World Funeral Customs: Eastern Europe

Religious/Cultural Traditions

Posted on September 22, 2015 by Morgan Marant

Eastern Orthodox Influence

Funeral traditions in Eastern Europe are guided heavily by the Christian beliefs of the Eastern Orthodox Church. The Orthodox Church officially separated from the Roman Catholic Church in the year 1054. This historical event is known as the Great Schism. Today, the Eastern Orthodox Church is the second most popular Christian church in the world, with over 225 million active worshipers. As its name suggests, the church is based in Eastern European region of the world, and it is the predominant religion of most individual countries there. Click on a a following link to jump to funeral traditions and customs of Russia, Romania, Ukraine, and Greece.

40-Day Mourning Period

When it comes to honoring the dead, the religion prescribes multiple ceremonies that are meaningfully staggered throughout the initial 40 days following death. The 3rd, 9th and 40th days, especially, are important to Eastern European mourners. It is believed that the soul leaves the body on 3rd day, the spirit leaves the body on the 9th, and the body ceases to exist on the 40th.

Burial Is the Only Choice

It is absolutely necessary for Eastern Orthodox Christians to be buried after they die in order to return their bodies back to the Earth. They believe that the soul ultimately reconnects with the body at the Last Judgment, thus, any alternative funeral rites – such as cremation – are explicitly forbidden by the religion.

Preparation of the Body 

In the initial three days following someone’s death, three important steps must be taken, traditionally by friends and family, to prepare the deceased for the afterlife.

  1. The body must be washed thoroughly in a warm bath to symbolically cleanse it of all worldly sin.

  2. The body is then dressed in all-white, handmade clothing that represents the purity of the individual. Additionally, a belt is put arouond the waist, which is important for resurrection at the Last Judgment.

  3. The body is laid in an open casket at either the family residence or a funeral home for a few days. This downtime is important, for fear of waking the dead prematurely.

The Wake

The night prior to the funeral, family and friends gather to view the deceased and begin the mourning process. During this event, a prayer service known as the First Panikhida,(or Parastas, is given. Afterwards, attendees begin to read psalms from the Book of Psalms known as "Psalter" aloud beside the casket. Traditionally, this reading would continue unceasingly until the funeral began in the morning. However, this all-night affair is rarely practiced in the modern day.

The Funeral Service

The third day is traditionally when the funeral service and burial are held. Held at an Orthodox church, the service is centered around the Trisagion (or Lite), which is an ancient Christian hymn of the Divine Liturgy. This service usually runs from 40 to 60 minutes. Mourners are expected wear black, drab formal wear to the event. Women sometimes choose to wear black for a whole year in the event of a premature death of their husband or child.

Burial Service

Following the church ceremonies, male pallbearers traditionally carry the body on their backs all the way to the gravesite at the cemetery. Just before burial, another brief Panikhida is spoken. After the burial ceremony, mourners consume koliva, a traditional food dish of boiled wheat mixed with honey. This can occur at the cemetery or at a luncheon that follows.

Caring for the Soul

Throughout the funeral process, the body is always transported feet first from place to place. This custom is practiced in order to deter the soul of the deceased from finding its way back home and delaying its passage to the afterlife. The spirit, however, is expected to return back home for the initial nine days following death. For this reason, there are several Eastern European funeral traditions that involve leaving out food, water and vodka in the family home during this time, in reverence to the spirit. On the fortieth day, the soul of the deceased is believed to receive its Particular Judgement and finally passes on fully to the afterlife. Unlike in Catholicism, there is no concept of a separate heaven and hell in the Orthodox teachings. Instead, it is believed that everyone passes into the direct presence of God. For lovers of God, this experience will be heaven. But for sinners and nonbelievers, it will be hell.

Attitude Towards Suicide

Suicide is deeply scorned in this region. In the past, when a person committed suicide, their body was not even buried in the ground because the act was considered such a damning affront to God and the natural order of the world. These days, however, bodies from suicides are usually buried in specially designated cemeteries. Standard funeral prayers and ceremonies are also affected in the event of a suicide death.

