Here in America and in most of Canada, we have funeral traditions that have stood the test of time for decades, even centuries.
But our traditions are vastly different from those in other countries and cultures.
This article takes a look at funeral traditions in Greece and is part of a series that highlights how different cultures care for their dead. Read about Mexican funeral traditions here.
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Greek Orthodox Church Influence
More than 98% of Greece’s population belongs to the Greek Orthodox Church, so funeral traditions largely reflect the religious standards of the church. In order to be eligible for a church funeral, the deceased must have been baptized and cannot have violated canon laws, such as marrying outside the church or killing themselves.
If the family or deceased decide on cremation, this also makes them ineligible for a church funeral.
Much like American and Canadian cultures, Greek Orthodox funerals typically involve a visitation of the body. What’s different about these wakes, though, is that the viewing is held the night before the funeral.
During this service, a priest will perform the Trisagion Service, where the prayer “Holy God, Holy Mighty, Holy Immortal, have mercy on us” is repeated three times.
Funerals in Greece are similar to those in America and Canada — there are readings, prayers, hymns, and a sermon. One major difference is that it is common for mourners to give the deceased a farewell kiss, also called The Kiss of Peace and Anointing.
When it comes to Greek Orthodox Church funerals, there are specific rules that must be followed. The service cannot be held on Sundays or Holy Saturday, and the casket is always facing east with the feet toward the altar.
Facing east is common when it comes to Greek burials, as well — it is because when Christ was born, the guiding star was in the east.
Following the burial, family and friends gather for a meal together called makaria. Makaria is traditionally a meal of fish, which is an ancient Christian symbol, and desserts are not typically served.
This is different than some of the funerals in America and Canada, but not all — African American funerals typically have a meal after a funeral as well. These meals are more of a celebration, though, while makaria has more of a religious focus.
Release of the Spirit
In Greek culture, it is believed that the soul does not leave the body until three days after a person dies. Because of this, the family will visit the grave three days after the death for a small ceremony where a priest blesses a plate of koliva, scatters it to the wind, and then breaks the plate on the tombstone.
After the spirit has released from the body, the family enters a mourning period of 40 days. This period of time is the amount of time between Christ’s resurrection and ascension.
During this time, mourners do not attend social events. It’s also ill-advised to bring sweets or flowers to the family, which is virtually the opposite of traditions in America and Canada where flowers are sent as a way to show support for grieving family and friends.
Sometimes mourning periods last longer than 40 days, depending on the family.
Also uncommon in America and Canada, but very common in Greece, is memorial services held after the burial. It is common to hold a memorial service:
- After three days,
- After nine days,
- On the last Sunday of the 40-day mourning period,
- Every three months for the first year,
- After one year,
- After three years,
- After seven years, and/or
- Any other time the family wants a memorial service.
At each service, it is common for the family to make contributions to the church on the deceased’s behalf.