V. