Eastern Orthodox Funerals

Information on Eastern Orthodox funeral traditions and etiquette

Last updated: 29 November 2016

The Eastern Orthodox religion, also known as the Orthodox Catholic Church, has differing views on the afterlife compared to traditional Western Christian beliefs. For them, the idea of a Heaven or Hell is a more abstract interpretation. Those who love God interpret his eternal presence in the afterlife as heavenly, whereas those who do not love God interpret his eternal presence as hellish.

Planning an Eastern Orthodox funeral

For added support during the funeral arrangements, it is advised that you enlist the assistance of a funeral director. An Orthodox priest or other religious leader may also be able to advise on appropriate arrangements.

Eastern Orthodox funeral traditions

In the Eastern Orthodox religion families can be refused a religious funeral if their loved one has undergone cremation. However, embalming is allowed.

The donation of organs is generally accepted, although a minority of Eastern Orthodox leaders have objected to heart donation since they believe, based on Eastern Orthodox literature, that the heart is too closely affiliated to the soul.

Wakes are widely practised rituals in the Eastern Orthodox religion and occur before the funeral. They often start with the First Panikhida, which is a prayer service prepared by the priest. This is followed by the family and friends reading from the Book of Psalms and other Panikhidas being delivered.

Modern wakes typically only last one day, however, in some churches that preserve a more traditional approach, they can last for up to three days.

Eastern Orthodox funeral service

When the casket is taken from the wake to the church for the funeral service, a priest carrying a censer will lead a procession of mourners to the church while leading the bereaved in the recitation of the hymn Trisagion. This hymn is sung at the wake if there is no procession to the church.

The funeral will normally take no more than 60 minutes. A priest or bishop will lead the proceedings, and a deacon, a sub-deacon and an altar server may all be present during the ceremony.

In the church you will expect to see a plate of Koliva, a traditional dish made of wheat and honey, which will be placed near the head of the coffin with a lit candle on top. The Koliva is symbolic, with the wheat representing the cyclical nature of life and the honey the sweetness of Heaven.

In some Eastern Orthodox churches, the person who has passed away may have a paper band across their forehead, which is worn as a crown of victory symbolising that they have completed the course of life. You can also expect a cross or a small icon of Jesus Christ or a patron saint to be placed in their hands.

As a mourner at the funeral, you can also expect to receive a lit candle on entering the church. This candle should be kept lit throughout the service.

The priest or bishop leading the service will lead the mourners through prayer, readings and all the proper rites, as well as Holy Communion on occasion.

Eastern Orthodox burial

After the service, family and friends approach the casket to pay their last respects before the closing of the casket. A new procession will begin to the cemetery as the Trisagion Hymn is sung again.

Just before the burial, the priest may pour olive oil and earth in the shape of a cross on the coffin to represent passages in devotional texts. Wheat may also be poured, especially if the service is based on Slavic or Arabic traditions.

After the funeral

An after-funeral reception called Makaria is hosted by the bereaved family or the congregation. This can take place at the family home, a restaurant or at the church hall.

Eastern Orthodox Christians have a 40-day mourning period in which they avoid social gatherings and traditionally only wear black clothing. A widow or widower may wear only black for a year, or even two years if they are from the Greek Orthodox Church.

The bereaved will usually not go to work for a week after the funeral. After this bereavement period, memorials are celebrated after three months, six months, nine months and every year anniversary for at least seven years.

Eastern Orthodox funeral etiquette

All people present at the funeral ceremony should stand throughout, except of course for those who have trouble standing, such as the elderly or disabled.

Mourners are encouraged to approach the casket after the service to say goodbye. Members of the Eastern Orthodox church may choose to kiss the icon or cross in the casket, but do not feel obliged to do so if you belong to another faith.

Some branches of Eastern Orthodoxy will require you to be dressed modestly when entering the church. For funerals, traditional dark, formal clothing should be appropriate in most cases.

For more information on religious funerals, visit our religious funerals page.