what to expect at an orthodox funeral (3)

What to Expect at an Orthodox Funeral?

Like many cultures, Greek Orthodox funerals have their rituals and customs. For most Greeks, regardless of where they reside, funerals are consistent.

In foreign countries, family members of the deceased frequently consult with their local priest to ensure that Greek funeral rituals are correctly followed.

In general, there are five stages in a Greek Orthodox funeral which include the following:

  • Awake, which starts the day before the funeral
  • The funeral service
  • Burial ceremony
  • Post funeral luncheon
  • Memorial service

Individuals baptised in the Greek Orthodox Church are eligible for a Greek Orthodox funeral, but if the deceased person had violated the canon laws, then he/she is ineligible. Here at Peter Tziotzis Orthodox Funerals, we provide Orthodox funeral services.

What Is the Orthodox Church?

The Orthodox stream of Christianity developed from the Church's spread across the eastern Roman, or Byzantine, empire in the first few centuries after Jesus. 

It was influenced more by Greek culture and language than Roman.

Over the centuries, relations between the two power bases––Constantinople and Rome––grew tenser over political and theological differences.

In 1054, the Great Schism occurred, resulting from disagreements over the Roman Pope's claim to supremacy and the doctrine of the Holy Spirit––led to the split between the Eastern Church (centred in Constantinople, now Istanbul) and the Western Church (centred in Rome).

There are around 200 million adherents of Eastern Orthodoxy worldwide. With over 563,000 in Australia.

The first Orthodox Church in Australia was established in 1898 in Sydney. This was organised by joint efforts of people of various Orthodox backgrounds.

In 1924, a Greek Orthodox diocese was established by the Patriarch of Constantinople. As a result of European immigration post World War II, there was a significant increase in the numbers of Greek Orthodox Australians. 

Then Russian Orthodox began arriving in Australia following the Russo-Japanese war early in the 20th Century and the Russian Revolution.

The first permanent Russian Orthodox priest arrived in 1922, and the first Church was built in Brisbane in 1926. Serbian, Macedonian and Ukrainian Orthodox Churches were all established in Australia following World War II.

Death Rituals of the Orthodox Church

what to expect at an orthodox funeral

First Panikhida

Immediately after death, a unique memorial service or vigil called the "First Pannikhida" is celebrated. After this, the body is washed and clothed for burial. Traditionally, this act of love is performed by the family and friends of the deceased.

A hymn laden strip of paper (Crown), icons of Christ and Saints and crosses are placed on the deceased head and hands. The service, Panikhida, is composed of Psalms, litanies, hymns and prayers.

After the deceased's clothing, the priest sprinkles the coffin with holy water on all four sides, and the dead is placed in the coffin. Then the wake begins immediately. The Trisagion Hymn is also sung over the time of the vigil. This happens throughout the night until the body goes to the Church.

In Orthodox families, the person who has died will be laid out in their home for three days, while the family makes funeral arrangements and pays their respects. People were usually laid on the dining table, but now many people choose a casket. 

In some Orthodox households, there will be an icon corner. This includes pictures of saints, icons and candles.

According to Orthodox funeral traditions, the person should be laid out so that their head is the part of their body closest to the icon corner.

The Body Goes to the Church

After a final Panikhida at the house of the deceased, the body is brought to the Church. The Cross and banners head a procession. The priest walks in front of the coffin with the censer. During the parade, all sing the Trisagion.

Once the procession arrives at the Church, the coffin is placed either in the centre of the nave.

The priest censes around the coffin and begins a Panikhida. The reading of the Psalter continues until the beginning of the services. The lid of the casket is left at the outside door of the Church so those who wish to enter can

The Orthodox Funeral

Orthodox funerals can contain readings from scripture, hymns and the Psalms. Psalm 118 is a common choice for Orthodox funeral services and begins with the words:

"Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good; his love endures forever."

During the funeral service, the mourners circle the open coffin in an anti-clockwise direction, taking the time to kiss the person who has died or lay flowers upon them. The priest may sprinkle soil and holy oil into the coffin. He was then pulling up the person's burial shroud to cover them.

The Last Kiss

This is a symbolic farewell taken of the deceased by a "last kiss", during which the faithful come forward and place a last kiss to the departed. They will kiss the phylactery, the paper inscribed with a holy hymn on the deceased's forehead and the icon or Cross in his hand.

The priest or a choir will sing hymns to feel the mourners working through their grief.

After the last kiss, the choir chants "Memory Eternal" three times, If the deceased has a shroud, it is pulled over the face of the dead. The coffin is closed.

Symbols Used in the Funeral Service.


Reflect the light that Christ has brought into the world through his Gospel, guiding both the living and the dead until the end of the world.


Incense is an offering to God on behalf of the soul of the departed.

An Icon of Jesus, a Cross or a Bible

The icon is laid on the deceased's chest to symbolise his faith in Jesus Christ, who has re­deemed his soul.

