Inside our churches we often witness a sad sight. Relatives come to make burial arrangements for an Orthodox Old-believer and, from the point of view of a faithful person, the first quite logical question: “Who is the spiritual father (confessor) of the departed?” brings about confusion in those who have come. The second question: “When was the last time they had been to confession?” leads to relatives scrambling to contact each other in order to find out. Their grandmother or grandfather had “not been able to walk for a long time”; before that they attended church, but no one remembers the last time or to which church. And it turns out that they themselves were “baptised correctly” sometime and by someone, but now they go to “an ordinary church, because God is the same everywhere”.
The discussion of God being one and the same is a separate and complex one. Here, in this article, we briefly answer the basic questions of the relatives of Old-believers who come to the church seeking a burial. Perhaps this simple material will come to the attention of the loved ones of already elderly and infirmed Old-believers, and will prompt them to concern themselves with the eternal fate of their relatives in due time. Perhaps the following will be useful to clergymen who are faced with the need to explain to descendants of the Old-believers who have torn themselves away from their roots what they should do in this sad situation.
The death of a loved one is always an enormous sorrow. It seems that the world around is coming to a stop, and that we cannot change anything. For the deceased, this is indeed the case. The time when they were able to do something has ended. But we, the living survivors, can do a great deal for them. First and foremost is to fulfil a burial according to Orthodox traditions.
What needs to be done first
The church staunchly opposes any pathological studies performed upon the dead. The Holy Council of 2017 recalled that believers in most cases could refuse to have an autopsy performed; in order to do this, it is necessary to prepare a written statement while alive, and after death, close relatives can lodge a written request to refuse the autopsy. Cremation of the body of the deceased is completely incompatible with the Orthodox tradition.
There are traditions for washing the body of the deceased and laying into the coffin. Where possible, it is preferable to comply with them.
A person who has died in the faith is dressed the same way within the coffin as they were during their life when praying in church. Men put on a shirt and trousers; women wear a shirt, a sarafan (long Russian dress), a povoinik (headdress worn by married women) and a scarf. On the feet – soft shoes. There must absolutely be a Cross worn around the neck. The coffin is lined with a specially prepared shroud, and the body of the deceased is placed into the shroud.
A Shroud is a piece of white cotton or linen cloth that is two times longer than the height of the deceased, and about a meter wide. The cloth is folded in half and sewn along one long side resulting in a mantle or cowl, as it were, reaching up to the heels. That part of the shroud that is placed around the head has a thick thread stitched along the fold line. On pulling this thread, the head of the shroud tightens so that the edges of the shroud frame the face of the deceased. These edges are usually trimmed with lace or a hem.
The hands of the deceased are folded crosswise across the chest, right hand over the left, and the fingers of both hands are formed to make the two fingered sign of the Cross. A new lestovka (prayer rope) is placed into the left hand.
After that, a narrow white ribbon about five meters long is passed under the head of the deceased. The two long ends are wrapped around the body three times in such a way that three crosses are formed at the front: the first on the chest, where the arms are folded; the second on the hips; the third on the knees. The remaining length of the ribbon are wrapped around the feet of the deceased.
In the church, a venchik (paper band) with three crosses and a prayer is placed on the forehead of the deceased to signify our faith in the Holy Trinity, and that the departed will be rewarded for their fulfilment of God’s commandments.
At home or in church
Burial usually takes place on the third day after death. Prior to the burial, the coffin stands at home or inside the church. At home, the coffin is situated in a room where there is the “beautiful corner” with icons. Here the deceased is placed so that they face the icons. A small icon is also put at the hands of the deceased.
In order to conduct the rite of burial, the coffin with the body of the departed is brought to the church. Here prayers are uttered over him, commonly referred to as the “otpevaniye” (similar to last rites). Relatives should be present in church for the service. In contrast to pagan funereal customs, which arranged for loud wailing over the departed lasting for many days, the Christian burial, on the contrary, instils hope for a better future for those departed in faith, and encourages us sinners to follow the salvific path. Sometimes it is not possible to bring the deceased to the church; in this case the priest conducts the prayers in absentia.
Burial, as a rule, is performed by the spiritual father of the departed, that is, the priest who accepted their confession. If for some reason the spiritual father cannot attend the burial, his permission is still required. The burial ceremony is undertaken only for Orthodox Christians, that is, those who were baptised immersively, attended church, went to confession and partook of the Holy Mysteries. Therefore, it is very important to make sure that our loved ones make their confession and partake of the Holy Communion while they are alive, especially our elderly and sick relatives. If a person had not attended confession for more than a year, they may be denied burial.
Who is deprived of a church burial
- Unbelievers in the One God, in the Resurrection of Christ and in the universal resurrection of the dead, and consciously adhering to any pernicious heresies.
- Sorcerers, magicians, fortune-tellers, palmists and astrologers, those engaged in spiritualism, etc., should they not repent, nor incur penance for this.
- Suicidists, as they have voluntarily rejected the life given to them by God.
