Project Canterbury

An Aid for Churchmen Episcopal and Orthodox
Toward a Mutual Understanding, by Means of a Brief Comparison of the Rites and Ceremonies of the Orthodox Church
with those of the Episcopal (Anglican Church)

By the Rev. H. Henry Spoer, B.D., Ph.D.
Sometime Lecturer at the Lichfield Theological College, England

Milwaukee, Wisconsin: Morehouse, 1930.
London: Mowbray, 1930.

Chapter IX. Burial of the Dead

The "passing bell," to be heard in certain districts of rural England, within living memory, and possibly not yet wholly extinct, was interpreted by the people as a reminder to pray for the soul of the neighbor who was passing away. It was probably the last remnant of the cycle of prayers which medieval piety maintained about the sick and dying, ending with a solemn farewell in the name of the Blessed Trinity, as is also the case in "The Order of Prayers at the Departure of a Soul" of the Orthodox Church. After death, came the Service of Commendation, while the body was prepared for burial, then the Requiem Mass, and the sprinkling of the body with holy water, and lastly, the actual Burial Service. Memorial Services were held, during the following month, especially on the third, seventh, and thirtieth day, when doles of food and money were distributed among the poor. Provision was often made for the permanent continuance of these doles, and in many parishes of rural England they are still distributed at fixed dates, often at the tomb of the Founder. By 1549 the Anglican usages had changed as to detail, but the Service retained its old dignity of outline. In 1552 the Memorial Service or "Office for the Dead," as well as the Eucharist, was given up.

In 1928 the American Branch of the Church restored, in some degree, that which had been removed from the Service of the Visitation of the Sick in earlier days. A Litany for the Dying is now followed by the Lord's Prayer, with a Collect, an Absolution, a Commendation, and a "Commendatory Prayer when the Soul is Departed," as well as "Anointing or Laying on of Hands," if the "sick person shall in humble faith desire" it, thus restoring the office into closer accordance with the ancient forms.

The recollection that these were all, at one time, familiar details of the Anglican Service will dispose us to greater sympathy and understanding of them, as well as of other resemblances which might be pointed out, when we consider the Services of the Orthodox Church.

The dying man is visited in his last hours and, as in our own Church, urged to confession of sin against his neighbor, and to the making of reparation. An Office consisting largely of hymns is said, which has the title, "Order of Prayers at the Departure of the Soul."

Service at the House

The first part of the Burial Service is conducted at the house, and the rubric orders that "on the decease of one of the Orthodox the priest shall be at once sent for," which reminds us of the rubric in our Prayer Book according to which the "Office is appropriate to be used only for the faithful departed in Christ."

The priest, wearing the epitrachelion, stole, begins by censing the body and those present, and a holy icon is placed in the hands of the corpse. After an ascription of praise the following troparia are sung:

"O Saviour rest the soul of Thy servant with the souls of the righteous that have finished their course, keeping it in that blessed life which is with Thee, O Lover of Mankind."

"In Thy resting-place, O Lord, where all Thy servants repose, cause also the soul of Thy servant to rest, for Thou only art immortal."

A litany, said by the deacon, is followed by a prayer of special beauty, said silently by the priest, and which is repeated many times in the course of the Offices for the Burial of the Dead:

"O God of Spirits and of all flesh, who hast trodden down death, and hast overcome the evil one, and hast bestowed life upon the world, rest, O Lord, the soul of Thy servant N. who has fallen asleep, in a place of light, in a place of verdure, in a place of coolness, whence pain and grief and sighing are driven away; remit, O Good and Man-loving God, every iniquity wrought by him in word or deed or thought, for there is no man living who does not sin; for Thou alone art sinless. Thy righteousness is righteousness to all eternity, and Thy word is truth."

The priest finishes aloud:

"For Thou art the Resurrection, the Life and the Repose of Thy servant N. who has fallen asleep, O Christ our God, and to Thee we ascribe glory with the Father, who is from everlasting, and Thy all-holy and good and life-imparting Spirit, now and for evermore. Amen."

