Christian Burial

written by a priest of the Ukrainian Catholic Church

Domestic-Church.Com - Sacramental - Christian Burial
Part 1. Death- the seed of resurrection
Part 2. The Preparation of the Body
Part 3. Prayer, Fasting and Almsgiving
Part 4. The Burial
Part 5. Other Remembrance Services

Death - the seed of resurrection

Death - the result of sin

There is "a time to be born, and a time to die" (Eccl.3:2). Death is a part of human life. We are born in time; we change and we grow with time. We experience both good and evil: joy and suffering, pleasure and pain, happiness and sorrow; and finally, we face death, "and the dust returns to the earth as it was, and the spirit returns to God who gave it" (Eccl.12:7).

For unbelievers, death seems final - a return to non-existence - but for believers, it is not so. For Christians, physical death is only the separation of body and soul.

The soul, which gives life to the body, leaves the body and continues to live without decay or decomposition. The body however, is not able to survive the separation and returns to the earth. Thus physical death, in the Christian understanding, is not a total dissolution but a partial one. In death, the fullness of being is lost, because humans were created by God to be a unity of body and soul.

The Christian knows and believes that death was not in God's original plan: "Death was not God's doing and He takes no pleasure in the destruction of any living thing" (Ws 1:13). Death came into the world as a result of sin. "Sin entered the world through one man (Adam), and through sin came death. And thus, death has spread through the whole human race because everyone, as a descendent of Adam, has sinned (Rm 5:12).

Conquered by Christ

The Christian knows and believes that death has been conquered because sin has been conquered by Christ's death and resurrection. The Son of God emptied himself taking the form of a servant and was born in the likeness of men (Phil 2:7). He came into the world to bring salvation to mankind. Just as Moses led Israel from the bondage of Egypt and across the Red Sea, our Saviour, Jesus Christ, by His Sacrifice on the Cross, freed those who would believe in Him from the bondage of sin. He leads the captives across the "valley of darkness" to the promised land, the Kingdom of the Heavenly Father.

Having taken human flesh, Christ Himself chose to share with mankind the most bitter aspects of human death. He experienced all things that any man could: intense suffering, torture, the death struggle and even the grave. Our Lord was not forced to make this sacrifice. He embraced it freely and willingly because there was no greater way in which to show how much He loves each one of us. Yet, Jesus accepted everything courageously, patiently and nobly. Upon the cross, He showed deep tranquility in the presence of death. One of the last things He did in life was to forgive those who had crucified Him.

Christian life and death

The essence of a good Christian life is the preparation for a good death. To die well, one must live well. Our Lord exhorted His followers to be watchful and vigilant at all times, to be ready for the Judge, who may come like a thief in the night (Mt 24:43-44).

For the Christian, it is not physical death that is to be feared. Death has already been conquered by Christ, who by His Death trampled death, bestowing life to those in the tombs. For the Christian, it is spiritual death that is to be feared most. Jesus said: "Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; fear him rather who can destroy both body and soul in hell" (Mt 10:28).

At the Last Supper, Jesus talked about His own Departure from the world and about the departure of others. He said: "Let not your hearts be troubled; believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father's house there are many rooms; if it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And when I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also" (Jn 14: 1-3).

For the faithful Christian, death is seen as "going home" to begin living in the place that Christ has prepared for His own. Death is seen and understood as a sharing in the Paschal Mystery, a personal sharing in Christ's death and resurrection. By dying in Christ, the soul separates from the body for a period of time. By rising with Christ on the last day, the soul will reunite with the body transfigured in glory.

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The Preparation of the Body

The body of every Christian is indeed "a temple of God," "a temple of the Holy Spirit." The body is therefore holy (1 Cor 3:16-17) and is always treated with respect.

The Washing

When a Christian dies, the body should be washed. This is mentioned in the Acts of the Apostles about a certain convert named Tabitha: "They washed her body and laid it out in a room upstairs."

This ceremonial washing symbolizes the cleansing of the Holy Spirit which took place in the waters of Holy Baptism. "Nothing unclean" can enter into the Kingdom of heaven (Rev 21:27), and it is by the power of the Holy Spirit that we are forgiven, cleansed and healed.

The Best Clothing

The body is then dressed in new and festive clothing which symbolizes the inner spiritual garment of incorruption, the Holy Spirit. At the time of Baptism and Holy Chrismation, the Holy Spirit enclothes the soul with His presence. He will also enclothe the souls of the just at the time of the general resurrection.

St. Paul writes: "This corruptible body must be clothed with incorruptibility, this mortal body with immortality" (1 Cor 15:53).

