A reader recently commented on the amazing balance between joy, hope and sadness in the Orthodox funeral service. It’s true. Like most of our services, it pulls no punches. The hymns and prayers cut right to the core of the meaning of life, death and the coming judgement. They are a stark reminder that we are next, that tomorrow we may be (or will be) the one lying there in a box in the church. Then the service builds to a final Alleluia of rejoicing in the hope of the resurrection and the mercy of God.
The Holy Fathers understood human psychology better than anyone today. Why shouldn’t they. They were in intimate communion with the inventor of human beings and human psychology. Our memorial services are prescribed for the third, ninth and fortieth day and then again on the first and third anniversary. Psychologists have since proven that these are precisely the periods which are milestones in the grieving process. The Church knows us better than we know ourselves.
The very first funeral that we directed was an excellent example of what we claim an Orthodox funeral should be, and more importantly, should do. Our friend Zoran died quite unexpectedly as he was leaving the hospital after a short stay. He left three beautiful teenaged orphans, as his wife had died several years before. He had no resources so we quickly pooled ours to bury him. Our church donated a casket, prepared his body at the hospital morgue, put it in the back of a parishioner’s suburban and transported him to another parishioner’s farm for burial while other friends dug the grave. The location is an ideal spot on a tidal creek with a small chapel on the property. Even though Zoran had recently expanded the chapel, it was too small for the casket so we set up outside.
When the kids arrived it was terrible. His two daughters clutched each other and screamed when they saw him lying there. The memory of it makes it very hard to tell you about it. They wailed so loud and long that the service was delayed. We were all there, the choir and the people, waiting until we could calm them. There was no consolation. It broke everyone’s heart.
Finally, as soon as the service started, they were calmed. They sat weeping but not wailing. During the service, even the sky cried; raining just enough to wet our sheet music with drops. At the end, we kissed his body. There was more weeping and wailing but not like before. We carried the casket the hundred yards or so to the grave, said the graveside prayers, lowered the casket and filled in the grave. As is traditional, the sisters and their brother helped fill the grave.
Then we went back to the house for a mercy meal and remembrances of our old friend. By the time we left there Zoran’s kids were smiling and laughing remembering their father. We knew it would be hard, but they would be ok. That’s what a funeral is supposed to do.