Origin, Practice, and Lessons from Orthodox Memorial Services

Today’s western Protestantism has only one time of memorial for the beloved deceased. Graveside services may accompany a church funeral or memorial service, but both are accomplished in succession; they can be considered as one. After the one-time memorial, Protestants seldom offer liturgical or ritual acts by which to remember the deceased. In the most basic sense, a loved one dies, we remember them with a funeral or memorial service, and then we go back to our regular lives, only to be struck at times with deep grief and no church ritual to help us process it. Depending on one’s relationship with the deceased, this deep grief may strike hard for the rest of one’s earthly life.

In contrast, today’s Christian Orthodoxy has multiple times of memorial for their beloved deceased. Those present wherever the beloved’s body is initially laid out join in the priest’s prayers. The church funeral follows, and seven days later they have a memorial service that is appended to the regular Sunday Divine Liturgy. It honors the deceased and offers blessed food for all those present to share. Forty days is another memorial and then at the year anniversary of the beloved’s death is one more. After that, it is common practice to offer memorials on yearly anniversaries chosen by the family.

Certainly, this practice is related to the Orthodox understanding of salvation as the process of theosis as well as their theology of death as more of a thin veil than a brick wall. Evangelical Protestantism generally prefers to understand salvation as the point of conversion and does not understand death to be see-through like a veil. Nevertheless, the Orthodox and Protestants agree that our beloved believing dead are alive and with Christ. Psychological research shows that maintaining relationship with deceased loved ones promotes flourishing (Boss 2021) and that rituals decrease anxiety (Gassin and Sawchak 2008) and give us a sense of agency (Norton and Gino 2014). Investigating the origin and practice of Orthodox memorials may help Protestants inculturate these helpful rituals in their churches with the purpose of pastoring the bereaved.

Most Orthodox practices are ancient and closely related to the practices of Second Temple Judaism. Orthodox memorial services date at least to the fourth century, as they are mentioned in the Apostolic Constitutions. This paper will more deeply explore the origin and practice of the memorials, based on written texts. It will also look at the psychology of grief and how rituals seem to help the bereaved. Finally, it will make suggestions on how the themes of the Orthodox historical liturgical practice might be contextualized to today’s Protestant churches.

Boss, Pauline. The Myth of Closure: Ambiguous Loss in a Time of Pandemic. New York: Norton, 2022.
Gassin, Elizabeth A. and Timothy A. Sawchak. “Meaning, Performance, and Function of a Christian Forgiveness Ritual.” Journal of Ritual Studies 22, no. 1 (2008): 39-49.
Norton, Michael I. and Francesca Gino. “Rituals Alleviate Grieving for Loved Ones, Lovers, and Lotteries.” Journal of Experimental Psychology: General 143, no. 1 (2014): 266-72.

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