Singing the Burial Service, or Funeral - Part II


This article explains how to lead the singing of our burial service (funeral), from Psalm 50 and the beginning of the canon to the end of the hymns of St. John Damascene. This is the most musically sophisticated part of the service.

The canon for the deceased

Before continuing, read the article on Canons to find out what a canon is, and how in general they are sung.

The canon occurs in the second half of Matins, after a Gospel reading if there is one, where it is preceded by the chanting of Psalm 50.

There are two different canons for the departed:

In our current funeral book, BOTH canons are completely omitted, along with Psalm 50. (They can be found in the Parastas, but are often omitted).

In the new funeral book, either canon may be sung in the funeral service. If the funeral begins with the Stations and will include a Divine Liturgy, Psalm 50 is chanted but the canon may be omitted.

Singing the canon in Tone 6

Here's the problem, which I hope will be addressed before the new funeral book is printed:

When a canon is sung in the Slavic tradition, the irmos and the short refrains are sung (by the choir, or by all), while the troparia are "read" - that is, intoned or chanted simply by a reader.

The sole exception is the Paschal canon, in which ALL the troparia are sung. (If you have a copy of Paschal Matins, take a look: the first irmos is "It is the day of Resurrection"; the refrain is "Christ is risen from the dead"; and the first troparion following the first irmos is "Let us cleanse our senses...."

For all other canons, the procedure for each ode (section) of the canon is:

It is true that the singing of the troparia (which have the actual Christian content; the irmosy are often purely from the Old Testament) fell out of use, and only the irmosy and refrains were sung. In his book on the funeral services, Father Pekar called forcefully for a restoration of these troparia.

Unfortunately, when the current funeral book was developed, the refrains were assigned to the priest instead of the people, and the cantor and people were instructed to sing ALL the troparia. If you look on pages 20-48 in the old funeral book, you will see that the music for the irmosy is written out - sometimes using harder melodies - for Odes 1 and 8, while for the other Odes, the cantor and people are supposed to "wing it" and sing the troparia correctly without music. This may account for why those odes are marked "not for parochial use."

In the new book, which include Odes 1, 8, and 9 for both canons in the funeral service (with both easier and harder music) this same pattern is followed.

It is my hope that, when the funeral book is finally released, we will return to the traditional method of singing canons. This will require the cantor to memorize MUCH less new music.

In the new funeral book, starting on 32, we chant Psalm 50 to the usual psalm tone.

Ode 1

First, sing the irmos of Ode 1, with its refrain:

Then the lector (or a second cantor) chants the first troparion:

The nobles martyrs in the heavenly mansions beseech you, O Christ, to make the faithful one[s], which you have transferrred from the earth, worthy to enjoy eternal good things.

Then the cantor and people sing the refrain again:

The lector chants the next troparion:

When you arranged all things, you fashioned me, a composite living creature, lowly and lofty alike. Therefore, O Savior, give rest to the soul[s] of your servant[s].

The cantor and faithful sing the first part of the doxology:

and the lector chants the third troparion:

In the beginning you appointed me citizen and tiller of paradise, but you banished me when I transgressed your command. Therefore, O Savior, give rest to the soul[s] of your servant[s].

The cantor and faithful sing the second part of the doxology:

and the lector chants the final troparion:

God who once fashioned our first mother Eve from a rib, clothed hmself in flesh from your womb, O pure one, and thereby destroyed the power of death.

And that's the end of the Ode! If you are used to singing (or trying to sing) the Parastas canon from the current funeral book, you will notice that this way (in addition to being traditional; we 've sung canons this way since the 1500's) is quicker, and also easier for the cantor and congregation.

Sessional hymns

In a complete canon, we would sing Ode 1 and Ode 3 this way (Ode 2 is only used during the Great Fast), and then sing some "sitting" or "sessional hymns.")

In the Parastas in the old funeral book, Ode 3 and the sessional hymns are both optional.

In the new funeral book, Ode 3 is omitted, but the sessional hymns are required. These are sung in Tone 6 troparion, and can be found on pages 37-38.

The kontakion and ikos

In a complete canon, we could now sing Odes 4, 5, and 6, then the kontakion and ikos for the day.

In the Parastas in the old funeral book, these Odes are optional, and the kontakion and ikos are found on page 28.

In the new funeral book, these Odes are omitted, and the kontakion and ikos are on pages 38-39. The kontakion is familiar from the troparia of the Panachida; the ikos is chanted simply (recto tono or recitando) by the cantor (traditionally, by a lector or a second cantor). The Slavonic chant books give a special ending for the ikos, and the people repeat the Alleluia in Tone 6 as a response:

When you sing the conclusion, be careful NOT to emphasize the high note ("funerAL"), since it isn't an accented syllable; sing it as lightly as possible.

Odes 8 and 9

In the Parastas in the old funeral book, Odes 7 and 9 are printed in small type, while Ode 8 is provided with music. This is a little odd, since Ode 9 (to the Mother of God) is generally THE most important single ode in the canon.

In the new book, Ode 8 is optional, and Ode 9 is always sung.

Here is the irmos for Ode 8:

At the present time, the celebrant sings the refrains, and the cantor and people sing all the troparia. My hope is that the traditional way of singing the canon will be restored here as well.

Here is the irmos for Ode 9, using the simpler Tone 6 melody:

The original melody for the irmos can be found in the Appendix on page 116, and used as an alternative. Here again, the funeral book writes out all the troparia to this melody. For purposes of this course, it would sufficient to simply chant the troparia. Check back when the final book is released!

Singing the canon in Tone 8

The new funeral book also provides a second canon, in Tone 8. Strictly speaking, this canon is from the Parastas, not the funeral. We will study it in a later unit, when we turn to the Parastas.

The Little Litany

A little litany for the deceased comes after the end of the Canon (whichever one is sung); it is omitted if the canon is skipped entirely. A little litany often marks a hinge point in a service, where we move from one part of the service to the next. The responses should give you no trouble at all.

The hymns of Saint John Damascene

According to tradition, these hymns were written by Saint John of Damascus at the request of another monk, whose brother had died. These hymns of consolation and petition for the dead form an important part of the burial service, along with the "hymns of farewell."

There are nine hymns in total: one in each of the eight tones, with an extra hymn in Tone 2. For them, we use a special set of melodies reserved for our most intense and heartfelt prayers: the Bulgarian or Bolhar tones. (There are Bolhar melodies for tones 1, 2, 4, and 5; for the other tones we use the ordinary samohlasen tones.)

These hymns form part of the Liturgy of the Presanctified Gifts, where they are sung on Friday nights (as part of the service of Saturday, which includes prayers for those who have died.) We covered them in the course on Services for the Great Fast, but will review them here as well.

In the old book, these hymns are found on pages 83-90; in the proposed book they are on pages 63-70. In both cases only a selection of the hymns need to be sung, although you CAN sing them all if you choose.

Here are tutorial articles on the Bolhar tones if you have trouble with them:

With that we come to the end of Part II of the funeral service; we will continue with the singing of the Beatitudes in Part III.