Organ Donation

There is nothing in the Eastern Orthodox doctrine that prohibits donation of the deceased organs. On the contrary, the religion strongly supports sacrificing oneself for the good of others. Thus, organ donation is considered perfectly acceptable in Eastern Europe. There are many other funeral traditions in Eastern Europe that are practiced within the individual countries of the region. Please read on to learn more about the special customs of Russia, Romania, Ukraine, and Greece.

Russia

Russian Orthodox Influence

The Russian Orthodox Church is one of fifteen self-governing satellite churches of the overall Eastern Orthodox Church. In modern Russia, about 41% of Russians are active members of the church. What’s more, about 70% of Russians identify themselves as Russian Orthodox. These numbers illustrate the respect the church is given nationwide by both religious believers and nonbelievers, as the church is seen as a major symbol of Russian heritage and culture. This being the case, the vast majority of funerals here are performed in an Orthodox manner.

The Natures of Death

One funeral tradition particular to Russia is the concept of “good” and “bad” deaths. A good death is one that is according to God’s will. Dying in old age, surrounded by loving family members is a popular understanding of a good death. These instances are considered to be good luck for all surrounding family members and friends. A bad death, on the other hand, is believed to bring bad luck and destruction. Consequently, deaths by war, murder, suicide and terrible illness lead to more somber funeral observances.

Russian Folk Tradition

As a result of folk traditions, Russians view the afterlife as a more casual and worldly affair than do other Orthodox countries. For example, they refer to afterlife as the “other world” and call the Particular Judgment one’s “meeting with God.” Along these same lines, the coffin is considered one’s “new living room.” As such, Russians make sure that the coffin is very comfortable. To do so, they furnish these final resting places with all sorts of blankets, pillows and cushions. Additionally, mourners traditionally put objects in the coffin that they think the person will need in the afterlife. These items can include money, food, personal belongings and important status symbols.

At the burial

Referred to as the “seeing off” ceremony, mourners throw coins into the grave to pay for the soul’s passage into the “other world.” And then the mourners all help throw the first handfuls of dirt in the grave as a way of incorporating the body with Earth.

Disposal of Handkerchiefs

At the end of the burial ceremony any used handkerchiefs should be thrown away and not be brought back to the house. This act signifies that everyone’s sorrows should start to diminish once the funeral has passed, and not be carried much farther into the future.

Dinnertime Offering

An important part of the grieving process occurs at dinnertime each night in the house of the bereaved family. For the initial six weeks following the death of an immediate family member, the family will leave a piece of bread on top of a drinking glass filled with vodka. This act serves the dual purpose of honoring the dead, and also of showing family members that the deceased has moved on, by virtue of seeing that the food and drink are not being consumed each night.

Romania

Attitude Towards Death

Over 80% of Romanians identify themselves as Eastern Orthodox Christian (2011). Death here is viewed as an important passage towards a superior afterlife. As such, it is viewed as a more joyous event than in other Orthodox countries.

Romanian Folk Tradition

Complex ceremonies involving masks, costumes, games, and singing used to be the norm in ancient times, before Christian influence. This carnivalesque behavior has steadily been toned down in past centuries, however, ever since Roman influence brought Christianity to the region. These party-like rituals are now condensed to night watches, if commissioned at all by the bereaved. The night watch is an all-night wake held on the eve of the funeral to watch over the body and protect it from evil spirits. In Romania, the deceased is referred to as the “pure and white traveller,” since he or she is travelling on a 40-day journey towards the Particular Judgment leading to the afterlife.

Professional Performers

The funeral service and burial often feature professionally-hired dirge singers to lead prayers for the dead. This stems from a widespread belief that the entire funeral ceremony must be conducted correctly. Otherwise, it is likely that the deceased will come back and haunt the family and community for this show of disrespect.

