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Our Help to the Deceased

Someone close has died… Sooner or later we all encounter the mysterious phenomenon of death. And every decent person, by measure of his power and opportunities, tries to give the deceased his last due, to worthily send him off on the path of the whole earth. We attend to obtaining a coffin, to organizing the funeral, to planning the funeral repast. But we sometimes do not realize that the deceased himself does not need either the coffin nor the meal. Naked a person leaves his mother’s womb, naked he returns to the womb of the earth. Only one thing he needs, and needs it extremely. That is prayer. After the body’s death God designates a place for the soul until the Final Judgment — either heaven or hell, depending on how he had lived his life. Prayers for the repose of the dead, panihidas and commemorating at the liturgy greatly help the soul in the other world.

There is tale in the Lives of the Saints about the Venerable Macarius the Great, who prayed for everyone who departed for the other world. Once he saw a skull in the desert, which by the power of God related to Macarius that through his prayers, even the worst sinners receive some relief from their sufferings.

The first and immutable responsibility of each believer is the ordering of a funeral service for his deceased relative. One can display economy anywhere, only not on the funeral service! It must be performed no sooner than the third day of death (the day of death is considered the first day, even if the person died just before midnight); it is better, if the service occurs in church or at the cemetery. In an extreme case a funeral service can be performed in absentia. The deceased must be buried in the earth at all cost. Cremation is foreign to Orthodox ritual, borrowed from the eastern cultures. Even if the deceased willed to have himself cremated, going against his will is not a sin.

On the 9th and 40th days after death panihidas must be ordered—prayers for forgiveness of the sins of the deceased. Particularly important is the 40th day, on which the personal judgment of God is carried out over the soul, determining its fate until the Second Coming of Christ. Prayers for the repose will be more effective, if any one of the relatives of the deceased partakes of the Eucharist on these commemorative days. Panihidas should be served in the future as well, on birthdays, the day of death, the saint’s day of the deceased. Writing altar pleas, putting up candles can be done every day. At the cemetery, one must not insult the memory of the deceased by becoming drunk or pouring vodka on the gravesite. It is better to light a candle, to pray, to clean up the grave. At home, at the commemorative repast, Russians partake of special food — kutia (rice with honey or raisins), yeast-raised pancakes (blini), kisel (flummery).

If the deceased during his life was a believer, did not disparage God or the Church, confessed his deadly sins, long-term memorial services are ordered in the Church — for forty days (sorokoust), six months or a year. Monasteries accept "eternal" (while the monastery stands) remembrances.

Can an Orthodox Funeral Service be Performed for People of Other Faiths?

This question has been raised many times. Notice, that the question is not whether one can at least pray for a deceased person of another faith, but can funeral services or panihidas be served for them. It is vital to differentiate between these two inquiries: just prayers for deceased persons of other faiths, and the performance of an Orthodox rite for them. Personal, in-home prayer for non-Orthodox persons is not forbidden, one can remember them at home, read psalms at their gravesite, offer alms for the remembrance of their soul… But the Orthodox funeral rite and panihidas are constructed in the certainty that the deceased and the one for whom the service is being held is a true member of the Orthodox Church.

In protecting the purity of its Orthodox teachings and the order of life established by God, the Church has always forbidden bishops, clerics and laity to join in prayerful association not only in the church, but even at home with all heretics, schismatics, and excommunicants. The strictness with which the Church guarded its children from the danger of being infected by some heresy even extended to forbidding hierarchs to pray or serve even in the presence of heretics. The basis for this canonical rule lies in the eternal word of Christ: "But if he neglect to hear the church, let him be unto thee as an heathen man and a publican" (Matthew 18:17). Being without the Church in life, heretics and schismatics are even farther from it in death, because then they lose the ability to repent and turn to the true light.

So it is perfectly natural that the Church cannot bring the mollifying bloodless offering or any prayer at all for non-Orthodox: this last is clearly forbidden according to the Apostle (1 John 5:16). In keeping with the commandments of the apostles and holy fathers, the Church prays only for the repose of Orthodox Christians who died in faith and repentance, as living members of the Body of Christ. This includes those, who might have fallen away at one time, but repented and returned to the Church.

Remaining true in all ways to the ancient Universal Church, our Russian Orthodox Church not only forbade funeral services for non-Orthodox — Roman Catholics, Protestants, Armenians, etc., but even to perform panihidas for them. Out of Christian mercy it only began to permit one condescension in relation to them: if the non-Orthodox is of "Christian faith," and for their burial there is no priest or pastor of their faith available, then an Orthodox priest may, in his vestments, accompany the body of the deceased to the cemetery and, during singing of "Holy God…" preside at the lowering of the coffin into the grave. Taking a body of a non-Orthodox person into an Orthodox Church is not permitted.

The expanse of Orthodox Christian love, in the name of which some demand to allow church prayers for deceased Christians of any faith, cannot extend to disregard for Orthodox teachings of faith, a treasure which our Church has protected in the course of centuries. Otherwise all boundaries will be erased, which separate the One True Church from those who are torn from the blessed unity with it.

From everything said here, it is clear that Church prayers are even more greatly forbidden for deceased Muslims, Buddhists, Jews and people of faiths, which do not recognize the Lord Jesus Christ.

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