Monday, February 10, 2014

Russian Christian Burial Traditions.

A funeral service in Russia is different from other contemporary funeral services in three main ways: 

  • The casket is open, and the priest and congregation will make physical contact with the deceased. 
  • The priest stands at the head of the casket, facing away from the people and towards the sanctuary, rarely addressing the congregation directly during the service. 
  • Very little is said about the life of the departed one; instead, various prayers are read and hymns sung, expressing belief about death and hope for the dearly departed. 

Preparing the body

The first step in the funeral tradition is preparing the body, which includes washing and clothing the body. Family and close friends perform this act with a priest present. For fear of waking the newly dead, mourning does not begin during the washing or dressing. It is also believed that inappropriate funeral etiquette can also wake the dead.

The body is dressed in all white in handmade clothing left slightly unfinished because it belongs not in this world but the “other world.”  The body must also wear a belt during the burial because the deceased will need it when he or she is resurrected during the Last Judgment. Belts establish an individual’s private space and indicate that he or she is a member of society and protect the wearer from "dark forces". 

Once the body is bathed and dressed, it is ready to be placed in the casket. The priest will sprinkle holy water on all four sides of the casket and then the body will be placed inside. The casket, sometimes referred to as the “new living room,” is very comfortable, made like a bed with a pillow stuffed with birch bark or wood shavings. Mourners may place objects in the casket that the deceased might need after death such as money, food and favorite belongings,

Viewing, wake, aka visitation.

Once the body has been properly cleansed and prepared, the priest will then begin the First Panikhida, a prayer service for the deceased. This marks the beginning of the wake. The wake will continue until the body is brought to the church for the funeral service. The wake will last three days, with family and friends watching over the deceased around the clock. During the wake, the Psalter (Book of Psalms) is read aloud and Panikhidas (prayer services) are performed. 

The funeral service.

After the wake, the body is transported to the church for the funeral service. Traditionally, this transportation takes the form of a procession led by the cross with men carrying the casket on their backs. The priest walks in front of the casket with the censer and leads the processors in the singing of the hymn Trisagion.

Once at the church, the casket is re-opened. Near the head of the casket a bowl of koliva (a dish of boiled wheat with honey) is placed with a candle lit on top, symbolizing the cyclical nature of life and the sweetness of Heaven. A simple paper headband or “crown” – an ancient symbol of victory bearing the words of an important prayer is placed on the head A crown or wreath with the Trisagion printed on it is also placed on the head of the deceased and a small icon of Christ, the deceased’s patron saint, or a cross is placed in the deceased’s hand or in the casket. Lit candles are distributed to all present and remain lit throughout the funeral service.

Mourners and worshipers stand throughout the funeral service, during which the priest will lead in prayer and devotion. After the service, mourners are expected to approach the casket and say a prayer for the deceased. The mourners may kiss the icon or cross in the casket. After all mourners have had a chance to “say goodbye,” the casket is closed and removed from the church to the cemetery.


Once at the cemetery, a short graveside burial service is performed by the priest. The priest now performs the “seeing off” ceremony, praying over the body and allowing mourners to throw dirt on the grave, symbolically integrating the deceased with the earth. The priest then places a paper crown on the head of the deceased and the mourners throw soil and coins into the grave (the coins are either to pay for transit to the “other world” or for the space in the cemetery). At the graveside, cool vegetables boiled rice, and raisins are left for the nourishment of the deceased.

After the funeral, mourners grieve by singing songs about the deceased leaving his or her family and the soul departing from the body. It is important to throw away any handkerchiefs that are used to wipe away tears at the funeral. Under no circumstances can you bring them home at it is believed that if you do this, you are bringing tears into the house.

Post-funeral reception.

After the body is buried in ground, family and friends gather for a reception, where mourners can socialize, reflect on the life of the deceased, and eat a meal, called a “mercy meal”. Among the mandatory foods eaten during the funeral banquet is the Russian blintz.

Mourning period and memorial events.

In Russia, funerals are generally held on the third day after someone dies. On that day, family and friends gather for a special memorial dinner. Then, on the ninth day, when the soul is believed to leave the body, a special church service and dinner are held. On the fortieth day, the soul is said to depart for the other world, and a service and dinner party are again held. At each party, a glass of vodka covered by a piece of black bread is left for the deceased, in a reversal of the traditional Russian custom of breaking black bread when meeting someone for the first time.

For close relatives, the mourning period may last for one year, during which widows and widowers may wear only black clothing and will recipe Panikhidas regularly. Close relatives may also stay home from work for one week and avoid social gatherings for two months.

Russians Jews follow Jewish funeral traditions and are buried within 24 hours of death.

Nancy Burban 2014


  1. OH, my goodness, Nancy. This is a wonderfully insightful post. Fascinating, and a powerful testament to the depth of meaning behind the ritual form. This is where contemporary funerals seem (in my humble opinion) to fail us. (I'm speaking as an anthropologist here.) Thank you for another wonderful glimpse into the "wide world of funerary rites of passage"!

    1. Your kind words are much appreciated, especially coming from a funeral director/anthropologist!

  2. This comment has been removed by the author.

  3. Thank you for this beautiful description! I agree with our culture moves away from religious traditions we have lost meaningful symbolism that we share in common. And, I'm speaking as ordained clergy serving as a Certified Life Celebrant. (I wonder what the soul does in the 31 days after it comes out of the body, before it goes to the "other life.")

  4. This comment has been removed by the author.


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.