Wine and Oil 

Wine and oil can be poured over the body; the wine symbolises the blood circulating in our veins and the oil, announcing the 'resurrection.


Earth is scattered over the casket in the sign of the Cross and symbolises that man is Earth and will return to Earth.


Ashes from the censer are emptied into the grave as a reminder that man is "earth and ashes." 

At the Graveside

Upon arriving at the grave, the Panikhida has chanted again.

The coffin may be sealed with nails. Traditionally there are four nails, reminiscent of the nails with which Christ was affixed to the Cross.

The priest says words, and then family and friends place handfuls of dirt on the coffin.

"Open wide, O Earth, and receive him (her) that was fashioned from thee by the hand of God aforetime, and who returneth again unto Thee that gave him (her) birth. That which was made according to his image the Creator hath received unto himself; do thou receive back that which is thine own."

After the Funeral


There is a reception after the traditional Orthodox funeral service. Either at home or the cemetery. 

Food and drink are offered to mourners at a meal called a pink. Traditional foods served at this gathering include a type of pancake called blini, fish pie and Kolyva, a dish made of wheat and fruit.

It is here where friends and family gather to celebrate the deceased's life with food and drink and memories. Because the departed will find a place in Heaven, and it is a new life for them.


Koliva is a dish based on boiled wheat used liturgically in the Eastern Orthodox Church to commemorate the dead. 

It is made with wheat kernels and other ingredients such as sesame seeds, almonds, ground walnuts, cinnamon, sugar, pomegranate seeds, raisins, anise and parsley. 

Orthodox Christians consider koliva to be the symbol of death and resurrection.

Wheat, which is planted and grows to new life, symbolises those beloved departed who have died in the hope of resurrection and are connected to scripture.

Most assuredly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the ground and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it produces much grain. (John 12:24).

40th Day of Mourning.

The 40th Day concludes the 40-day memorial period and has a significant significance in Eastern Orthodox traditions. 

It is believed that the soul of the departed remains wandering on Earth during the 40 days, coming back home, visiting places the departed has lived in, as well as their fresh grave.

The family gathers on the 40th Day, inviting those who wish to remember the departed, visiting the grave and the Church and having a memorial meal at the house. 

The Church serves the 40th Day panihida with prayers comforting the living and reminding the possession of the brevity of life.

The saying of the Day is:

"We said goodbye to you, no longer come to us; we will come to you."

This is an excerpt from a presentation for History Week 2018, themed 'Life and Death'.

Traditional Greek Orthodox Funerals

According to the Archdiocese, there are some 540 parishes located throughout the country. That means that funeral practices may vary somewhat from family to family and my congregation and region of the country. The following describes the religion's general funeral practices.

The Greek Orthodox Church believes death separates the soul from the body and is the beginning of a new life. 

The experience takes on the quality of the behaviour, character, and communion with God. Later, with Christ's coming, the final judgment will result, and each soul will spend eternity in Heaven or Hell.

Traditional Greek Orthodox funerals include five parts:

A Wake

The wake is a formal process that takes place the night before the funeral. It may be held at the mortuary or the funeral home, were visiting family and friends may also give eulogies. 

It is customary for members of the Greek Orthodox church to hold awake the night before the funeral. Loved ones and friends may be invited to speak about the deceased, and a priest may preside over the Trisagion (Thrice-Holy) service.

During the wake, the priest will perform the 10 minutes "Trisagion Service" (meaning Thrice Holy) for the family and the deceased member. The words "Holy God, Holy Mighty, Holy Immortal, have mercy on us" are repeated three times.

Funeral Service

The funeral service may be held on any day of the week except Sundays or Holy Saturday, at the funeral home or the Church. 

The priest leads the funeral service that involves prayers, readings or singing hymns together with the congregation.

Towards the end of prayers, the priest usually offers inspirational messages to the mourners about life and death.

The casket is always placed facing east with the feet towards the altar. The open casket allows mourners to view the deceased one last time and to pay their last respects. 

A farewell kiss referred to as "The Kiss of Peace and Anointing" is a common tradition. Passing mourners usually place a flower on top of the casket.

The funeral service, to take place at a funeral home or Greek Orthodox Church, will include hymns, prayers, and readings from the bible. 

The priest may also offer a sermon and speak about the deceased. The casket will likely be open, with a viewing of the deceased optional. 

According to tradition, the casket will face east with feet toward the altar. At the funeral service, guests can greet the family with the phrase, "Memory Eternal", or offer condolences. 

Believers may kiss an icon or a cross that lies on the deceased's breast, but non-believers are not required to do so. 

Then the priest leads the service and reads from selected texts. Non-believers are expected to stand with the congregation and participate. At the graveside, each guest places a flower on the casket.


A brief graveside service is customarily held with the Trisagion Service performing again. Hymns may also be sung, followed by a blessing by the priest. Traditionally, cremation was not permitted in the Greek Orthodox Church. It is still the position of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America that cremation is not allowed. If you intend to have a Greek Orthodox funeral and would like to be cremated, you recommend consulting with your priest or bishop.