After the Gloria Patri follows the Dismissal. [It may be noted that in the Orthodox Burial Service especial emphasis is laid throughout upon the bliss awaiting the departed.

The Burial Service is unduly lengthened by the fact that certain portions are repeated several times.

Service at the Church

After the Dismissal, all proceed to the church, preceded by the priest followed by light-bearers, and the deacon with the censer.

The body is placed in the narthex, or in the church itself. The mourners carry lighted candles, and the deacon the censer. The Service is, for the most part, chanted. After Psalm 91, Psalm 119, abbreviated to the first and last line of each section, is chanted in three portions. These are interspersed with prayers and exclamations, such as "Alleluia . . . Have mercy upon Thy servant . . . For Thou art the Resurrection and the Life and the Repose of Thy departed servant, N." Further prayers with responses are followed by Psalm 41, and various hymns including one by the well-known hymn writer and theologian, St. John Damascene. The Beatitudes are read, those from the fifth, inclusive, being "farced," that is, interspersed with additions suited to the occasion, in the following manner:

"Blessed are the merciful for they shall obtain mercy. O Christ, who for his penitence, didst make the thief a citizen of Paradise when, on the cross, to Thee he cried, Remember me; even me, the unworthy, count worthy."

A gradual, which follows, brings out the hopeful aspect of that which lies before the departed. "Blessed is the way in which thou walkest today, O soul; for a place of rest is prepared for thee!" The Epistle and Gospel which follow are from I Thessalonians 4: 13-17, and St. John 5: 24-30. A short litany said by the deacon is followed by a touching ceremony known as "The Last Kiss." The prayer "O God of Spirits" is again said, after which eleven stanzas of singular beauty are sung:

"Come, brethren, let us give the last kiss unto the dead, rendering thanks to God. For he hath left his kin, and presseth onward to the grave, and careth no longer concerning vanities, and the much suffering flesh. . . . Let us beseech the Lord to give him rest.

"... Come ye now, kiss ye him who was but lately with us, for he is committed to the grave. . . . Let us beseech the Lord," etc. [Cf. J. M. Neale, D.D., Hymns of the Eastern Church: Stichera of the Last Kiss in the Burial Service.]

This dirge is followed by a chant put into the mouth of the departed, in which he speaks of the suddenness of the coming of the last hour, and asks for the parting kiss and for the continual prayers of his friends:

"I beg and entreat all unceasingly to pray to Christ God for me, that, for my sins, I be not led down unto the place of torment, but that He may appoint my lot where is the light of life."

After ascriptions of praise, the priest of highest rank present thrice utters the assurance:

"Thy remembrance be everlasting, O our brother, who art worthy to be deemed blessed and ever-remembered."

And the choir echoes "Everlasting remembrance."

The Prayer of Absolution follows, read "with a loud voice" by the bishop or the chief priest present.

Service at the Grave

The body is now carried to the grave, followed by the mourners, and preceded by the priest, singing.

The rubric in the Russian Service is as follows:

"And the mortal remains are buried with thanksgiving and with joy, and with the song 'Open, O earth, and receive that which was made from thee.'"

It may be noted that the body is always fully dressed and is carried in an open coffin. In former days many thousands of Russian pilgrims visited the Jordan at Epiphany, on the occasion of the Blessing of the Waters, an annual festival in the Orthodox Church, in remembrance of the Baptism of Christ. Great numbers of men and women entered the newly-blessed water, wrapped in their shrouds, and often taking with them other shrouds which they carried home to their friends. These shrouds were made of cotton, printed at the Convent of the Holy Sepulchre, with pictures of the Crucifixion and of Holy Places. They were of the exact proportion of the stone just within the entrance of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, which is said to cover the spot where our Lord's body was prepared for the grave.

There are three other Offices, for a child under seven years of age, for a person dying at Easter-tide, and for a priest.

The Burial of a Priest

Those holding Orders below that of a priest are buried as laymen, except that the deacon has a censer placed in his hand.