The Catafalque

The body of the deceased is then placed in a casket and laid out on a 'catafalque', an elevated stand draped with covers, which represents a bed.

In light of the Resurrection, Christians believe that their dead have not 'died' in the true sense, but that they have 'fallen asleep.' St. Luke, describing the stoning of St. Stephen, the first Martyr, tells us that he "fell asleep" (Acts 7:60). Our Lord Himself referred to the dead daughters of Jarius (Mt. 9:24) and to His friend Lazarus (Jn 11:11) as asleep.

The hands of the deceased are folded on his chest in the form of a cross, as if approaching Holy Communion. The deceased has gone to live eternally in Holy Communion with his (her) Creator and Saviour. The folding of the hands in a praying fashion also reminds the mourners of the importance of intercessory prayer for the repose of his (her) soul.

A prayerbook, or a holy icon may be placed in the hands of the deceased. If the deceased person had a devotion to the Jesus Prayer or the holy Rosary, the prayer beads may be placed into his (her) hands.


Burning candles are placed around the body of the deceased. These candles remind us that the deceased person, having been baptized in Christ, was indeed "a child of light" (1Thess. 5:5). After following Christ during earthly life, he (she) has finally reached the "perpetual Light" in heaven.


During the various funeral services, the body is incensed because it is honoured as a temple of the Holy Spirit, a place in which the Holy Spirit has dwelled - a temple which God will one day quicken and bring back to life. Incense is also a symbol of our prayer. It reminds the faithful that their prayers on behalf of the deceased rise to God in beauty and sweetness.

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Prayer, Fasting and Almsgiving

The Church is one Body, one family in Christ. It is a communion of saints, which embraces all those who have been baptized in Christ: those who live on earth; those who are being purified in order to enter heaven; and all those who already behold God's glory in heaven.

Death is not able to separate this bond that exists between Christians, nor can it shatter the unity of Christ's Body. There is no impassable wall between the living and the dead. Therefore, prayer of each Christian soul, whether in heaven or on earth, affects the whole Body of Christ.

In the book of Job we read: "There is no man without sin, even if he has lived a single day upon earth" (Job 14:15). Therefore, no matter how righteous a person might have been on earth, when he departs from the world he is still in need of the help of other Christians. The Church encourages the faithful to pray for the deceased, because by offering prayers, sacrifices and good works, they can obtain pardon for the souls of the departed and shorten the duration of their cleansing.

Prayer, fasting and almsgiving always go together. And what better way do we have to express our love than to pray for the deceased, to fast and to give alms in their behalf. St. John Chrysostom says: "Do you wish to honour the departed? Honour them by giving alms and by doing works of benefaction."

The Three Day Vigil

Christians always considered it their sacred duty to take part in the prayers for the deceased members of their community. During the persecutions, however, they were able to come together for such prayers only under the cover of night.

Usually, they spent all night watching the body of the departed, reciting various prayers and psalms. At sunrise, after the celebration of the Holy Liturgy, they would bury the body in a prepared place.

These all-night vigils became part of the Christian burial and came to symbolize the entrance of the Christian soul into the company of the angels, praising God "day and night, unceasingly" (Rev. 4:8). With time, these all-night vigils were somewhat shortened and they became our present three-day wakes (vigils).

The Panakhyda Service

The three-day vigil begins with the celebration of the Panakhyda Service. The Panakhyda is a short service that begins with introductory prayers, followed by troparia, prayers of intercession, and concludes with a special prayer recited by the priest.The Parastas (The Great Panakhyda)

The word "Parastas" comes from the Greek word "parastedzein," which means 'to stand beside,' the standing service beside the body of the departed. This is a longer service on behalf of the deceased. It closely follows the structure of the Matins service.

The Reading of the Psalter

The reading of the Psalter on behalf of the deceased is an ancient tradition in the East. For lay people, the book of Psalms may be read. In the case of the funeral of a priest, the Book of Gospels may be read.

The book of Psalms is the prayer book of the Church. All the Psalms find their ultimate fulfillment in Jesus Christ. In the Psalms, we see Christ interceding for His people before the Father. We also see a dialogue of prayer, between the Church, the Body of Christ, and Christ her Head.

The Conclusion of the Vigil (Wake)

On the morning of the burial, the Panakhyda Service is celebrated once again. During this service, the remains are sprinkled with holy water. This marks the conclusion of the three day vigil.

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The Burial

The Funeral Procession to the Church

The early Christians considered the death of a Christian a victory. Therefore, they arranged the funeral procession in a triumphal way. St. Athanasios the Athonite (d.1003) writes: "Death prevents me only from staying alive, but not from my living. In this sense, as a Christian, I triumph over death."

