before a funeral. This atmosphere is more casual and drawn out than a funeral, allowing loved ones to gather in fellowship, and converse about the deceased while consoling one another. A makaria is a meal held after the funeral where people can again gather in fellowship. It is generally held at the church hall, or a restaurant or in the home of a family member of the deceased. Typically fish is served, because after the Resurrection, we read in the Gospel of John Chapter 21 (1-13), Jesus shared a post-Resurrection meal of bread and fish with His disciples.

In over 25 years as a priest, I’ve picked up a lot of practical ideas, especially concerning death. Here are a few more. Ask the funeral home for a private family viewing, so that close family members have some personal time with the deceased before the public comes in. Have family members, even adults, write personal letters to the deceased. This is particularly good for children, to write or draw something for a grandparent, but something even adult children can do for their parent. It gives people something to do and something to focus on. Put a package of letters, drawings and a family picture together and place it in the casket during the private viewing.

Part of the Orthodox funeral service requires the priest to place oil and earth over the body of the deceased at the end of the service. Most priests take sand from the candle box in the church for this purpose since it is readily available. At one funeral years ago, a family brought in a bunch of things from the home of the deceased—golf balls, a TV remote control, etc., so that they could “have some of their things.” I found this a little disrespectful actually, but it spawned an idea—why not bring something from their home that is actually needed? Since that time, I have asked families to bring me a bag of dry dirt from the home of the deceased and this is the earth that goes on them at the end of the funeral. Ask your priest about this if this is something you might want to do.

People have brought icons to be buried with the deceased that are family heirlooms. I don’t like the idea of parting with valuable things that should stay in a family. We have small paper icons that are placed in the hand of the deceased. The icon that is printed by the funeral home for funeral services can suffice if you want to bury an icon with a loved one.

Finally, each of us has an infinite number of images of a loved one in our minds. And just like I suggested not watching the funeral home personnel wrap a loved one in a bag, I also humbly suggest not watching the lid of the casket close for the final time. I remember a funeral I saw before I was ordained where the lid slammed with a loud thud and it made people jump and become emotional. I always try to get in the way when the lid is closed so that the family does not see this. When it was my own parents, I just turned away and didn’t watch. No need for that image.

Righteous art Thou, O Lord, and right are Thy judgments. Thou has appointed Thy testimonies in righteousness and in all faithfulness. My zeal consumes me, because my foes forget Thy words. Thy promise is well tried, and Thy servant loves it. I am small and despised, yet I do not forget Thy precepts. Thy righteousness is righteous forever, and Thy law is true. Trouble and anguish have come upon me, but Thy commandments are my delight. Thy testimonies are righteous forever; give me understanding that I may live. Psalm 119:137-144

Death and funerals are traumatic events in our lives. Hopefully these practical ideas make some of this a little bit easier.


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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