Church Rituals

Before the funeral service starts, it is important to Romanians that the dead body is carried into the church before anyone else. The body should be placed in the very center of the church. Another tradition is for the pallbearers to wear bath towels tied around their arms. Towels are hung from church crosses also. Candles and handkerchiefs are handed out during the ceremony for mourners to hold. The handkerchiefs, though, only go to the men. They are referred to as “homages” and are supposed to be kept and brought home at the end of the day. “Crowns” are also a big part of the funeral ceremony. These are flowery decorative wreaths brought to the church by mourners. They are then piled near the coffin. After the funeral service concludes, crown carriers lead the funeral procession out of the church, with the casket travelling closely behind. The crowns are then placed atop the casket before it is lowered into the ground at burial site. A concession table is set up at the gravesite after the burial ceremony concludes. It usually includes wine and traditional foods, such as koliva.

Ukraine

Feasting Ritual

Ukrainians follow their ancient funeral traditions very faithfully. A unique tradition is the holding of banquet-style feasts following the third, ninth and fortieth days after the death. The feasts are repeated again on the six-month and one-year anniversaries of the person’s passing.

Provody

There is also an important national remembrance festivity in Ukraine called Provody that is held annually on the days following Easter. (Towns celebrate on different days, according to local traditions.) Family members from all over the country – and world – gather at ancestral graves on this day to commemorate the lives of their ancestors. This is believed to put their spirits at ease so that they may continue to rest in peace. Provody is a proud tradition for Ukrainians, partially because it endured even in the face of a long communist occupation by the U.S.S.R. The holiday celebrates Christ’s victory over death. And it also speaks to the rebirth of nature that accompanies spring. The holiday is capped off by a huge dinner feast at which the first toast is dedicated to life and living.

Numbers Associated with Death

At the funeral itself, mourners are expected to bring even numbers of flowers to place next to the coffin. For every other occasion in Ukraine that calls for flowers, odd numbers of flowers are to be brought.

Spiritual Offerings

Another interesting funeral-day tradition is to leave a bowl of drinking water and a woven towel out for the dead. Conversely, mourners need to abstain from drinking any water themselves in the presence of the body. This is done because it is believed that the soul drinks this water and uses it to wash its tears away, along with the towel.

Ancient Mode of Transportation

In the mountainous Carpathian regions of Ukraine, sleds are still sometimes used to transport the deceased to burial sites, regardless of the season. This is a very ancient tradition, as evidenced by the fact that sleds predate the invention of the wheel.

Greece

Greek Orthodox Influence

Almost all Greek funerals are carried out in accordance with the Greek Orthodox Church.

The Wake

In Greece, wakes are usually held at a funeral home the night before the funeral. At the event, family members and friends give eulogies and engage in homilies (religious discourse that is intended primarily for spiritual edification rather than doctrinal instruction).

Church Restrictions

Unlike other Orthodox sects, only officiating bishops and priests are allowed to lead the funeral service and read the accompanying religious texts aloud. Another singularity of the Greek Orthodox Church is that it does not allow funerals to be held on Sundays or on Holy Saturday (before Easter).

Funeral Traditions

At the service, mourners are encouraged to view the body of the deceased. Attendees usually take a brief pause at the casket, during which time they bow and kiss an icon or cross placed on the chest of the deceased. A traditional greeting to the bereaved family at the service is “May their memory be eternal,” or “May you have an abundant life.” At the grave site, it is customary for the priest to drop soil on the casket in the shape of a cross. Thereafter, each mourner also drops a flower on the casket.

After the Burial

Either the family or the congregation provides a “Meal of Mercy” following the burial service. And then it is appropriate to briefly visit the bereaved family at home at the end of the day. It is typical for the family to decorate the house with icons of saints, burning incense and a single candle memorializing the deceased.

Post Funeral

The bereaved family usually stays home from work for one week following a death. The family also traditionally avoids social events and predominately wears all-black for 40 days. A memorial service is held on the Sunday closest to the fortieth day. Another memorial service is held annually on the anniversary of the passing.