- To the rank of suicidists are included those who, seeing a clear danger to their lives, for example, big waves on a river, raging flames, severe frost, etc., disregard this danger without any rational reason (i.e. for example, not in order to rescue someone who is perishing, but to become renowned for their courage or boldness, or to win an argument, or while in an inebriated state), and throw themselves into the waves, or into the depths, or into the flames, or leave the house in light clothing during intensely cold weather and die as a result.
- Also counted among suicidists are those who died from alcohol, drugs; or from a fatal blow incurred in a fight which was instigated by rage, vengeance, or audacity; or from choking on food, drink, or a bone when voraciously consuming food, or because they were conversing and laughing while eating and drinking.
- Those who consciously injured themselves in such a way that resulted in death.
Someone who committed suicide following someone’s instruction or out of despair due to constant deprivation or bullying is not considered a suicidist.
What is prayed for during the burial service
The main part of the burial service, just as with other services commemorating the departed, consists of the 17th Kathisma (psalm 118 by the prophet David). In this kathisma, we are imparted with a model of life in God and for God. We read it at the burial with the belief that our fellow deceased in God managed to pass through their life in a dignified manner, and their path after death will be a continuation of their blissful earthly life.
The essence of the prayers read during the burial service is that all our cares for earthly vanity: wealth, glory, respect – will ultimately end at the moment of our demise.
The Epistle and Gospel tell us that the death that we are now faced with is merely a dream for true believers in Christ. The body created by God from the earth is now returning to its original state, it is becoming earth again. But, obeying God’s command, it will rise again during His second coming and unite with the soul in order to live forever in the Kingdom of God.
If the priest does not accompany the coffin to the grave, then here, in the church, the farewell is held (forgiving and asking for forgiveness). Loved ones, in pairs, first approach the Cross to the left of the coffin, and then the deceased. Without crossing themselves, two prostrations are made before the coffin:
Forgive me (the name of the departed) for Christ’s sake (bow to the ground without the sign of the Cross).
And God will forgive you (bow to the ground without the sign of the Cross and, crossing oneself, kiss the venchik and the icon).
Should you gain audacity before the Lord, pray for me, a sinner (bow to the ground without the sign of the Cross).
After this farewell, the priest on behalf of the spiritual father reads the permissive prayer and places this so-named document into the hand of the deceased. Some people attach great, undue significance to this document, even calling it a “pass to the next world.” The document is indeed of great significance, because with it the priest resolves the vows of the deceased before God: the sins of which they repented at confession and against which they sincerely battled. By the power vested in him by God (“whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven”), the clergyman remits the sins of the deceased, in which they repented, so that their soul may go to worship their Creator unhindered. However, the important thing in this case is not so much the piece of paper as the recited prayer itself. It is the result of the spiritual works of the deceased, and the purification of their transgressions. But only one who aspired toward cleanliness during their life can be purified, and only of that which the deceased tried to rid themselves of during their life can they be cleansed.
Layout of the grave
The burial place of the deceased is, above all, the place where prayers will be conducted for them. The deceased is interred facing east, as a sign of their faith in the Resurrection of Christ and, as it were, in anticipation of the universal resurrection of the dead. An eight-pointed Cross is erected over the grave, at the feet of the deceased. The grave should be well-maintained, as a sign of our respect for the departed one. But our deceased loved ones no longer need flowers and wreaths; slabs or flower beds are not important for them, but prayer. Therefore, the most important thing that should be at the cemetery is the Cross before Which we can pray. Being in close proximity to the final resting place of our deceased relatives, we penetrate deeper into the meaning of prayer with our mind and heart.
Some people believe that frequent visits to the cemetery “disturb the dead”. Such an opinion can hardly be called an Orthodox one. We can hardly disturb the souls of the departed, especially if we visit the cemetery with the intention to pray for them.
The third, ninth and fortieth day
According to the tradition passed down by our holy fathers, following the separation of the soul from the body, the soul is tested by demons in those sins that it committed in its lifetime. The most embittered and impious souls are immediately abducted by demons, who carry them to the underworld. Other souls, kept by holy Angels, give account of their deeds and on the third day they are brought to worship the throne of God.
Then the Angels again take the soul to the world and point out their evil or good deeds, recalling the days, hours and people. On the ninth day, the soul again comes to worship God. After this, the Angels show them the abodes of the afterlife: places of bliss for the righteous, and torment and suffering for sinners.
On the fortieth day after their death, a trial is performed. They hear God’s verdict about their fate. A soul adorned with virtues is settled in a place of rest until the universal resurrection of the dead. The soul of a sinner is imprisoned in the dungeons of hades, where, with lamentation and wailing, they await the day of resurrection and the Terrible Judgment, when they will be sent to eternal torment together with their body.
But even after this period, God’s mercy does not abandon the soul without hope, even if they are condemned to torment by their own deeds. This hope endures until the Terrible Judgment, for the Lord wants not for a single soul to perish, bearing even a minor leaven of the true faith and virtue. The shortcomings and sins of such a person, even if they are very great, can be made up for by their loved ones with prayer, alms, and good deeds.
