The Orthodox Liturgy of Death (a term used to describe all services - panikhidas, requiems, Divine Liturgies - that are usually celebrated in connection with death) presupposes that the deceased had been baptized, was a communicant of the Eucharist and, in life, strove to be obedient to the Lord's commandments in pursuit of that "holiness without which no one will see God" (Hebrews 12:14).
Through prayer and remembrance, the function of the Liturgy of Death is to incorporate and affirm the departed in the death and resurrection of Christ, which are the very content of the life of the Church. The primary - and probably only - function of the Liturgy of Death is to make and proclaim that connection - and even identification - between the death of each Christian and Christ's death. "Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life" (Romans 6:3).
The Liturgy of Death celebrates the tragedy of the spiritual and physical death of each Christian as being the very sign and victory of Christ's death and resurrection. In that way, the Liturgy of Death preserves the unique Christian vision of death - and life - and calls on the rest of the community to persevere more deeply and zealously in the baptismal way of dying and rising in Christ, so that one's last breath can become a witness to the "glory of the Father." It was, after all, to living people that Saint Paul wrote: "You have died and your life is hid with Christ in God" (Colossians 3:3). "Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord henceforth" (Revelation 14:13). They are "blessed" because their death is their final and supreme offering, witness and "Eucharist" through which the Lord is declared and "made known." The death of an authentic Christian builds up the community of faith, enabling it to declare more powerfully that "death is no more!"
I. LITURGICAL EXPRESSION
A. Place of Service
- The body of a departed communicant of the Church should be brought into the temple, at least on the day of burial.
- According to traditional Orthodox practice, the casket is to remain open until the end of the service.
Presently there are two main ways of celebrating the feast of Christian death, ways that reflect the inner experience of the Church:
- A panikhida service is sung in the funeral home (or the temple) on the eve of burial. Funeral matins (requiem) is celebrated in the temple on the day of burial. In principle, the requiem may "stand alone" and does not "require" Divine Liturgy.
- The body is brought into the temple on the eve of burial and the requiem is sung. Divine Liturgy is celebrated on the day of burial, provided Orthodox family members and friends of the departed are prepared to receive Communion. (Divine Liturgy, however, is precluded during Great Lent, when weekday liturgy is forbidden.)
C. Times and Days of the Liturgy of Death
- Burials may not be celebrated on Sundays during the year. the body is not to be brought into the temple on that day except towards evening.
- Burials should not be celebrated on Great Feast days and the body should not be brought into the temple, except towards evening.
- Burials may not be celebrated on Holy Friday, Holy Saturday or the Sunday of Pascha. The body is not brought into the temple on those days.
D. Memorial Services (i.e., Panikhida Services)
- Requested memorial services should not be celebrated during Holy Week.
- The practice of celebrating requested memorial services after Sunday Liturgy should not be encouraged for it tends to nominalize the Liturgy in which all - the living and the dead - have already been incoporated into the Kingdom of God. The practice tends to disintegrate the Eucharist from the reality of death when, in fact, it is precisely the Eucharist - as the sacrament of the Kingdom - that most fully and adequately "proclaim the Lord's death and confess his resurrection" (cf. Hebrews 12:22-24). the best time for memorial services on weekends is Saturday, before evening vigil.
II. NON-COMMUNICANT "MEMBERS"
Non-communicant "members" (that is: people identifying themselves as Orthodox, who may have attended church services in life and even supported the church financially, but who willfully did not receive the Eucharist at all), are not to be brought into the temple upon their death. By refusing the Eucharist, which is the sacrament of membership, and membership as sacrament, they have refused as well to "proclaim the Lord's death and confess his resurrection" (1 Corinthians 11:26) - which is the very content of the Liturgy of Death and of Orthodox Christian life.
The burial of such people, not taking place in the temple, may only include a memorial service, with the celebrant vested only in a stole. The service may include scriptural readings for the dead.
III. THE BURIAL OF NON-ORTHODOX PERSONS
The burial of non-Orthodox persons is done in the same manner as the burial of non-communicant "members."
Like "non-communicant membership" (which is a form of suicide), suicide itself remains a profound tragedy and sin that should elicit from the community of faith a deep prayer for forgiveness, repentance and sorrow - for the sake of the suicide and for the members of the community as well.
The Orthodox Church normally denies a Church burial to a person who has committed suicide. However, special pastoral considerations may allow a determination to be made, in consultation with the Bishop, to permit a service of burial. Such a determination has, as its goal, to build up the community of faith and not lead it to scandal of confusion.
V. THE BURIAL OF MASONS
Upon the death of a freemason, the family of the deceased must choose between masonic services and Orthodox Christian burial. If a masonic service is chosen, the body is not to be brought into the temple and the priest may not celebrate any service at all - except to commit the body to the grave (if he is asked to do so) with the singing of "Holy God...."
If a masonic service is not chosen and the body is not bedecked with masonic or other non-Christian ritual clothing or objects, the priest may celebrate the Liturgy of Death.
This position is taken because masonic services do not specifically mention, proclaim or confess Jesus Christ, Son of God, dead and risen, as being the only answer and Victor after death. Neither do they proclaim the resurrection of all flesh as being God's plan for us, nor do they function to incorporate the death of the deceased into the death of Christ - the only way death can be overcome. Rather, they presuppose a doctrine of spiritual immortality and tend to view the disconnection of soul and body as the natural end of life. This is not a biblical teaching: a soul-less body and a body-less soul are not "natural." Death is the sign and fruit of sin, and the mutilation of a human person.
· The witness of the catacombs and the tombs of martyrs and saints reveals that it has never been the Christian practice to cremate the dead. Therefore, this practice is not encouraged at all. Cremated remains are not to be brought into the temple for services, or for any other reason.
· Although cremation is not encouraged and funeral services over cremated remains is forbidden, cremated remains may be buried with the singing of "Holy God...."
VII. AUTOPSIES AND ORGAN DONATION
Autopsies and donations of bodily organs after death may be done so long as respectful care is exercised toward the body. In a broad sense, all Christian bodies, as anointed temples of the Holy Spirit, are "relics," and they are organic components of the wholeness of human personhood.
These guidelines do not preclude any additions as may be needed.