The Burial of the Dead
Our burial office is suffused not just with sorrow but also with joy and confidence in the mercy of God. It also increasingly differs from the rites for the burial of the dead found in secular society. Modern society has returned unwittingly to the understanding of ancient paganism, which posited a sharp dichotomy between the soul (very valuable) and the body (completely disposable). For ancient pagans and for modern secularists, what really mattered was the soul. The body was regarded as the disposable earthly container for the soul, possessing no more lasting value than an envelope containing a letter. One keeps the letter (maybe) but throws away the envelope into the garbage. Similarly at a secular funeral today one says nice things about the soul but burns the body as if it were so much garbage. This burning is called “cremation” and is a thriving industry. The practice of cremation has always been execrated by Christians (and by Jews and Muslims) until fairly recently. Orthodox still object to the practice and insist upon committing the bodies of their deceased to the earth.
In Orthodox theology, it is the entire person, soul and body, which bears the image of God, since the human person is an amalgam of flesh and spirit. In and Orthodox funeral service, the deceased person is present for their funeral in the Church. They are not whisked from their hospital beds to the hospital morgue and thence to the crematorium. The Orthodox also do not hide the fact of death by having a “celebration of life” service, which ignores the very real and shocking fact of death, the unnatural separation of the soul from the body. The bodies of the departed are present at their funerals. The casket remains open so that their loved ones may see their faces as they pray for them. Then they are given the last kiss before the casket is closed, and they are reverently buried in the earth. The cemetery, the earth, forms the bed from which the dead will awake at the final resurrection on the Last Day. Indeed, the word “cemetery” comes from the Greek word koimeterion, and literally means “sleeping place”, since we confess that Christ has transformed death into a mere sleep, so that we will rise from death just as those who sleep awake and rise each new day.
The Orthodox burial office therefore presupposes that the dead person being buried will rise again. Christians share Christ’s victory over death. As death no longer has dominion over Christ, so it no longer has dominion over us. That is why the Church patterns its liturgy for Christian burial after the Holy Saturday Matins service, which celebrates Christ’s own burial and triumph over death. The usual elements of the Matins morning service (Psalm 119, Psalm 51, and the Canon) are there in the funeral service. As Christ died and was raised, so his disciples also die in sure and certain hope of their own resurrection. That is why the liturgical pattern of his burial forms the pattern for theirs.
Christian burials are therefore markedly different from secular ones. Ours are filled with hope and certainty and joy. As St. Paul wrote, we do not grieve as the hopeless world does (1 Thess 4:13). We give our beloved dead the last kiss, as a pledge that we will greet them again. We pray for their souls, confident of the mercy of Christ. We commit their flesh reverently to the earth, waiting for their final resurrection. And we refuse to let sorrow consume us. For Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death, and upon those in the tombs bestowing life.