Singing the Burial Service, or Funeral - Part III


This article explains how to lead the singing of our burial service (funeral), from the Beatitudes to the graveside and burial.

But first I'd like to take a brief side-trip, and talk about the Christian view of death.

Pagan and Christian views of death

In ancient times, and even today in many traditional non-Christian cultures, dying was inevitable, and seen up close. Yet in the vast majority of these cultures, the dead were seen as a source of (at least potential) danger. They continued in existence, but it was not likely to be a happy one; they could continue to trouble the living, and sacrifices (such as drinks poured into the ground, or food laid out for them) were made to appease them and render them less troublesome. Burials were conducted far away from the ordinary places where people lived. The dead may have been loved in life, but in death they were feared.

This was tempered somewhat in Judaism; the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob was the God of the living and the dead. The Jewish sense of an afterlife was vague, but crucial to it all was God's protection, and how one lived during this life. Even the bones of the holy dead could bring healing (2 Kings 13:21), and when Judas Maccabaeus ordered that sacrifices be made for the sins of his soldiers who had died, the sacrifices were made not to the dead, but to God - just as sin-offerings were made for the living.

Then in his passion and resurrection, our Lord Jesus Christ put an end to the old fear of the dead. By "trampling down Death by death", he exposed sin and death as the true enemy of mankind;according to his teaching, death came into the world through sin, and was not the end of the story. The dead would rise again for judgment, but he assured his followers that those who believed in him would have eternal life.

Early Christians lived under recurring threat of persecution, and so their funeral customs followed those of the culture by which they were surrounded. But there was crucial difference: they knew that death was not forever, and that those within the Church who died were alive in Christ. The living and the dead prayed for one another, and (with the angels and saints) formed one assembly in the sight of God. Thus, in the catacombs where Christians are buried, we find art showing the victory of Christ over death - along with inscriptions like that by the burial-place of a young Christian woman: "She is alive!" The dead are loved, and not feared, but prayers are made to God on their behalf.

Eventually the burial place was moved inside the town or city to the very grounds around the church, or even inside it. Even the bodies of those who died in Christ are holy, and they are buried in the place dedicated to God.

The early Christian funeral

We have no clear evidence of Christian funeral rituals until several centuries after persecutions had ended. But Father Alexander Schmemann, a famed Orthodox liturgical scholar and theologian, pointed out that the prayers we think of as the Panachida may have formed the earliest pattern of the Christian funeral:

This may seem far-fetched, but Father Schmemann makes the point that our most ancient funeral prayer is VERY close to the evangelical and patristic view of the dead, even having undertones from Judaism:

O God of spirits and of all flesh, you trampled death and broke the power of the devil and granted life to your world. Now grant rest, O Lord, to the soul of your servant (Name) in a place of light, joy, and peace where there is no pain, sorrow, nor mourning. As a good and loving God, forgive every sin committed by them in word, deed, or thought, since there is no one who lives and does not sin. You alone are without sin; your justice is eternal justice; and your word is truth. For you, O Christ our God, are the resurrection, the life, and the repose of your departed servant (Name), and we give glory to you, together with your eternal Father, and your all-holy, good, and life-creating Spirit, now and ever and forever.

There is also a curious rubric: down through the centuries, a notation was maintained that it is the bishop (!) or the senior priest present who says this prayer. It is entirely possible that this service goes back to a time when every liturgical service was celebrated under the presidency of the bishop of the place, surrounded by the council of presbyters and the deacons. If so, this is a very ancient service indeed.

Why are we in church for a funeral?

Once churches were built, and the annual commemorations of events in salvation history were held - including the annual commemoration of the suffering, death, and resurrection of Christ - it made perfect sense to stop on the way from the home of the departed to the place where burial was to take place, to pray one last time in the presence of the body of the departed. The body was taken to the porch of the church, or even into the church itself, and honored with lights and incense. A service developed which was very similar to that for the burial of Christ on Holy Saturday, including the chanting of the Stations (Psalm 118) and the Evlogitaria ("The choir of saints has found the fountain of life, and the gate to paradise"). The people would say their last farewell, and the body would be taken to the place of burial, accompanied by the singing of "Holy God." The prayers that once made up the entire funeral service (what we know as the Panachida) were said either in church, or at the grave site.

