The Holy Memorial Services

25 October 2012

The subject of this presentation is “The Holy Memorial Services”, that is the intercessions by the Church on behalf of our departed brothers and sisters. It consists of two parts. In the first, we shall attempt to give a historical picture of the subject, that is, to take a retrospective look at the tradition and practice of the Church concerning memorial services, from the beginning until they were established within the liturgical order.

This reference to history and, in our present instance, to other liturgical matters is not merely for reasons of historical curiosity, but actually exists and needs to be addressed. It is in this way that we validate the legitimacy of our liturgical practice and, in the case at hand, the intercessions on behalf of the departed, which the Church conducts for their repose and for the consolation of the living. This is the way in which a traditional Church, such as the Orthodox, thinks, acts and theologizes. Tradition justifies and verifies our modern practice. We do not innovate, but follow the order we received from the Lord Jesus Christ, the Holy Apostles and the Fathers of the Church. We lean upon this in humility and confidence and in its name we continue our spiritual and liturgical life within the  bosom of the Church, invoking the mercy of God, believing that His loving-kindness will overcome the multitude of our sins. With boldness we say the kneeling prayers at Pentecost Vespers, which are, in essence, funereal: “Measure our wickednesses in accordance with your bounties. Set the depth of Your compassion against the multitude of our transgressions” (first kneeling prayer). To the question posed by the faithful and non-believers regarding the point of the prayers and the benefit to the departed of the supplications which the living make on their behalf- since “there is no repentance in Hell”- we would invoke the ancient practice of the Church. The seemingly simplistic “That’s the way we received it” demonstrates all our confidence and our unshakeable and living hope in the mercy of God, and also our conviction that the practice of the Church, which expresses to the world its faith and the truth of the revelation of God in Jesus Christ, is for all of us an assurance that our prayers are in accordance with the will of God and that they will be of benefit to the souls of the deceased. As to  the way in which this will happen, we leave it to the unfathomable depths of the resourceful love of God. That, roughly, would be our answer regarding memorial services from a liturgical point of view.

Part I

From the very beginning, the Christian Church established special prayers for the repose of the souls of our departed forebears and fellows. This is a consequence of its faith and teaching that believers who have died continue to live after death in Christ and that the community of faith and love between the living and the departed does not cease to exist, but is expressed through reciprocal prayers. The living pray for the departed, and the departed, especially the saints who have boldness before God, pray for the living. This is the reason behind the establishment of the prayers and memorial services on behalf of the departed. In this way, the Church continues a tradition and practice common to all humanity, that is funereal customs which existed at the time of the advent of Christ and the foundation and expansion of the Church. Christianized and purified from charms and superstitions, they assumed a new content and meaning and we continue to observe them.

In the Old Testament we find testimony to the pre-Christian practice of the Jews. In Tobit, 4, 17, there is the exhortation: “Place your bread on the grave of the righteous”, which hints at the ritual of funereal meals at the graveside or the offer of alms on behalf of the departed. In Macabbees II, 12, 43-5,  there is a reference to a “sin offering” on behalf of the “God-fearing deceased”. Judas Maccabaeus sent what was required to Jerusalem in order to have a sacrifice performed for those who had fallen in war. The close relationship to the later Christian practice is obvious.

As one would expect, Christians continue the above in a twofold manner: alms on behalf of the deceased, as an expression of love to both them and the impecunious; and prayers. As early as the 4th century, the Apostolic Constitutions suggest that “of the substance” of the deceased, and “in memory of them”, alms should be given to the poor (VIII 42). The same is recommended  by Chrysostom, Ieronymos, Tertullian, Pseudo-Athanasios and other ancient fathers and writers of the Church. And at the same time, however, at the graveside of the departed, meals were  served which have survived in various forms of development  in different places to this day. These funerary meals, too, were not unrelated to the practice of alms-giving, since it was not only family and friends of the deceased who were there together, but also clergy, the poor and strangers (Apost. Const. VIII 44, Augustine’s Confessions VI, 2, Valsamon et al.). It is worth taking note of the spiritual meaning attributed by the Apostolic Constitutions to these common meals: they are an act of prayer and advocacy by the living on behalf of the departed (“invited to their tombs, eat with propriety and in the fear of God, as being able to intercede on behalf of those removed” VIII 44).

