Singing the Burial Service, or Funeral - Part I

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This article explains how to lead the singing of our burial service (funeral), from the beginning "in the home" to the end of the Stations.

This part of the funeral service can be found:

We will demonstrate how to sing both.

The service "in the home"

At one time, it was the responsibilty of the family and friends to wash the body of the one who had died, and dress them. A short memorial service (a panachida) might be celebrated in the home, or a wake or vigil (Parastas) might be held.

Then, on the morning on which burial was to take place, the priest would be summoned, and the burial service would begin in the home with the prayers we know as the Panachida:

"Blessed is our God"
"Holy God, Holy and Mighty" and the rest of the beginning prayers
The troparia for the deceased ("With the souls of the just brought to perfection....")
The Litany for the Deceased
Dismissal (and Eternal Memory was usually added)

A Gospel reading was sometimes intoned. Then the body would be taken to church.

Today, the body is usually cared for in the funeral home, but the order is the same: a Panachida is celebrated in the funeral home, and the body is taken to church. During the procession to church, "Holy God" might also be sung.

This part of the service can be sung from either the old funeral book (beginning on page 59), or from the Divine Liturgies book (p. 432), though in general the Divine Liturgies book would NOT be taken to the funeral home.

The service in church - old book

The funeral procession makes its way to the church, and then the body is taken into the narthex (vestibule or "porch") or, more commonly, into the nave of the church. Here begins the service "in the church" - what we often think of as the funeral proper. Let us follow this for now in the old funeral book (PDF).

The funeral procession usually stops at the door of the church, and a Gospel is read, with the usual responses ("Lord, have mercy", "And with your spirit", "Glory to you, O Lord, glory to you.") The cantor should be in the vestibule for this part of the service, to lead the the responses.

Then the body is taken into the church, as the processional "Holy God" continues to be sung.

Finally, the priest incenses, and gives the opening blessing:

and the cantor leads the response, "Amen", to the usual short melody. Use the time during the incensing to get to wherever you will normally stand during the liturgical service (choir loft, downstairs cantor stand etc.)

If it is during the Paschal season (Thomas Sunday to Ascension), the Paschal troparion "Christ is risen" is sung three times. (Recall that during Bright Week itself, the funeral service is quite different.)

Psalm 90

The service opens with an invitation to prayer:

Come, let us adore the King, our God.
Come, let us adore Christ the King and our God.
Come, let us adore and bow down to the only Lord Jesus, the King and our God.

followed by Psalm 90, a psalm of trust in God's protection. No music is given, but there is a note that this part of the service "is not prescribed for parochial usage." This is simply a fancy way of saying that we usually skip it. If your parish, or the celebrating priest, DOES want to take this part, chant both the invitation and the Psalm to the usual Psalm tone. (By tradition, the Psalm can also be sung to the Tone 8 kontakion melody.)

The Litany of Peace

Now we sing the Litany of Peace - or at least a litany that begins like the familiar Litany of Peace ("In peace, let us pray to the Lord.") But all of the petitions are actually for the person who has died, and for the survivors and those present in church. The funeral book prescribes that all should sit, but please don't try to sing yourself while sitting!

The old funeral book provides not two, but THREE alternating melodies for the "Lord, have mercy" responses. You can use all three in regular rotation, or pick two and alternate.

The Alleluia and Troparia

If this were Matins, we would either sing "The Lord is God" (on feast days) or "Alleluia" (on fast days). Here we sing "Alleluia", with verses, to the Tone 8 kontakion melody, followed by the troparia for the deceased.

The book does NOT say who sings the "Alleluia", and who sings the verses. In practice, the priest usually sings the "Alleluia" (the easy part) and the cantor and people sing the verses, all to the Tone 8 troparion melody. Then the cantor and people should sing the troparia that follow, in Tone 8 troparion and Tone 8 kontakion. Notice that this version of the Tone 8 troparion melody is a bit simpler than what you may be used to from the green Divine Liturgies book.

The First Station

Next we sing Psalm 118, a long meditation on God's law, divided into two sections or "stations" (standings). In the Matins of Holy Saturday, we are to imagine this psalm as being sung by Christ: his love of the Father, and of the law and good will of the Father, enabled him to carry out all that was necessary for our salvation. Here in the funeral, the psalm suggests that the Christian is, in a sense, another Christ - someone who has died and risen with Christ in baptism, who has chosen to love and follow God's law.

As with the Alleluia, there is no indication whatsoever of who sings the verses of the psalm (beginning "Blessed are they whose life is blameless, who walk in the law of the Lord"), and who sings the refrain:

Blessed are you, O Lord; guide me by your precepts.

But in general, it is the priest who will sing the verses; the cantor and people sing the refrain after each verse. So practice that refrain!

The priest's last verse is sung to a different melody:

Had not your law been my delight, O Lord, I should have perished in my affliction.

The cantor and faithful respond with another verse of the psalm, to the same melody:

Never will I forget your precepts, O Lord, for through them you give me life.

Notice that these are essentially positive statements about a disciple of Christ: We put into the mouth of the deceased the mind of Christ, that God's law is to be followed, and that it will bring much good in its wake. Even in death - that is, of one who has died and risen with Christ - following God's law leads to life.

The Second Station

The second part of Psalm 118 is sung like the first; the priest sings verses, beginning:

I am yours; save me, O Lord.

And the cantor and people respond after each verse with their own prayer to God on behalf of the one who has died:

O Savior, save the soul of your servant!

The priest's last verse follows a different melody:

Let me soul live to praise you, O Lord; and may your precepts help me.

