The Holy Memorial Services

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The subject of this paper is, “The Holy Memorial Services”, that is, the intercessions of the Church on behalf of our departed brothers and sisters. We shall attempt a review of the tradition regarding memorial services and the practice of the Church from the beginning until the liturgical practice became established. This reference to history, both in the present instance and in any other issue concerning worship, is made not simply for reasons of historical curiosity, but because there is a really important reason for it: it is in this way that we validate the legitimacy of our liturgical practice, in this case intercessions for the departed, which the Church conducts for the repose of their souls and the consolation of the living. This is the way in which a traditional Church, as the Orthodox is, thinks, theologizes and acts. Tradition justifies and verifies our practice today. We don’t innovate, but rather we follow the practice we’ve inherited from the Lord Jesus Christ, the Apostles and the Fathers of the Church. We rest upon this with humility and confidence and in its name we continue our spiritual life of worship within the bosom of the Church, invoking the mercy of God and believing that His loving-kindness will overcome the multitude of our sins. We say as much at the kneeling prayers at Vespers on the Sunday of Pentecost, which, fundamentally, are prayers for the dead; “Measure our transgressions against your forgiveness; set the depth of your mercy against the multitude of our wrongdoings” (1st. kneeling prayer).

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To the questions from believers and non-believers regarding the efficacy of and benefit that our intercessions on behalf of the departed might have, since “there is no repentance in Hell”, we reply by invoking the centuries-old practice of the Church. The apparently simplistic attitude that: “This is the way we’ve received it”, demonstrates our complete confidence and unwavering and vibrant hope in the mercy of God, as well as our certainty that the action of the Church, which expresses its faith and the truth of the revelation of God in Christ Jesus to the world, is, for all of us, the guarantee that our prayers are in accordance with the will of God and that they are beneficial for the souls of the departed. As to the manner in which this occurs, we leave it to the unsearchable depths of God’s sagacious love. That, roughly, would be our answer on the matter of memorial services, from a liturgical point of view.

Historically, the Christian Church, from the very beginning, instituted special prayers for the repose of the souls of our departed ancestors and relatives. This was a consequence of its faith and teaching that dead believers live in Christ beyond the grave and that the communion of faith and love among the living and the departed does not cease to exist, but rather that it is expressed through reciprocal prayer. The living pray for the departed, and the departed, especially the saints who have boldness of speech towards Christ, pray for the living. In this way, prayers and memorial services were established in memory of the departed. Thus, the Church continues a tradition and practice to be found among all peoples, in this case the funeral customs which existed at the time of Christ’s coming and of the establishment and expansion of the Church, and which, Christianized and purified of shibboleths and superstitions, took on new content and meaning.

There is evidence in the Old Testament concerning the Jewish practice before Christ. In Tobit (4, 17), there is the exhortation: “pour out your bread on the graves of the righteous”, which implies the holding of funeral meals at the graves or the offering of alms to the poor, clearly in remembrance of the departed. In II Maccabees (12, 43-5), there is mention of sacrifices conducted “for sins”, on behalf of “those asleep in piety”. Judas Maccabeus sent what was required to the temple in Jerusalem for a sacrifice on behalf of those who had fallen in the war. The relationship to the analogous, though, of course later, Christian practice is clear.

But pagans also performed sacrifices and offerings on behalf of the dead. Funeral feasts, at which the dead person was believed to be eating with those present, were known from the time of Homer. These memorial meals were held on specified days following that of death: the third, ninth, thirtieth and on the annual birthday- not date of death- of the dead person. The similarity here to the Christian practice is even more obvious.

As was to be expected, Christians continued the above, in two ways: alms on behalf of the departed as an expression of love towards them and towards those in need; and prayers. As early as the end of the 4th century, the “Apostolic Constitutions” suggest that alms should be given to the poor “from the estate” of the departed “in remembrance of them”. (VIII, 42). The same is proposed by Chrysostom, Ieronymous, Tertullian, pseudo-Athanasios and other Early Fathers and Church writers. At the same time, however, funeral feasts were held at the graves of the departed and these have survived to this day in a variety of local guises. The funeral feasts were not unrelated to the practice of alms-giving, since it was not only family and friends who were invited, but also the clergy, the poor and strangers (Ap. Const. VIII, 44; Augustine Confessions, VI2; Valsamon and so forth). It is worth noting that the spiritual meaning attributed by the Apostolic Constitutions (VIII, 44) to these common meals is that they are an act of prayer and intercession on the part of the living on behalf of the departed (“and at these memorials eat in all propriety and fear of God, as being able to pray for the departed”).