But also, from as early as the Apostolic Constitutions, there are not only special prayers and requests from the deacon “for our brothers and sisters at rest in Christ”, which, basically contain the requests and even the form of words with which we are familiar from the prayers in use (that they may be pardoned every sin, witting or unwitting… and may be given a place in the land of the devout, resting in the bosom of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob… from which pain, sorrow and sighing have fled, VIII 41), but also evidence that there were already third day, ninth day, fortieth day, and annual memorial services, as having been ordained by the apostles. There is also a Biblical and rudimentary theological justification for each: “Let there be psalms, readings and prayer performed on the third day of the departed, for Him Who rose  on the third day; on the ninth in remembrance of the living and of the departed; and on the fortiethaccording to the ancient pattern: for so did the people lament Moses, and the yearly anniversary in memory of them” (VIII 42). Similar theological interpretation with derivations from the Old Testament or  the theological significance of numbers or particularly to the life and post-resurrection appearances of the Lord have often been given  as justification for the choice of the days for holding memorial services: the Holy Trinity, the three days the Lord spent in the grave (third-day); the ranks of angels, the holy number 3×3, or the appearance of the Lord on the eighth day after that of the Resurrection (the ninth day); the Ascension of the Lord forty days after the Resurrection (the forty-days), and so on. Saint Symeon of Thessaloniki mentions other interpretations which were circulating in his day and which linked the days of the memorial services to the corresponding days of the conception and development of the embryo, on the one hand, and the natural decomposition of the body after burial, on the other. These were based on the medical knowledge of the time and were not adopted by Symeon, who, correctly, preferred “to understand everything spiritually and divinely and not to put together matters of the Church from the senses” (Dialogue, chap. 371). One thing matters, though, and that is that the Church retained pre-Christian mores which did not conflict with its teaching, gave them a new, Christian meaning, and altered some for theological reasons. This is what it did when it postponed the thirty days to the fortieth, clearly under Jewish influence and to correlate with the Ascension of the Lord. And it celebrates the annual anniversary not on the date of people’s natural birth but on the date of their birth and ending in Christ and their entry into real life, i.e. the date of the “falling asleep” of the faithful, of their “birthday”. The Church does not get involved in vacuous and pointless battles and shadow-boxing, but reshapes the world in Christ. A very wise move.

From the surviving Typika (Rules) of various monasteries, we learn the funereal customs observed in those monasteries and, obviously, in the churches in the outside world. On each of the first forty days, at Vespers and Matins, a special prayer was said for the deceased and the bloodless sacrifice was offered on their behalf. The special importance of the celebration of the Divine Eucharist on behalf of the deceased, their mention by name during this, and the benefit they receive from this are referred to  by the fathers from Saint Cyril of Jerusalem (4th century), who emphasizes the “great benefit” to the  souls “on behalf of whom the supplication is offered of this holy and most dread sacrifice” (Mystagogical Catechesis V 9) to Saint Symeon of Thessaloniki (15th century). The latter combines it with the traditional theology of the Liturgy, especially the benefit of mentioning the departed by name at the time of extracting pieces at the prothesis, because, in this way, by the presence of their portion on the paten, they partake of grace, mystically and invisibly, they commune, they attend, they are saved and rejoice in Christ (Dialogue chap. 373). If someone died during Great Lent or if the period of the forty liturgies fell partially within that time, a reasonable accommodation was made. The third day was celebrated on the first Saturday, the ninth on the second and the forty liturgies began on the Monday after Thomas Sunday. This rubric is important for a number of reasons and we shall return to it in the second part of this address. Let us retain its fundamental teaching: that the main memorial service for the departed took place at the Divine Liturgy or, in other words, that the real service is indissolubly linked with the celebration of the sacrament of the Divine Eucharist, as was also true in earlier times of baptism, marriage, anointing and so on.

Apart from memorial services for individuals, which occur on the third, ninth and fortieth day from the departure from this life, and the annual remembrance service, the Church has introduced into all services intercessions for the repose of the souls and the blessed memory of those who have already departed, that is general prayers and supplications which can be made specific by the addition of names. So we have the great litany at Vespers, Matins and the Divine Liturgy (“Have mercy upon us, Lord… Again we pray for the blessed memory and eternal repose of the souls…”), the rite of the proskomidi and the diptychs after the consecration, at the Liturgy, The “Let us pray…” at the Midnight Office and Compline, the hymn for the deceased at the Third/Sixth Hours and, especially the second part of the daily Midnight Office, which, in the sources, is called a “thrice-holy for the departed” and contains two psalms (120 and 133, Septuagint numbering), the thrice-holy and so on, three funereal hymns (“Remember, Lord, Who are good…” and so on, the hymn to the Mother of God and the funereal prayer (“Remember, Lord, those who in the hope of the resurrection…”).

Every Saturday in the year is dedicated to the departed and to prayer on their behalf. Funereal hymns are sung, a canon in the tone of the week and the memorial services are held as always. Exceptionally, on two Saturdays in the year, the one before Meat-Fare Sunday and the one before Pentecost are days of general and universal memorial, since, on those occasions, we “celebrate the memory of all Orthodox Christians who have departed this life throughout the ages, our parents and kin”. The choice of Saturday as the day for funereal prayers is due, on the one hand to its characterization in Genesis as a day of “rest” from His work for God, the creator of the world (Gen. II, 2) and, on the other, to Our Lord Jesus  Christ’s “Sabbath rest” in the grave on that day in Passion Week. There were similar annual feasts for the dead in the pre-Christian world, too, and these were replaced by the common memorial services on the two Saturdays of All Souls already mentioned. On the Saturday before Meat-Fare Sunday, between the sixth and seventh odes of the canon at Matins, there is a wonderful Synaxarion written by Nikiforos Kallistos Xanthopoulos, in which he analyzes the teaching of the Church on life after death and gives an exhaustive exposition of  matters concerning memorial services and the benefit from them for the souls of the departed.

Source: Ioannis M. Foundoulis, Τελετουργικά Θέματα, vol. III,  Apostoliki Diakonia, Athens 2007, pp. 29-36,