The Service for the burial of a priest follows the main lines of that for a layman. Three priests undress the body and anoint it with oil, after which it is dressed in priestly garments put on over those of ordinary life. A chalice veil covers the face, and a copy of the Gospels is placed upon the breast.

Psalms are chanted, and lessons are read from the Epistles and Gospels. As the body is carried to the grave, the priests sing the Theme Songs of the Great Kanon of St. Andrew of Crete (died 720). After prayers, a litany, and the recital of the concluding portions of the Rite of Burial of a Layman, the priest of highest rank present reads the Prayer of Absolution, which is then placed in the hand of the dead priest by his confessor.

Burial of a Child

A child under seven years of age, as we have seen, is not required to confess, and is regarded as innocent of wilful sin. We have, therefore, such a stanza in the Kanon of the Dead:

"O Christ the Saviour, Thou who hast taken unto Thyself this spotless child, before it has become tempted by the pleasures of earth, accounting it worthy of eternal good things, as Thou art the Lover of Mankind."

The speech put into the mouth of the child, a troparion called exaposteilarion, is the same as for a departed priest, and differs from that assigned to the adult laity:

"Now I am at rest and have found great release, for I have been removed from corruption and have passed over into life. Glory be to Thee, O Lord."

For a child the prayers of the survivors are not requested. A beautiful Service for the Burial of a Child has been added in our revised Prayer Book.

Burial at Easter-tide

The sentiment in regard to burial at Easter-tide is thus expressed in the Russian Service Book: "As all who have died in the risen Christ, in the hope of resurrection and of life eternal, have been taken unto God through Christ's Resurrection from the sorrowful things of this world, to things joyful and blissful, the Church proclaimeth the Hymns of Resurrection over these dead. . . . Very little of the customary Office for the Dead is sung . . . for it is the festival of joy and gladness and not of lamentation." This being Easter-tide, the ode familiar to us in Neale's versification, "The Day of Resurrection," is sung.

The Requiem Office

This Office, known as "Trisagion" after the well-known Invocation which occurs at the opening, consists mainly of prayers from the Burial Service. It is appointed to be said for the repose of the soul of the dead every day, especially upon certain dates, such as the Sabbath of the Dead, which corresponds to our All Souls' Day; the Saturdays of Lent, that of the first week being the most important; the Saturdays before Whitsuntide (when the Feast of Trinity is also commemorated), and certain minor Saints' Days.

A Celebration of the Holy Communion marks the anniversary of a death "for the absolution of his sins, and for the repose of his soul." On the occasion of the Requiem, a special dish, called kolyba, is placed upon a small table in the church, consisting of boiled wheat mixed with honey, to which raisins are often added, and which is a reminder of the Resurrection; the grain, which must be buried in order to bring forth fruit, signifying the mouldering of the body in the ground, and the honey, the sweetness of future bliss. A lighted taper, set upright in the dish, typifies the illumination of the Christian in baptism, as well as the light of the world which knows no setting. The whole is regarded as an offering of sacrifice to God, as a propitiation for the dead, in honor of God the Sovereign Lord over life and death. This dish is offered to strangers as well as to friends in the narthex, or in country places, outside the church, if possible at the grave. Each says as he receives a portion: "Blessed be the memory of the departed."


The State of the Departed. The Orthodox Church repudiates any teaching of purgatory such as is held in the Church of Rome. The Intermediate State is regarded as a condition in which both saint and unrepentant sinner will find themselves till their final condition is declared after the Resurrection and the Judgment, either that of eternal bliss or of damnation. "To those departed ones who erred, we ask the All-Merciful to show mercy, and, if it is His will, to forgive them. Death does not separate those who have gone before from those who remain. The judge has not yet come, in order to assign to each person a future of eternal happiness or torment. And the mercies of God are as an unfathomable abyss." (N. Callinicos, op. cit., p. 48. See also F. Gavin, Greek Orthodox Thought, p. 412, for discussion of the question of purgatory in Greek theology.)

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