Saturday, May 9, 2009

Customs and Traditions Surrounding the Funeral Service and What We Believe About Cremation

Customs and Traditions Surrounding the Funeral Service and What We Believe About Cremation

Planning the Funeral
Some people think that the funeral service is a terrible ordeal, needed to be dispensed with as soon as possible. In actuality, the service is of great importance, since it is designed to benefit the survivors, most of whom will receive some healing from it.

Funeral Services
The Trisagion (Tri SAH gee on) Service that begins with the Thrice Holy Prayer, held the evening before in a funeral home and the Funeral Service held on the day of the burial in the church are of great benefit. They bring the support of friends, relatives and community. They give the grieving survivors a goal, a stabilizing objective in those first uncharted, emotional days. Finally, they provide for a final, loving tribute and a public declaration of love.

When talking with your priest, express the adjectives, verbs, happenings that come to mind when you think of your deceased loved one. Describe some of your important experiences and share some of the important messages you received from God through your loved one that are a lasting legacy. Some of these thoughts will almost surprise you, and the memories will bring even newer understandings and appreciation of God’s great love in providing you such an important person in your life.

At the conclusion of the brief Trisagion Service it is customary for one or two individuals, a member of the family or a close friend, to give a short biography or share some important experiences that reveal the character, virtues and loving, unforgettable traits of the deceased.

It is important for the family that the life of the loved one be validated. His or her life had a purpose and an impact on the lives of others. In all honesty this is what we hope about ourselves. It would be unbearable to think that our life meant nothing to anyone, that it had no meaning or importance. This would be the cruelest of curses or punishment.

The Makaria (Ma ka REE ah) or Meal of Blessedness following the funeral is not only time-honored, but beneficial. In the partaking of food with family and friends one is able to remember some of the important and even funny experiences. Family and friends can share privately or even before the entire group some poignant moments of the past that shed light on the character of the individual being honored. Yes, sometimes there will even be laughter at the Makaria. Don’t think that this is irreverent to the memory of the deceased. Rather, it helps everyone get back to living so that the healing process can begin. These are the first steps in the slow process of recovery.

The type of food served at the Markaria is also of great significance. Scripture records that each time the Lord Jesus appeared to His disciples after His resurrection He asked to eat food to prove to them that He had physically risen. A spirit or an apparition cannot eat food.

In every instance our Lord ate fish. That is why we serve fish at the Makaria . It underscores our firm belief that our Lord did, indeed, destroy the power of death, and those who are joined to Him in baptism and in faith will share in His resurrection. So the food we eat reminds us that our loved one who is joined to Christ in faith and baptism shares in Christ’s resurrection. He or she is, therefore, with the Saints in the Eternal Kingdom.

The ancient Greek word for fish is Ichthys (eeh THEES) ICQUS. He who studies fish, for instance, is an ichthyologist. The early Christians made an acronym of this word with each letter signifying the first letter of the words for JESUS CHRIST GOD’S SON, SAVIOR. That is why you see the symbol of the fish in so many of the catacombs and movies depicting the first years of the nascent Church. It was a cryptic symbol of a Christian. The food we eat at the Makaria reinforces our belief in the resurrection and in the sovereignty of Jesus Christ, Who is God.

The 40-day and One-Year Memorial Services
On the Sunday closest to the fortieth day of the death of your loved one (usually the Sunday before, but not mandatory) a Memorial Service is held, when family and friends are invited to Church. The Kolyva (KO leave ah) or boiled wheat placed in a mound on a tray and covered with powdered sugar is another reinforcement of the belief in the resurrection.

“Unless a grain of wheat falls into the ground and dies, it remains alone, but if it dies, it produces much fruit.” (John 12:24) Just as a seed must be planted in the ground in order for it to emerge later as a large tree bearing fruit, greater and far different than the insignificant seed, so too, our bodies will be buried. After a period of time, they will emerge as something entirely different than they were. They will be sown a physical body, but will be raised a spiritual body. “The body is sown in incorruption, it is raised in incorruption. “ It is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory….” (1 Corinthians 15:42-49)

The sugar, pomegranate seeds, nuts, spices symbolize the sweetness of paradise. Family, friends and community taste and eat the Kolyva , and in so doing, the bitter taste of death is replaced by the sweetness of the resurrection.

The Memorial Service is repeated on the one year anniversary.

Following these services family and friends gather in the family home in another sharing of a meal (fish of course) to give their support and love as the grieving proceed into the next level of healing.

Remembering, an Act of Love
The Church also conducts Memorial Services on Saturdays during the year, called Saturday of Souls. It is a good practice to send in the first names of your deceased loved ones to the priest at these services so that they can be included in the prayers at the altar and by the congregation. Names may be turned in on namedays or anniversaries of the death of the loved ones.

Remembering our deceased loved ones is an act of love. What God does perfectly, we do in our limited way. If God were to forget us for a moment we would cease to exist. It is His loving memory that keeps us in existence. Our acts of remembering are a reflection of His great love that keeps our loved ones in Eternity.

While cremation is becoming more popular because of its assumed lower cost and because it is supposedly easier on the survivors, we are reminded that the Church has avoided cremation as a practice.

Cremation has its roots in a pagan philosophy that teaches us that man is only a soul and that the body a jail that is evil and that must be destroyed. For the Christian, however, man is both body and soul, and will be raised both body and soul, although a spiritualized body that can live on into eternity. The body, the temple of Holy Spirit, is God-created, good, and part of the very essence of man.
(Remember the Genesis story that everything God created was good).

The Christian tradition of burial came from the Jews, who did not practice cremation. Our Lord Himself was buried. Cremation is considered an act of violence against the body, an act that dishonors the vessel that carries the Holy Spirit.

Direct cremation, or disposal of the remains that allows no family viewing of the dead body, and no physical contact with it, makes the grief process more difficult. It does not allow a person the opportunity of directly facing the reality of death.
Death is not something to be ignored or camouflaged. It is not something to be hidden or avoided. Death hurts and brings tears, but tears are God-given. Jesus experienced them and cried when he learned of the death of his friend Lazarus.

Cremation and the quick disposal that takes away the body from view only hinder the healing process of grief and leaves scars. It is not easier, but actually more difficult for the survivors.

If cremation is insisted upon, then at least the Trisagion Service should be held for the family and friends in order for them to have an opportunity to view the deceased and face the reality of his death, and grieve the demise of the loved one. Funeral services may be held at a mortuary or at a graveside, but not in the church for those cremated.
Fr. Paris

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