Prayers for the departed at home and in church
Proskomedia. At each liturgy in the altar, the priest commemorates departed Orthodox Christians. It is possible to submit a zapiska (note with the name/s of the departed) “for the proskomedia” – in the altar the priest will excise a portion from a prosphora with a prayer for the departed. This commemoration is considered the most important, since the departed person thus takes part in the most important mystery of the Church – Communion.
Litany. At dedicated times of a church service there are petitions for the departed. In order for a departed person to be commemorated, it is possible to write a zapiska “for the litany”. In order for the departed to be commemorated during all services over the course of the year, it is possible to commission a year-long commemoration.
A Litiya is a small church service during which one or more departed people are prayed for.
Panikhida (memorial service). On the fortieth day after death, on the anniversary or the name’s day of the departed, when it is not possible to conduct a proskomedia, there is a custom to pray a panikhida (memorial service). A panikhida can be undertaken either at home and in the church, with or without a priest. Every panikhida concludes with a litiya.
The canon for the departed is an abbreviated version of the panikhida. For forty days after the death, the relatives of the deceased try to pray the canon daily. The reading of the forty canons can be requested from the clergy in the church.
Psalter. As long as the body of the deceased is not interred, it is customary to constantly pray the Psalter over them. Some zealous relatives continue to read the Psalter even after the burial, aspiring to complete the Psalter forty times by the fortieth day. Clergymen can also be queried about the possibility of praying such a ‘sorokoust’ (forty Psalters) for the deceased.
How much does this cost
All religious services, including the burial service, as a rule, are free of charge. In memory of the departed, you can donate to the church or priest as much as you desire and according to your means. In different churches a symbolic fee may be assigned for a zapiska and religious services, but even in this case the indicated amount is your donation. Where possible, it may be more than the indicated amount. But even when faced with financial hardship, you will not refused a burial and commemoration of your relatives.
Lighting a candle
A candle is our sacrifice to God. It can be placed in church or lit at home. Commemorative services are done in front of the so-called panikhida (memorial) table: this is a table with recesses for candles, upon which a crucifix is affixed. Here you can put candles during any Divine service, even festive ones. One way or another, Orthodox Christians who departed in the faith are commemorated during each service: thus the unity of the Church on earth and in heaven is affirmed.
Any Saturday is considered to be a “Commemorative” day of the week. On certain Saturdays of the year, the church service is wholly held in honour of the departed:
- Universal (Meatfare) souls Saturday;
- Universal (Trinitarian) souls Saturday;
- Demetrius’ souls Saturday;
- The second, third and fourth Saturdays of Great Lent.
Another commemorative day is the Tuesday of St. Thomas week: Radonitsa.
What else can I do?
The most important thing is to try to at least slightly improve your life in honour of the departed, to become kinder, more tolerant, more attentive to the needy and to the grief of others. If the memory of our dearly departed ones makes us better, for God this is more valuable than candles and hundreds of words.
Alms. In memory of the departed, especially during the first forty days, alms are given out in abundance. This may be produce, money or belongings. They can be given to anyone in need: brought to the church, handed over to a priest, shared with poor neighbours or given to beggars on the street.
Offerings to the church. The “founders of this Church” are commemorated during each service. Your offering, given in memory of a relative, enlists them among the founders of the Church even after their death.
A commemorative meal is also considered alms. However, it should be carried out as decently as possible. If the day of commemoration happened to fall on a Lenten day, then the menu should be necessarily Lenten. If it is difficult to prepare a Lenten table, it is better to postpone the commemorative meal to another day.
What not to do
- Placing belongings and notes into the coffin of the deceased in order to transfer them to the “other world”;
- Placing alcoholic spirits on the commemorative table;
- Placing a glass and bread near a photograph of the deceased;
- Giving as alms cigarettes and alcohol;
- Leaving pancakes, sweets, etc. “for the deceased” at the cemetery.
Forty days have passed; what is next?
There are two special days for the commemoration of the departed: the date of their death and their name’s day. On these days, it is possible to request a prayer in the church, to bring some type of produce to the church to the clergymen for their mention of the departed.
At home, prayers may be done for the departed daily. At any service, a candle can be lit in church. Your deeds for the deceased will always be invaluable, because the time when they could do something for themselves is past. Your prayer gives the deceased righteous ones an indescribable joy, and relief to a deceased sinner.
Some families keep lists with the entire familial line recorded. These lists are passed down from generation to generation, and great-grandchildren pray for their great-grandfathers in the hope that their children will bring this familial list to the church in turn.
If you have relatives who, due to their age or for health reasons, cannot come to the church themselves, make sure that they are visited by a priest.
Every Christian should have a spiritual father – a priest who accepts a confession from a person, instructs them, and helps them construct a spiritual life. By tradition, Christians come to confession four times a year during the fasts. If your loved ones cannot do this themselves, invite a priest to attend to them at home. Today, priests are allowed to visit the infirmed in hospitals, even in intensive care. Repentance will unburden the soul; communion will fortify mental and physical strength. Sometimes this visit becomes the decisive factor in determining the posthumous fate of our loved ones.