Funeral Luncheon

Many Orthodox funerals are followed by a funeral luncheon referred to as malaria (mercy meal). Fish, an ancient Christian symbol, is typically served. Lunch is not required.

Memorial Service

In many cases, a memorial service will be held the Sunday following the funeral. The family is also welcome to keep the Trisagion Service at certain milestones or when desired.

Eastern Orthodox Funeral Traditions

what to expect at an orthodox funeral (2)

While there are differing degrees of orthodoxy within the Eastern Orthodox Church, Eastern Orthodox Christians commonly believe that salvation is achieved through living holy, Christ-like lives, known as deification or theosis.

There are no traditional Western notions of Heaven and Hell in Eastern Orthodoxy, but rather the idea that both Heaven and Hell are the experiences of being in God's eternal presence. Peter Tziotzis Orthodox Funerals will always find creative ways to pull costs in line with your budget.

For one who loves God, God's eternal presence is Heaven; for one who does not love God, God's eternal presence in Hell.

When Death Is Imminent

When an Eastern Orthodox Christian is approaching death, a priest should be brought in to hear the final confession and administer Holy Communion to the dying person.

After Death Has Occurred

After the death, the priest will lead those present in prayers for the release of the soul.


Cremation is prohibited in the Eastern Orthodox Church.

Organ Donation/donation to Medical Research

Organ donation or donating the body to medical research has been viewed two ways by the Eastern Orthodox Church:

One is that it's an act of mutilation; another believes that donating organs to improve or prolong another person's life is the greatest gift you can give. 

Regardless of the opposing views, your Church may take, a person must leave written consent or else organs should not be removed.


Embalming is acceptable and may be required by law.

Attitude Toward Suicide

The Church does not recognise death by suicide, and those who commit suicide may not have an Eastern Orthodox funeral.

Preparing the Body

The first step in the Eastern Orthodox funeral tradition is preparing the body, including washing and clothing the body. 

Family and close friends traditionally perform this act with a priest present. If the deceased was a military veteran, he or she might be clothed in his or her uniform. 

If the deceased held an official role in the Church, he would be dressed in the appropriate robes. 

Once the body is bathed and dressed, it is ready to be placed in the casket. The priest will sprinkle holy water on all four sides of the casket, and then the body will be placed inside.

The viewing, Wake, Or Visitation Before an Eastern Orthodox Funeral

Once the body has been adequately prepared, the priest will begin the First Panikhida, a prayer service for the deceased. 

This marks the beginning of the wake. The wake will last until the body is brought to the Church for the funeral service. 

Traditionally, the wake lasts three days, though it has come to survive only one. During the path, the Psalter (Book of Psalms) is read aloud by family and friends, and subsequent Panikhidas are performed.

The Eastern Orthodox Funeral Service

After the wake, the body is transported to the Church for the funeral service. Traditionally, this transportation takes the form of a procession led by the Cross. 

The priest walks in front of the coffin with the censer and leads the processors in singing the hymn Trisagion. 

Even if there will not be a traditional procession, the Trisagion should be recited at the end of the wake, before the body is brought to the Church for the funeral service.

Once at the Church, the coffin is opened. Near the head of the coffin should be placed a bowl of koliva, a dish of boiled wheat with honey, with a lit candle on top, symbolising the cyclical nature of life and the sweetness of Heaven. 

A crown or wreath with the Trisagion printed on it is placed on the head, and a small icon of Christ, the deceased's patron saint, or a cross is placed in the dead's hand or the casket. 

Lit candles should be distributed to all present and should remain lit throughout the funeral service.

Mourners and worshipers should stand throughout the funeral service, during which the priest will lead the Divine Liturgy, say prayers, lead the Dismissal, and recite "Memory Eternal." 

Holy Communion may also be offered. After the service, mourners are encouraged to approach the casket and "say goodbye" to the deceased and may kiss the icon or Cross in the coffin.

After all, mourners have had a chance to "say goodbye," the casket is closed and removed from the Church to the cemetery. At this point, the Trisagion should again be sung.


Once at the cemetery, a short graveside burial service is performed by the priest. The Trisagion is again recited.

Post-Funeral Reception

After the body is buried, family and friends gather for a reception, where mourners can connect, reflect on the deceased's life, and eat a meal, called a "mercy meal."

Eastern Orthodox Mourning Period And Memorial Events

The mourning period for Eastern Orthodox Christians lasts for forty days. Within those forty days, the third day, the ninth day, and the fortieth Day all have special significance. 

After forty days, memorials are celebrated at three months, six months, nine months, one year, and on the death anniversary for at least seven years. 

For close relatives, the mourning period may last for one year, during which widows and widowers may wear only black clothing and receive Panikhidas regularly.

Let Peter Tziotzis Orthodox Funerals help you select the type of funeral service that best fits your needs.

Close relatives may also stay home from work for one week and avoid social gatherings for two months.

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