But simply assuring one another of God's continued care for the departed does not immediately ease the pain of losing them, and as the church moved out of an era when one was heroic simply to BE a Christian (and risk martyrdom) into a time when many Christians lived lives of less than heroic virtue, prayer FOR the dead, and sacrifices on their behalf, were seen as important. These pleas on behalf of prayer for the dead were combined with texts and images from the monastic tradition, which reminded us that "wordly things" are far less important than the Kingdom of God, and can be seen in the light of eternity as "nothing but vanity." The sentiments underlay the Canon, the Hymns of Saint John Damascene, and the Hymns of Farewell.

So the funeral as we have it incorporates two important aspects: our continuing fellowship with the dead, and our life together in Christ, destined for eternity; and the (temporary) catastrophe of death, and our obligation to pray for the dead, that they be forgiven and receive entrance into God's kingdom.

The Beatitudes

With this in mind, it becomes clearer why, after the Hymns of St. John Damascene, we sing the Beatitudes:

Refrain: Remember us, O Lord, when you come in your kingdom.

- Blessed are the poor in Spirit...
- Blessed are they who mourn...
- Blessed are the meek...
- Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness...
- Blessed are the merciful...
- Blessed are the pure of heart...
- Blessed are the peacemakers...
- Blessed are they who are persecuted for the sake of righteousness...
- Rejoice and be glad, for your reward will be great in heaven.

The Beatitudes, and not the Ten Commandments, are our rule of life as Christians. The Ten Commandments govern things we should always do in any case (honor God and our parents; avoid serious sins that separate us from God), while the Beatitudes (the word means "blessings") show us how we are supposed to live now, in order to enable us to take our place in the Kingdom of God. So it makes complete sense to sing them once more, in the presence of one who has departed in Christ and is destined for judgement: "As often as you did this to one of my least ones, you did it for Me."

The melody we use for this is found in our chant books NOT in the funeral section, but in the service of Typika (the office of prepararation for Holy Communion):

In the old funeral book, the priest starts the Beatitudes; following an older tradition in the new book, the cantor or lector begins them, and sings the verses using the simple melody the MCI materials call the "minor psalm tone":

There are 12 verses total (including the "Glory", "now and ever" as the last two), and the verses count downward.

Now, if you have ever celebrated Typika in church according to our current books (as Communion service, led by a deacon), you probably know that 8 short hymns are inserted after the last 8 Beatitude verses on Sundays and feasts, and 6 short hymns after the last 6 verses on other days. (In fact, according to the Typikon, this should also be done when the Beatitudes are sung in place of the third antiphon at the Divine Liturgy, but this is hardly ever done.) The new funeral book provides, as an option, the possibility of having the lector chant (very simply) the appropriate funeral hymns at the Beatitudes, in place of the refrains. Since this is a more important service, there are eight such hymns, and they are intoned after the Beatitude verse marked 8:

and so on. It is an open question how often these hymns (called Troparia; they are actually taken from Odes 3 and 6 of the funeral canon) will be used, but you should at least be aware of the practice.

A note about the reciting melody for troparia:

I feel I should make a comment here about the reciting melody for troparia, whether at the Canon or the Beatitudes. Some cantors tried reciting in a minor key (on la) or a step up from the end of the Tone 6 irmos melody (i.e. on ti). Neither of these will be as effective as reciting on do - the pitch for "merciful" in the refrain above.

When reciting, find do, and use that for most of the troparion. You can add an opening jump of a perfect fourth up to do if you like, or a whole step up to re on an accented syllable, particularly on an important word. Here is how I would sing the first troparion above in a canon:

But at the funeral, this ending might be even better, since it leads right into the refrain:

The readings

The Beatitudes are following by epistle and Gospel readings, which follow the basic order found in the Divine Liturgy:

They are usually followed by a homily.

The funeral Divine Liturgy

IF there will be a Divine Liturgy part of the funeral, then after the homily the priest goes to the holy table and the Divine Liturgy is celebrated from the Litany of Supplication to the Ambon Prayer. In most cases, the "funeral" melodies for the various fixed hymns of the Divine Liturgy (the Cherubic Hymn, Hymns of Thanksgiving, etc.) can be used. But it is also important to use music the faithful can sing where possible, so the melody chosen for the Our Father (for example) should be one the parish knows, and visitors can sing. (We will go over these melodies in a later unit.)

The current funeral book (following the Grigassy Holy Services for the Dead, 1943) has the funeral service without Divine Liturgy go straight from the Gospel reading to the Hymns of Farewell; and if there is a Divine Liturgy, the old funeral book says explicitly that the Litany for the Departed (with triple "Lord, have mercy" responses - see pages 38-39 in our Divine Liturgies book) is NOT included in the Divine Liturgy at a funeral. This is particularly odd because the funeral as given in our Slavonic liturgical books definitely has this litany after the Gospel. In either case, the litany for the dead is entirely omitted from the funeral!

