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The funer­al ser­vice in the Ortho­dox Church, although not con­sid­ered as specif­i­cal­ly sacra­men­tal, belongs among the spe­cial litur­gi­cal rites of the Peo­ple of God.

We have already seen that the Church has a par­tic­u­lar sacra­men­tal ser­vice for the con­se­cra­tion of human suf­fer­ing, and spe­cial prayers for the depar­ture of the soul from the body in death. When a per­son dies, the Church serves a spe­cial vig­il over the life­less body, called tra­di­tion­al­ly the paras­ta­sis or panikhi­da, both of which mean a “watch” or an “all-night vigil.”

The funer­al vig­il has the basic form of matins. It begins with the nor­mal Tris­a­gion Prayers and the chant­i­ng of Psalm 91, fol­lowed by the spe­cial Great Litany for the dead. Alleluia replaces God is the Lord, as in Great Lent, and leads into the singing of the funer­al troparion.

The tropar­i­on and the kon­takion of the dead, as all hymns of the funer­al vig­il, med­i­tate on the tragedy of death and the mer­cy of God, and peti­tion eter­nal life for the per­son who is “fall­en asleep.”

Thou only Cre­ator Who with wis­dom pro­found mer­ci­ful­ly order­est all things, and givest unto all that which is use­ful, give rest, O Lord, to the soul of Thy ser­vant who has fall­en asleep, for he has placed his trust in Thee, our Mak­er and Fash­ioner and our God (Tropar­i­on).

With the saints give rest, O Christ, to the soul of Thy ser­vant where sick­ness and sor­row are no more, nei­ther sigh­ing, but life ever­last­ing (Kon­takion).

Psalm 119, the ver­bal icon of the right­eous man who has total trust in God and total devo­tion and love for his Divine Law—the ver­bal icon of Jesus Christ —is chant­ed over the depart­ed, with its prais­es and sup­pli­ca­tions for life in God. It is this same psalm which is chant­ed over the tomb of Christ on Great Friday.

It is the psalm which sings of the vic­to­ry of right­eous­ness and life over wicked­ness and death.

My soul cleaves to the dust, give me life accord­ing to Thy word. (119:25)

Turn my eyes from look­ing at van­i­ties; and give me life in Thy ways. (119:37)

Behold, I long for Thy pre­cepts; in Thy right­eous­ness give me life. (119:40)

Thy tes­ti­monies are right­eous­ness for­ev­er; give me under­stand­ing that I may live. (119:144)

Plead my cause, and redeem me; give me life accord­ing to Thy promise. (119:154)

This entire psalm togeth­er with the vers­es and prayers that go with it, the canon hymns of the ser­vice, and the spe­cial funer­al songs of St John of Dam­as­cus all are a med­i­ta­tion on life and death. They are, in the con­text of the new life of the Risen Christ who reigns in the Church, a les­son of seri­ous instruc­tion for those who are immune to the full tragedy of sin and its “wages” which are death.

Some­times men crit­i­cize the funer­al vig­il for its sup­posed mor­bid­i­ty and gloom; they say that there should be more words of res­ur­rec­tion and life. Yet the vig­il itself is not the Church’s “final word” about death. It is sim­ply the solemn con­tem­pla­tion upon death’s trag­ic char­ac­ter, its hor­rid real­i­ty and its pow­er as that of sin and alien­ation from God. The real­iza­tion of these facts, which par­tic­u­lar­ly in the mod­ern age is so strik­ing­ly absent, is the absolute con­di­tion for the full appre­ci­a­tion and cel­e­bra­tion of the vic­to­ri­ous res­ur­rec­tion of Christ and his gra­cious gift of eter­nal life to mankind. With­out such a prepara­to­ry med­i­ta­tion on death, it is doubt­ful whether the Chris­t­ian Gospel of Life can be under­stand­able at all.

Thus it is not at all iron­ic that the same Saint john of Dam­as­cus who wrote the joy­ful canon sung by the Church on East­er Night is also the author of the Church’s songs of death, which are indeed unyield­ing in their grav­i­ty and uncom­pro­mis­ing in their blunt­ness and real­ism about the inevitable fact of the final fate of fall­en human existence.

What earth­ly sweet­ness remains unmixed with grief? What glo­ry stands immutable on the earth? All things are but fee­ble shad­ows, all things are most delud­ing dreams, yet one moment only, and death shall sup­plant them all. But in the light of Thy coun­te­nance, O Christ, and in the sweet­ness of Thy beau­ty, give rest to him whom Thou hast cho­sen, for as much as Thou lovest mankind.

I weep and lament when I think upon death, and behold our beau­ty cre­at­ed in the like­ness of God lying in the tomb dis­fig­ured, bereft of glo­ry and form. O the mar­vel of it! What is this mys­tery con­cern­ing us? Why have we been deliv­ered to cor­rup­tion? Why have we been wed­ded unto death? Tru­ly, as it is writ­ten, by the com­mand of God Who giveth the depart­ed rest (Funer­al Hymns).

As the funer­al ser­vice is now nor­nal­ly served, the Beat­i­tudes are chant­ed after the canon and the hymns of Saint John, with prayer vers­es insert­ed between them on behalf of the dead. The epis­tle read­ing is from First Thes­sa­lo­ni­ans (4:13–17). The gospel read­ing is from Saint John (5:24–30). A ser­mon is preached and the peo­ple are dis­missed after giv­ing their “final kiss” with the singing of the final funer­al song: Eter­nal Mem­o­ry.

It has to be not­ed here that this song, con­trary to the com­mon under­stand­ing of it, is the sup­pli­ca­tion that God would remem­ber the dead, for in the Bible it is God’s “eter­nal mem­o­ry” which keeps man alive. She­ol or Hades or the Pit, the bib­li­cal realm of the dead also called Abad­don, is the con­di­tion of for­saken­ness and for­got­ten­ness by God. It is the sit­u­a­tion of non-life since in such a con­di­tion no one can praise the Lord; and the praise of the Lord is the only con­tent and pur­pose of man’s life; it is the very rea­son for his exis­tence. Thus, this most famous and final of the Ortho­dox funer­al hymns is the prayer that the depart­ed be eter­nal­ly alive in the “eter­nal rest” of the “eter­nal mem­o­ry” of God—all of which is made pos­si­ble and actu­al by the res­ur­rec­tion of Jesus Christ which is the destruc­tion of the Pit of Death by the splen­dor of Divine Right­eous­ness and Life (see Ps 88; Hos 13:14; 1 Cori 15; Eph 4:9; Phil 2:5–11; 1 Pet 3).

The vig­il of the dead should nor­mal­ly be ful­filled in the eucharis­tic litur­gy in which the faith­ful meet the Risen Lord, and all those who are alive in him, in the glo­ry of his King­dom of Life. The fact that the funer­al vig­il, in recent years, has lost its prepara­to­ry char­ac­ter and has sim­ply been trans­formed into the funer­al ser­vice itself, sep­a­rat­ed from the eucharis­tic litur­gy, is a sad fact which allows nei­ther for the prop­er appre­ci­a­tion of the vig­il itself nor for the full Chris­t­ian vision of the mean­ing of Iife, death and res­ur­rec­tion in Christ, the Church and the King­dom of God.

The fact that the divine litur­gy, when it is pre­served with the funer­al vig­il, is served before it and is made into some­thing mourn­ful, con­vert­ed into a “requiem mass” offered “on behalf of the dead,” is also an inno­va­tion of recent cen­turies under old Roman Catholic influ­ence which fur­ther dis­torts the Chris­t­ian under­stand­ing and expe­ri­ence of death in Christ.