The funeral procession should be headed by the holy Cross which is "a trophy of victory over the tyranny of death" (St. John Chrysostom. Homily on John, 85, 1). A wreath of flowers is placed on the top of the coffin (or sometimes carried separately) which is a symbol of the victorious "crown of life," which our Lord promised to give to all those who "remain faithful to Him until death" (Rev. 2:10).

The Kolyvo

A bowl of kolyvo (kutya) is brought to the church and placed upon the tetrapod before the Funeral Service begins. Kolyvo is derived from the Greek word "kolyba" which means boiled wheat mixed with honey.

The kolyvo is symbolic of the resurrection of the dead at the Second Coming of the Lord. St. Paul said: "What you sow does not come to life unless it dies" (1 Cor 15:34); and St. John: "Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit" (Jn 12:24).

Thus, as the wheat is buried in the soil and disintegrates without really dying but later regenerates into a plant that bears much more fruit than itself, so the Christian's body will be raised again from the very corruptible matter from which it is now made. However, the body will be raised not in its previous fleshy and corruptible form but in a new and incorruptible form (I Cor 15:53).

Along with the kolyvo, three loaves of bread are placed upon the tetrapod, signifying an offering of sacrifice on behalf of the deceased.

The Divine Liturgy

The funeral procession proceeds to the church where the Divine Liturgy is offered for the repose of the soul of the departed. This custom goes back to the early centuries: "For your Brethren that fall asleep in the Lord, offer the acceptable Eucharist" (cf. Apostolic Constitutions, VI, 30).

The Procession to the Cemetery

From the church, the body of the deceased is once again carried out in triumphal procession to the cemetery. The Greek word for cemetery is "koimeterion," which means "a sleeping place, a place of rest." It is here that the body, according to the disposition of God, is returned to the earth: "You are the earth and into the earth you shall return" (Gen 3:19).

In their "sleeping chambers," their graves, the bodies of the departed Christians peacefully await the "resurrection of the dead," when they will once again be reunited with the soul in glory.

At the Cemetery

At the cemetery, a brief service is sung. Whenever possible, the deceased are buried facing east in the expectation of the Coming of the Lord, Who will come again from on high in the East.

The soil, sprinkled on the coffin, signifies man's earthly nature and the finiteness of this temporary life.

To be away from the body is not to be a full person. The departed in Christ look forward to the resurrection of the body on the last day when the fullness of their being will be restored and transformed in glory.

God, grant eternal memory

The thief on the cross said to Jesus: "Jesus, remember me when You come into Your Kingdom." And to these words, our Lord replied: "Truly, I say to you, today you will be with Me in Paradise" (Lk 23:42-43). With the words of the thief in mind, the faithful sing this short prayer in behalf of the deceased: "Let his(her) memory be eternal. With the Saints, O Christ, grant rest and eternal memory."

People forget. Our memory is capable of remembering certain events, but for the most part, we forget. Even what we remember, we cannot bring the event from the past and make it real. But God is beyond time and He never forgets. He is the Lord of the living and the dead. When God remembers, He remembers forever, and His remembrance is reality. To be remembered by God in His Kingdom is to live forever, for God's memory is eternal, incomprehensible, and without limit.

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Other Remembrance Services

The Ninth day

The number nine has symbolic meaning. It reminds us of the nine choirs of angels that surround the Throne of God and unceasingly sing praise to Him On the ninth day, we implore the Lord God, through the intercession of the heavenly choirs, to grant repose to the soul of His servant and to give him(her) a place with the saints.

The Fortieth Day

In the Holy Scriptures, forty is a number that symbolizes fullness or completion. It was after forty years of wandering in the desert that Israel entered the Promised Land.

It was after forty days of prayer and fasting in the wilderness that Jesus began His public ministry. It was forty days after His Resurrection that He ascended to the Father with the righteous souls that He had freed from the prison of Hades.

Anniversaries of Death or Burial

Another statement of love for those who have gone into eternity is to offer prayers on their behalf on the anniversaries of their death or burial. A Divine Liturgy, Parastas or Panakhyda are usually celebrated. Offered prayers may also be accompanied with fasting, almsgiving or acts of mercy.

Memorial Services at the Grave

The descent of the Holy Spirit on the fiftieth day after the Resurrection Church, wishing the departed souls to have a share in the graces of redemption, honours their memory on the Saturday before Pentecost. On this day and on Pentecost Sunday, the faithful visit the graves of their departed loved ones. The Panakhyda is usually celebrated on their behalf accompanied with personal prayers for the deceased.

This article was first publilshed in the November 4, 2001 issue of Progress, Ukrainian Catholic News, published in Winnepeg, Manitoba, Canada.

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