In the proposed funeral book, the Litany for the Deceased follows the Gospel reading; if there is a Divine Liturgy, it follows the Litany of Fervent Supplication and is followed in turn by the Cherubic Hymn.

The Ambon Prayer of the funeral Divine Liturgy is a special one from Meatfare Saturday, the first of the All Souls Saturdays, on which we remember all those who have died since the beginning of the world.

The "last kiss" or "last embrace"

After this Litany, or after the Ambon Prayer of the Divine Liturgy if there is one, the priest stands at the foot of the casket holding a hand cross, which those present kiss after they pass the casket and say their last goodbyes to the departed. In older times, the casket remained open; today it is often closed instead. During this procession, the cantor (and sometimes the faithful) sing the "hymns of farewell", which are sung to a special melody in Tone 2 called "When from the wood" (Jehda ot dreva). On Great and Holy Friday, this is the melody used for the hymns which describe Joseph and Nicodemus taking down the body of Christ from the cross (the "wood" of the title) and preparing it for burial:

Sing as many hymns as necessary for the procession. The Glory... now and ever... and the hymns that follow them are sung to a different but simpler melody; it is pitched somewhat higher.

The old funeral book used a simplified version of this melody, which is less clearly related to the hymns of Holy Week.

Listen to the first two hymns.

Note: the old funeral book has another curious feature: a note on page 83 allows that, if a Divine Liturgy is being celebrated, the Hymns of St. John Damascene may be omitted before the Beatitudes, and instead sung in place of the Hymns of Farewell. Though clearly an attempt to simplify or shorten the service, this has led to endless confusion - and it means that one of the most solemn and memorable points in the service is accompanied by music, which if sung badly, can be quite memorable also, but not in a good way. The proposed funeral book quietly drops this option.

The dismissal and final prayers

The priest gives the dismissal, followed by "Eternal memory." Then a prayer of absolution is intoned, and the casket is taken to the doors of the church as "Holy God" is sung. A final Gospel reading is usually intoned at this point, and the body is taken away for burial.

The order is slightly different in the proposed funeral book: following our Slavonic Trebnyk, after the dismissal and "Eternal memory", a panachida is celebrated (it can be omitted if served earlier in the day). The proposed funeral book also adds a prayer of consolation for those left behind:

Lord, O Lord, comfort of the afflicted, consolation of the sorrowful, and help of all the fainthearted, in your compassion comfort those who are overcome by sorrow for the departed. Heal every pain of sorrow that is in their hearts, and grant rest in the bosom of Abraham to your servant (Name) who has fallen asleep in the hope of resurrection. For you are the repose of your servant (Name), and we give glory to you, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, now and ever and forever.

This ancient Byzantine prayer comes from the same manuscript which contains our earliest full version of the prayer, "O God of spirits and of all flesh."

The procession to the grave

At one time, burials were near the church; today, the casket with the body of the deceased is usually taken by car to the cemetery, or even flown to a different city for burial. If possible, the cantor should lead the singing of "Holy God" as the body leaves the church, and as it is taken to the burial plot in the cemetery.

The graveside service

The interment or graveside service, as noted above, may have originally consisted of a panachida. Today, the order in the Slavonic Trebnyk is as follows:

In this country, the cantor and faithful usually sing a response immediately after the priest's "The Lord's is the earth"; the response (sung in Tone 8 samohlasen) is taken from the funeral service for monks and nuns:

O gaping earth, * receive the body formed from you by the hand of God, * again returning to you as to its mother. * What has been made in his image, the Creator has already reclaimed. * O earth, receive this body as your own.

[It is worth noting that the Slavonic of the hymn is much closer to "O earth, open wide; receive the body formed from you..." The sense of danger or irrationality in 'gaping' is absent.] Then the priest blesses the casket with holy water, saying:

This grave is being sealed until the second coming of Christ, in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

And then "Eternal memory" is intoned, and that is the end of the interment; there is no Panachida, and the service is QUITE short (often less than 3-4 minutes).

The proposed funeral book moves "O gaping earth" to just before the sprinkling of earth onto the casket (which by now has often been lowered into the grave. "This grave is sealed" is included, and a Panachida is celebrated. There is no "Eternal memory" after the dismissal; the final singing of "Eternal memory" takes place in church, and the next time it is sung will be at a requiem Divine Liturgy.