Funeral Etiquette for a Greek Orthodox Church

Greek Orthodox funerals are based on ancient traditions.
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Every religious tradition conducts funeral services a bit differently. In the Greek Orthodox Church, laying the dead to rest involves a particular set of rituals, customs and rules of conduct. Funerals and burials are organized quickly, usually taking place within 24 to 48 hours, which reflects the Greek Orthodox acceptance of death. If you do not belong to the Greek Orthodox faith, you might be unaware of what to expect during these solemn ceremonies.

1 Funeral

A Greek Orthodox funeral service is called the Office of the Burial of the Dead. Conducted by a priest, the service includes prayers, hymns and selected biblical verses on the life and crucifixion of Jesus Christ. It begins with the ringing of the church bell calling mourners together. Although family members of the deceased dress in black, other mourners may wear neutral colors. Pallbearers carry the casket into the church and place it before the altar. In the Greek Orthodox faith, funerals are open-casket services, with a religious icon and cross positioned on or near the deceased's forehead. A loved one may deliver a eulogy. When the priest concludes the service, after hymns and prayers, mourners are permitted to view the body. They may kiss the icon, pay their final respects and leave flowers. The priest then anoints the body with oil and dust while reciting verses from the Old Testament.

2 Burial

After the funeral, the priest and mourners gather at the cemetery. Burial is preceded by a Trisagion service, which is an abridged ceremony consisting of closing hymns from the funeral. Following the hymns, the priest bestows final blessings on the casket. Mourners may stay during the lowering of the casket. They often toss flowers and soil into the grave. In the Greek Orthodox faith, a burial site faces east. Cremation is not allowed. After burial, mourners gather for a luncheon called the Makaria, in which fish is served. The fish is an ancient Christian symbol; it also serves as an acceptable main course during periods of mourning. The Makaria is an appropriate time for loved ones to share their remembrances. It is not suitable to serve desserts or bring flowers to the Makaria.

3 Mourning Period

Guests may visit the family after the funeral and burial. Light refreshments are shared among friends and loved ones. Wine, brandy, coffee and biscuits called paximathia are most commonly served. On the third day after death, the priest and family members visit the grave. Greek Orthodox Christians believe that the soul lingers for three days after a person dies. Beside the grave, the priest blesses a plate of boiled wheat called koliva and scatters it in the wind. The plate is then ritually broken on the tombstone, symbolizing the soul's release from the body. An official mourning period of 40 days follows. Within this period, it is not advisable to bring flowers or sweets when visiting the family. The 40 days of mourning are based on the time between Christ’s resurrection and ascension. For 40 days, mourners abstain from social life, especially parties and other festivities. It is not uncommon to extend the mourning period up to six years. Widowed mourners may choose to dress in black for their entire lives.

4 Memorial Service

A simple memorial service takes place after nine days. On the last Sunday of the 40-day mourning period, another memorial service is held at the cemetery, commemorating the soul's ascent into heaven. After this service, friends and family gather for coffee, brandy and cakes, along with koliva mixed with parsley, nuts, pomegranate seeds and sugar. Each ingredient of the koliva dish has a symbolic significance. Memorial services follow again after three and seven years. Memorial charity is a time-honored tradition in the Greek Orthodox Church. People often donate money to the church in memory of the deceased or make contributions to ministries or parish projects.

Shannon Leigh O'Neil, a New York City-based arts and culture writer, has been writing professionally since 2008. Her articles have appeared in "GO Magazine," "The New York Blade" and "HX Magazine," as well as online media. O'Neil holds a Master of Arts in modern art history from the City College of New York, where she also studied French and minored in classical languages.