The cantor and people sing another verse to the same melody:

I have gone astray like a lost sheep; seek your servant, because I do not forget your commandments, O Lord.

Take note: these last two verses are in a different key signature, with a tonic pitch of C. So the opening pitches of the last two verses are mi - fa - sol.

Hymns for the Deceased

Instead of a third station, we have special hymns, the Evlogitaria ("good words", or "words of blessing") with the refrain, "Blessed are you, O Lord; guide me by your precepts." In most places, the cantor and people sing BOTH the refrains and the hymns, just as we do at Matins on Sundays with the Evlogitaria of the Resurrection (called "Hosts of Angels". from the opening words:
"The hosts of angels were amazed and dazzled / when they beheld you, O Savior, among the dead."

These hymns all follow the same, fairly simple melody.

The Sessional Hymn or Sedalen

The last hymn in this section is a sedalen or sessional hymn ("sitting hymn"; a session of a legislature or a trial is the period during which everyone is seated). This hymn (two hymns, actually, with Glory... now and ever in the middle) are sung to the Tone 5 troparion melody:

O Savior, rest your servant with the just * and place (him/her) in your courts as it is written. * O Savior, you love mankind and are gracious. * Therefore, remit all (his/her) voluntary and involuntary sins * and all those commited knowingly and unknowingly.

Glory... now and ever....

O Christ our God, through the Virgin you appeared to the world. * And through her, show us to be the children of light. (pause) Have mercy on us.

The second hymn has a slightly different and quite plaintive ending. But the book also says that the sedalen is "not prescribed for parochial usage", so you will not be required to learn it here.


The service in church - new book

Now let's look at the exact same part of the service in the cantor's version of the draft funeral book which has been prepared by the Inter-Eparchial Music Commission. Remember that this is a DRAFT, and is likely to change; also, it is being made available only for use in the MCI Online class, Services for the Departed, and is not to be redistributed.

The service "in the church" starts on page 1 with a Gospel reading and the singing of "Holy God." The Gospel responses do NOT use the same melodies as at the Divine Liturgy; instead, they use the melodies for these responses from Matins (they are also used for molebens), since the funeral service is based on Matins.

"Part I and Part II"

The first thing to note about this funeral book is that after the entrance into the church, it divides the funeral "in the church" into two parts, Part I and Part II. The first part (Psalm 90 and the Stations) may be omitted in its entirety IF it was sung at a parastas the night before. The second part consists of Psalm 50, the Canon, and the optional Divine Liturgy.

Psalm 90

Part I begins with the opening blessing, the optional Paschal troparion, and Psalm 90 with its invitation. This opening psalm is always to be included (unless all of Part I is omitted). It can either be chanted to the usual psalm tone, or sung to Tone 8 kontakion. Music for both options is provided.

The Litany of Peace

The Litany of Peace for the Departed uses the same "for the departed" melodies as at the Litany of Peace in the Divine Liturgy, but here they are sung more than once.

The Alleluia and Troparia

Next, the Alleluia is sung in Tone 8 troparion. Unlike the old funeral book, the new book is very explicit about who sings what: the deacon (or priest) sings first, using the first phrase of Tone 8 troparion, and then the cantor and people respond by singing "Alleluia! Alleluia! Alleluia!" using the second phrase of Tone 8 troparion.

Then troparia for the departed are sung. These use exactly the forms of Tone 8 troparion and Tone 8 kontakion we are used to from the green Divine Liturgies book - and in fact, they are the same as the troparia for the departed dwhich are used at the requiem Divine Liturgy, and found on pages 428-429 in the Divine Liturgies book.

The First Station

In turning to the First Station on page 15, we notice two things right away:

There is a good bit of music here, but most of it is for the priest. As cantor, be sure you can sing either refrain melody, and you should be good.

As in the old funeral book, the last verse and refrain change the pattern, but the music here is quite easy.

The Second Station

The Second Station (starting on page 18) also indicates which verses of Psalm 118 are being chanted (here, from verse 94 to verse 176, the last verse in the psalm.)

But here, there is only one refrain to learn:

I am yours; save me, O Lord.

Again, the last verse and refrain use a different melody.

Hymns for the Deceased

In the old book, these hymns were first provided with text only (some in smaller type, indicating that they were usually omitted), followed by corresponding music in two sizes.

Here in the new book, there is an opening note saying that you can choose any three of the hymns, plus the "Glory..." and "Now and ever..." hymns. The text is somewhat changed, but the melody is simply and recognizable.

Small Litany

A small litany, missing from the old book, is added here as an option. Small litanies were created to "cover" the quiet saying of a prayer by the priest, after these prayers were no longer prayed aloud. Small litanies also mark the end of major sections of a liturgical service; one can be found on page 122 of the Divine Liturgies book, at the conclusion of the Vespers portion of a Vigil Divine Liturgy.

The Sessional Hymn or Sedalen

In the new book, the sessional hymn (in two parts, with Glory... now and ever...) is NOT optional, and it is always sung to the same Tone 5 troparion melody as is used elsewhere in the green Divine Liturgies book.

One thing to note: here, as in some other places, the hymns have options for "him", "her", and "them." This is most likely a relic of the fact that the same music is used at the Parastas, when we definitely can pray for several people. But funerals for several persons at once are fairly rare, and it is possible that in the new funeral book (but not in the parastas), the hymns might be made simpler by omitting the "they" and "them" options where they occcur.


For the next part of the service, see Singing the Burial Service - Part II.