Greek Orthodox Funeral Traditions, Customs, and Beliefs
Traditional Greek Orthodox funerals are an important part of the Greek Orthodox faith and culture. For those attending or planning a Greek Orthodox funeral for the first time, there are some key customs and practices one should be aware of.
Greek Orthodox funerals typically consist of five sections:
- The wake
- The funeral
- The burial
- The mercy meal
- The memorial service
The Trisagion Prayers
A set of prayers, known as the Trisagion Prayers are three short prayers that are chanted at different times during a traditional Greek Orthodox funeral. Typically, the Trisagion Prayers are said during the wake, the burial, and the memorial.
These prayers are typically led by a priest and are meant to be a call for God to have mercy on both the deceased and on the family of the deceased. If you're attending a traditional Greek Orthodox funeral service, you'll likely witness these prayers being recited.
At the wake, family and friends gather to pay their respects and offer condolences. There will likely be a prayer service and open casket viewing of the deceased. The wake, which is typically held the night prior to the funeral, will typically involve people sharing stories and memories about the deceased.
In terms of Greek Orthodox funeral traditions, they align closely with traditional Christian or Catholic funerals. Hymns, prayers, and a sermon are usually recited by the presiding priest. Funeral attendees may greet each other (and the family) by saying "Memory Eternal". (If you aren't comfortable saying this traditional greeting, expressing sympathy or offering condolences is an acceptable way to greet others at the funeral.)
Greek Orthodox funeral attire
When attending a Greek Orthodox funeral, it is important to dress respectfully. Men should wear dark clothing and ties, if possible, while women should also wear dark colors (although black is not necessary). The church typically suggests that both men and women cover their arms and legs, so wearing revealing clothing isn't recommended.
Sending flowers to the funeral
Sending flowers to a Greek Orthodox funeral is considered an appropriate gesture of sympathy. Typically, sending white flowers is encouraged as white represents mourning in Greek culture. If you’re unable to attend the funeral, sending a condolence card or flowers is an appropriate way to express your sympathy.
It is customary for funeral attendees to attend the burial as well. Traditionally, cremation is not an acceptable method of disposition for those following Greek Orthodox traditions. If you're attending a Greek Orthodox funeral, you should expect to attend a graveside service. During the graveside service, the presiding priest will typically lead another Trisagion Service, as well as a blessing.
The mercy meal
After the graveside service, there is usually a reception. In Greek Orthodox tradition, this reception is called the "Makaria" or "mercy meal". During the Makaria, food and beverages are served to those who have attended the funeral. This is a time for family and friends to gather together to remember, celebrate and honor the life of the deceased. Unlike some other funeral receptions, the mercy meal is typically centered around Christ. During this time, attendees will eat broiled fish, which symbolizes Jesus's meals with his disciples. Other traditional Greek dishes, such as rice pilaf, Spanakopita, and vegetables may also be served. It is not traditional for desserts to be served during this meal.
What should I bring to a mercy meal?
Just bring yourself! It is not considered proper etiquette to bring a gift (such as flowers, food, or money) to a mercy meal. Spending the meal focusing on remembering and honoring the life of the deceased.
After the funeral
Memorializing and mourning the dead is an important part of Greek Orthodox funeral traditions. After the funeral, the immediate family of the deceased will typically not go to work for at least a week. If the deceased was married, it is customary for the widowed spouse to avoid events and gatherings for at least a year. In addition to this, widows will typically wear black for at least 2 years after the death of a spouse.
For others mourning the deceased, it's common for them to follow a 40 day mourning period. For those following Greek Orthodox traditions, attending social events is avoided for at least 40 days after the death of a loved one. It's also customary to wear black during this 40 day mourning period.
The memorial service
A Greek Orthodox memorial service is typically held close to the 40th day after the date of death in memory and honor of the deceased. The memorial service is similar to the funeral in terms of its structure. There are typically hymns and a sermon as well as prayers recited by the presiding priest. During this time, family and friends can express their sorrow and share fond memories of the deceased.
Attending a Greek Orthodox funeral for the first time can be an intimidating experience. But by understanding the traditions, rituals and practices associated with this type of funeral, you can be better prepared to pay your respects in a respectful and appropriate manner. By being aware of what is expected of you during Greek Orthodox funerals and services, you can feel more comfortable and prepared to attend.