But already, in the Apostolic Constitutions (VIII, 41), there were special prayers and petitions by a deacon “for our brethren who have reposed in Christ” and which basically have the same content, and sometimes phraseology familiar to us from the prayers now in use (“forgive him/her every sin, witting and unwitting… place in the land of the righteous, … remaining in the bosom of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob… from which all pain, sorrow and sighing have fled”. There is also evidence that memorials were established, by the apostles, to be held on the third, ninth and fortieth days as well as on the annual anniversary of the date of death. A Biblical or elementary theological interpretation is given for each: “Let prayers and readings be said for the departed on the third day, for Him Who rose on the third day; on the ninth, in remembrance of those present and the departed; on the fortieth, because, in the old manner, the people mourned Moses thus; and annually, in remembrance of them” (VIII, 42). Many similar theological interpretations deriving from the Old Testament or from the theological significance of the numbers or, particularly, from the post-Resurrection appearances of the Lord, are used in order to justify the choice of days for holding memorial services: the Holy Trinity, the three days of the Lord in the grave (the third day); angelic ranks, or the sacred number 3X3, or the appearance of the Lord on the eighth day after His resurrection (ninth), the Ascension of the Lord (fortieth) and so on. Saint Symeon of Thessaloniki mentions other interpretations, which were in circulation in his time, which linked the days for memorial services to the corresponding phases in the conception and development of the embryo on the one hand, and of the natural decomposition of the body after burial on the other. These were based on the medical knowledge of the day and Symeon does not adopt them, correctly preferring “to understand everything spiritually and in accordance with God and not to interpret things of the Church through the senses” (Dialogue, chap. 371). One thing is clear: that the Church retained certain pre-Christian customs which did not contradict its teachings, gave them Christian significance and altered some of them for theological reasons. This is how it acted when it transposed the memorial from the thirtieth to the fortieth day, obviously under Jewish influence and by correlation with the Lord’s ascension. So also, it celebrates the annual anniversary not on the irrelevant day of the natural birth of a person, but on that of their birth and perfection in Christ and their entry into the true life, that is, the day of the “falling-asleep” of the believer and his or her new birthday. It does not engage in pointless polemics or shadow-boxing, but re-makes the world, in Christ. A very wise tactic.

From the extant Rules of various monasteries we learn the funeral customs that were observed in the monasteries and, in all likelihood, in the churches “in the world”. For the first forty days, a special supplication was made at Vespers and Matins on behalf of the departed and the bloodless sacrifice was performed on his or her behalf. From the time of Saint Cyril of Jerusalem (4th century), who emphasizes that “great benefit” is afforded to the souls “on behalf of whom the supplication is offered of the holy and most dread sacrifice (Mystagogical Catechesis V, 9), until that of Symeon of Thessaloniki (15th century), the Fathers mention the especially great importance of the celebration of the Divine Eucharist on behalf of the departed, the commemoration of them during it and the benefit they derive from it. Saint Symeon links it to traditional liturgical theology, especially the benefit of the commemoration of the departed at the extraction of the portions of bread at the preparation table, because in this way, through their portion on the paten, they partake mystically and invisibly in the grace; they commune, are comforted, saved and rejoice in Christ (Dialogue chap. 373). If someone died during the period of Lent, or if the time of the forty liturgies coincided in part with it, an easy readjustment was made. The third day was held on the first Saturday, the ninth on the second and the forty liturgies began on the Monday after Thomas Sunday. The main point is that the memorial service for the departed is indissolubly linked to the celebration of the Divine Eucharist, as was the case with baptisms, weddings, anointing and so forth, in earlier times.

Apart from the individual memorial services which took place on the third, ninth and fortieth days after death and on the annual anniversary, the Church has also introduced prayers at all services for the repose of the souls and blessed memory of our departed ancestors and relatives. These are general intercessions and prayers which can be particularized by the commemoration of specific names. Thus, we have the great litany at Vespers, Matins and in the Liturgy (“Have mercy upon us, Lord… Again we pray for the blessed memory and eternal repose of the souls…”); the service of preparation for the liturgy; diptychs in the liturgy after the consecration; “Let us pray…” at the Midnight Office and Compline; the tropario for the dead at the Third and Sixth Hours, and particularly the second part of the Midnight Office, which is called, in the sources, a “thrice-holy on behalf of the dead” and contains two psalms (120 and 133), a thrice-holy and so forth, three funereal troparia (“Remember Lord, as you are good”… and so forth), a hymn to the Mother of God as well as the funereal prayer (“Remember Lord, those who in hope of the Resurrection…”).

Every Saturday in the year is dedicated to the departed and to prayers on their behalf. On these days, hymns are sung for the departed and there is a canon in the tone of the week, as well as memorial services. Exceptionally, two Saturdays a year, the Saturday before Meat-Fare Sunday and that before Pentecost, are days of common, universal commemoration, since on these days “we celebrate the memory of all Orthodox Christians throughout the ages who have fallen asleep in the Lord”. The choice of Saturday as the funereal date is due, on the one hand, to the fact that in Genesis it is called the day “of rest” from His work for God, the Creator of the world (2, 2), and also because the Lord spent the Saturday of Passion Week in the tomb. There were similar feasts for the dead in pre-Christian times which were replaced by common memorial services and the two Saturdays of the Souls. On the Saturday before Meat-Fare Sunday, between odes six and seven of the Matins canon, there is a wonderful reading by Nikiforos Kallistos Xanthopoulos, in which he analyzes the teaching of the Church regarding life after death and where matters concerning memorial services are set out in detail, and their benefit to the souls of the departed explained.

by Ioannis Foundoulis(+)

Ioannis Foundoulis, Τελετουργικά Θέματα, vol. III, pubd. by Apostoliki Diakonia, Athens 2007, pp. 29-36.

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