Preaching at the Funeral of Someone You Don’t Know

Before I go into a few of these circumstances, let’s say right up front – if you want an Orthodox funeral, in an Orthodox Church, or by an Orthodox priest, then you need to join the Orthodox Church, and live our way of life. Period. Membership has its benefits, and you don’t get those benefits without becoming one of us. I’m not sure why that is so hard for some folks to understand, but there it is.

Now, about funerals for the following cases…

The Non-Communing Orthodox – Membership in the Body of Christ is defined by participation in the Holy Eucharist. If a person refuses to partake of the Divine Body and Blood of Christ during his or her lifetime, and has chosen freely not to be incorporated into the Body of Christ, unless there is reason to assume that the person has returned to Christ at the end of his or her earthly existence, that person will not be buried from the temple. The burial service of such a person should only be a Service for the Departed (panikhida), including scripture readings for the dead. The priest may be vested in the epitrahelion.

Cremation – the Orthodox Church does not permit cremation of the remains of the faithful Christian. It is a pagan practice, and contrary to our understanding of the body as the Temple of the Holy Spirit. Cremated remains are not to be brought into the temple for a burial service or for any other reason. If a person has been cremated, they cannot be buried in consecrated ground, they will not have a funeral celebrated, but can only have Trisagion prayers said over the ashes outside of the Church building and grounds. We need to go out of our way to let Funeral directors and mortuaries know this clearly.

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The Suicide – When someone has committed suicide, the local bishop will decide whether or not a funeral will be permitted (based on verified physical or mental status, stressors and situations, etc.) Generally, suicides are not buried in or by the Church, but exceptions due to circumstance are relevant and do occur. The Russian Church recently published a “Rite of Prayerful Consolation for the Relatives of Those who have taken their own Lives” (not available in English yet). The Church has rules about these things, but seeks the consolation and pastoral care of every soul. 

The Heterodox – There is no service for an Orthodox priest to celebrate for a non-Orthodox Christian. The Orthodox Church customarily forbade not only burial services, according to the Orthodox ritual, for the heterodox (i.e. Roman Catholics, Protestants, Armenians, etc.), but even the serving of memorials/panikhidas for them. Out of a sense of Christian mercy, she began to tolerate a single condescension in regard to them: if a heterodox person of another “Christian confession” dies and there is no priest or pastor of his confession to perform the funeral, the Church permits the Orthodox priest, vested in epitrahilion, to accompany the body of the departed from the funeral home to the cemetery (not in the Church), and to lower it into the grave as the Trisagion hymn “Holy God…” is sung. If a priest is asked to bury a non-Orthodox person, he must consult with his diocesan bishop, and with the hierarch’s blessing bury the person accordingly.




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About Fr. John A. Peck

Director of the Preachers Institute, priest in the Orthodox Church in America, award-winning graphic designer and media consultant, and non-profit administrator.
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