Death and the Funeral: An Orthodox Perspective

Canadian Orthodox Messenger

Death and the Funeral: An Orthodox Perspective

Matushka Donna Farley of St. Herman of Alaska Parish in Langley, British Columbia, interviews Ryan Zane Green. Zane Green is a member of St Herman’s of Alaska Orthodox Church in Langley, BC. He works with Alternatives Funeral and Cremation Services and is the only Orthodox funeral director in British Columbia.

COM: Zane, how did you first become interested in working in the funeral industry?

The funeral “industry” is a ruthless business dominated mainly by one large publicly traded corporation. I refer to what I do as funeral “service”. During my and my family’s conversion process, Frederica Mathewes-Green posted a podcast about a gentleman from the Episcopal Church who provides funeral services for his local community. His story of how he performs funeral work as his ministry hit home with me.

During the following four years, I found employment performing transfers for the BC Coroner Service and local funeral homes. I also completed my apprenticeship as an Embalmer and Funeral Director. I now work at an independent funeral home as Mortuary Manager. I have observed almost every type of death and done every type of disposition; burial, cremation, entombment etc. 

COM: In what way is your profession related to your faith as an Orthodox Christian?

The work I do covers so many facets of our faith: visiting the sick and dying, care of their loved ones, providing those without family a dignified end, praying for the departed, providing dignity physically by bathing and dressing them, assisting in their last rituals…. I act as friend and confidant to families, direct them in ways of healing, grieving, and recovery… This job is no light task; you see both the living and the dead at their worst moments.

At the panikhida service at the parish, the funeral director, being a part of their community can organize an all-night vigil to proceed until the funeral next morning. Other examples are the 40 day memorial, helping to make koliva, being involved in the Soul Saturdays.

As a funeral director I need to guard my soul from the difficulties that arise when dealing with constant tragedy. As an embalmer I need to guard my mind from the physical realities that I see and have to clean up. In both cases, I see the direct results caused by our fallen nature and sin…the only way I am able to take care of myself is by having a supportive wife and children, and by regular attendance at church.

I do see families reconnect after years apart, broken relationships mended over the reality that death brings. A lot of times I am also given the great honour of being the last person to take care of someone who’s died, to pray for them, to make sure they are treated right, look their best, and are ready to meet their God.

COM: What do Orthodox people in Canada need to know about funerals?

Our Orthodox tradition is for full body, earth burial. This is very important to note because our society’s default mode of disposition is cremation. Our funeral home sees 85% of families select cremation. As an Orthodox Christian, cremation should NOT be an option. Our bodies are the temple of the Holy Spirit, they have been baptized, chrismated, received Christ through the Eucharist, been prayed over through confession, received anointing and Holy Unction, and are truly unified and glorified in Christ.

You MUST have it written down that you wish to receive an Orthodox funeral with earth burial. Unless stated otherwise, funeral arrangements left to non-Orthodox executors tend to end up in cremation.

Earth burial, especially in metropolitan cities, is not a cheap option…you NEED to price shop. Typically family-run or independent funeral homes will be lower in cost than a corporate or publicly traded funeral home. Since a portion of your property tax goes to fund the care of the local municipal cemetery, this tends to be your lower cost option. If the option of being buried in an Orthodox cemetery is available, then you should choose that option and fund it accordingly.

It is important that you work with a funeral director that knows what an Orthodox funeral requires or is willing to learn quickly and adapt. If lack of connection or understanding becomes a problem during the process, it is OK to ask for another funeral director to serve your family.

Embalming is NOT required by law! Though there are no church canons against embalming, it should be used only under certain circumstances. There is a movement in the Orthodox church in North America to return to historical burial practices, which excludes the use of embalming. This has been nicely covered in the recent book, A Christian Ending by Deacon Mark Barna and his wife Elizabeth (www.achristianending.com).

Body preparation should be a hygienic bathing and setting of features and dressing, accompanied by prayers, reading of the Psalter, and anointing with myrrh. Modern refrigeration typically provides adequate temporary preservation from time of death to the funeral. During the time at church, ice packs or dry ice can be used if needed. The open casket should be the goal and normal, to allow us to pray for the departed and come to terms with our own mortality.

In extenuating circumstances embalming is acceptable, as with autopsied bodies, trauma cases (like a motor vehicle accident), infectious cases, obese bodies, bodies being shipped out of town, or long term illness where an open casket may frighten. In two additional situations I consider the use of embalming: when a funeral service HAS to be delayed more than a week, or when it is a sudden unexpected death and the family may need more time to process.

COM: Can you describe for us, from beginning to end, the ideal progression of an Orthodox death and burial? At what point should families approach their parish priest and the funeral director? 

The Orthodox person/family need to contact their priest at the first knowledge of a death or terminal diagnosis; and prior to making any preplanned funeral arrangements, to ensure they understand the proper procedures of an Orthodox funeral and what they should be asking the funeral home to perform. Ideally, the priest should be present at or near the time of death to say the prayers of the departing of the soul from the body. The Orthodox person will have wanted to receive Holy Unction as well as last communion.

Here is a timeline for the ideal progression of an expected death where all the necessary paperwork is in place for the person to die at home:

Day of death: Family is gathered around visiting, singing, praying. Priest has been notified of the pending death. The Psalter is continuously read over the person from before time of death until burial.

Middle of the night: death occurs, family gathers around for prayers, priest is called if not already there. If an Orthodox funeral director is available, they are called to come assist family.

1 – 2 hours following the death: prayers for the departing of the soul from the body are said. Orthodox funeral director and family members or church members perform bathing and dressing of the deceased and anointing with olive oil and myrrh. If a convert, the deceased is dressed in their baptismal robes if they fit, otherwise normal church attire is worn.

In ideal situations, the deceased stays at home until they are brought to the church; otherwise they would be transferred to the funeral home soon after the time of death.

Day 1 -2: The day following the death, the executor/family meet with the funeral director and make the arrangements for services.

Day 3-4: The panikhida service starts the night before. Family and church members may continue reading the Psalter throughout the night until the funeral. The casket remains open. Koliva — a traditional food composed of wheat berries, nuts, honey and dried fruits — is offered.

Day 4-5: Funeral liturgy is served. The deceased is covered in a burial shroud and the casket is closed. The family and congregation proceed to the cemetery. If there is an option for the body to be buried in direct contact with the ground, then it should be. If not, the body remains in the casket. If there is a requirement for a liner/vault at the cemetery, then it should be inverted without a lid so that the body can be allowed to eventually return to the earth.

Following the burial, the family and congregation proceed back to the church or a local hall for a meal. It is very important that the job of taking care of the deceased is done first. Then the work of commiserating and remembering can continue. If there is extra, koliva is offered a second time.

Day 40 and 1 year later: Panikhida services for the deceased are held.

Zane can be emailed at zane@orthodoxfuneraldirector.com.