Death and Mourning
For most Greeks the beliefs, rituals and traditions surrounding death and mourning are founded in the Greek Orthodox religion. For many, following the traditions practised in their homeland is important. Family members and loved ones often consult their local priest and other relatives to ensure that these traditions are followed appropriately.
For Greek migrants who arrived in Australia as children, knowledge of the traditions may come from early memories of funerals and memorials in their village or town. They may remember vigils in family homes where for 24 hours women would wail funeral dirges over the body of the deceased. Although this ritual is not followed by Greek Australians today, many traditional beliefs and customs remain important.
Greek Orthodox Beliefs
Followers of the Greek Orthodox religion believe in eternal life. Thus the church strongly emphasises a positive outcome in death — that the deceased is alive with God. While death is the separation of the soul (the spiritual dimension of each person) from the body (the physical dimension), the physical body will be reunited with the soul at the Last Judgement.
This notion of the eternal life of the soul and the integrity of the body underpins many of the traditions surrounding death and mourning. For example, cremation is forbidden as it represents the destruction of the eternal physical body. Organ donation, too, was prohibited. However the church does support the use of transplants and church leaders have recently shown a more supportive attitude towards organ donation.
If your client is considering organ donation for a transplant or for research they may want to discuss this with a priest. The Church has no objection to autopsy.
Some beliefs about death and the afterlife date back to antiquity. ‘Charos’ was the ferryman of the dead in classical mythology. When someone has a life-threatening illness Greeks often describe this as a person’s ‘fight with Charos’. The afterlife is known as ‘Hades’ after the god of the underworld in classical mythology. Small personal items that belonged to the deceased are placed in the person’s coffin. In antiquity the deceased was provided with items for the journey to and life in the underworld.
If an elderly person is in palliative care, or so unwell that death appears imminent, the family will usually want a priest to administer communion and/or confession. Family members may be too distressed to arrange for a priest to visit and may ask you to contact the local priest on their behalf. ‘Greek Orthodox Parishes’ in the Directory of Greek Services will help you to locate the nearest priest. The priest is expected to respond quickly. As well as administering the sacraments he will support the family members.
The prayer service held by the priest just after death and in the presence of the deceased is called the Trisagion. On the night before the funeral the Trisagion is usually held again, either at a church or in the chapel of a funeral home. This is also an occasion for viewing the deceased. The Trisagion is thereafter repeated, either in church or at the grave, usually on the third day, the ninth day, the fortieth day, six months, and one year after the death.
Customs During Mourning
The church’s officially designated period of mourning is forty days. Relatives and friends visit the home of the grieving family both before and after the funeral, bringing drinks and food to share with family members and other guests. Brandy, wine, coffee, and dry biscuits — paximathia, purchased from Greek cake shops or home-made — are the food and drinks most commonly associated with the period of mourning.
The immediate family members of the deceased traditionally wear black clothing for at least forty days. During this time they do not participate in social occasions — parties or family celebrations — and they do not dance or listen to music. Many individuals choose to extend this period to one year or even longer, and in some cases, widows or widowers continue to wear black for the rest of their lives.
Funeral and Burial
There is no prescribed time within which a funeral must be held. Not all Greek Australians want their funeral to be in a Greek Orthodox church so it is important to be aware of your client’s wishes and requests.
Most Greek Australians want funeral arrangements to be made by specifically Greek funeral directors and they will contact them as soon as possible. If members of your client’s family ask you to contact a Greek funeral director you can refer to the appropriate list in the Directory of Greek Services. The date and time of the funeral is arranged directly with the local parish priest.
Funerals are held on weekdays, rarely on Saturdays and never on Sundays. Funeral notices are placed in the local Greek newspapers — mostly in Neos Kosmos — either by family members or the funeral directors.
The Greek Orthodox funeral ceremony takes between thirty and sixty minutes and is not part of a larger service. At the end of the ceremony everyone moves to the front of the church where they bow in front of the open casket and kiss an icon or cross laid on the chest of the deceased. The immediate family members sit near the casket and guests express their sympathy to the family.
At the graveside there is a brief prayer ceremony. Those present may place a flower on the casket before it is lowered or while it is being lowered into the ground.
Although it is not a religious custom, family members traditionally host a wake after the funeral — in their home, at the church hall, or at a community venue. They share a meal, usually of bread, fish, olives, cheese, salads, savoury pastries (spanakopita and tyropita) and wine. The dishes vary according to the traditions of a family’s particular homeland regions. On arrival at the wake all guests are offered brandy, and either before or after the meal Greek coffee and paximathia (dry biscuits) are served.
Memorials and funerals are equally significant in Greek culture. This is evident in the number of notices for memorial services placed in Greek newspapers. At memorial services family members and loved ones pray for forgiveness and mercy for the soul of the deceased. At the Last Judgement, to be held at the time of Christ’s second coming, the soul of the deceased will be cast into either an ultimate state of blessedness or damnation. Memorial services enact the belief that prayer can intercede in the granting of forgiveness, thereby providing rest to the soul of the deceased.
The most widely observed memorial service, Mnimosyno, is held on the Sunday closest to the fortieth day after the death. According to Orthodox belief, Christ remained on earth for forty days after the resurrection.
This memorial service, at which the priest prays for forgiveness for the deceased, is part of the regular Sunday church service. Relatives and friends attend the service and family members sit in the front row. The family provides a tray of kollyva – boiled wheat prepared with sugar, walnuts, cinnamon and other spices. Using icing sugar and almonds, the kollyva are decorated with a cross and the deceased person’s name and placed on a table with candles at the front of the church.
Kollyva represents the soul of the deceased and symbolise everlasting life. Wheat represents the life cycle of death and regeneration. At the end of the service the kollyva are distributed to the congregation and people attending the memorial service are invited to join the family for a meal. The meal shared on this occasion is similar to the one served at the time of the funeral.
Memorial Service Dates
Memorial services may also be held three months and six months after the death, on the anniversary of the death, on the third anniversary and on the Saturdays dedicated to the souls – Psychosavata – which occur four times a year and are dependent on the dates of Lent and Easter.
Memorial services cannot be held on the following days:
- From the Saturday of Lazarus until the Sunday of St Thomas (dates vary depending on Easter)
- Christmas Day
- The Feast of the Parish Church
- On the Dormition of the Virgin Mary (15 August)
And on the feast days of our Lord:
- Circumcision of our Lord (1 January)
- Epiphany (6 January)
- the Presentation (2 February)
- the Annunciation (25 March)
- the Ascension, (40 days after Easter, or Pascha)
- Pentecost (50 days after Easter, or Pascha)
- the Transfiguration (6 August)
Greek Expressions of Sympathy
You may wish to address your client or family members at this time in Greek, or if you are wondering about the phrases being used at this time, the folllowing list may assist you:
- Zoi se sas = May life be granted to you (said to family members at the funeral).
- Syllypitiria = My condolences (said only at the funeral).
- O Theos na ton/tin synghoresi = May God forgive him/her (said to family members at the funeral and at memorial services).
- O Theos na ton/tin anapafsi = May God rest his/her soul (said to family members at the funeral and at memorial services).
- Zoi se mas = May life be granted to us (said amongst mourners and to family members at the funeral and at memorial services).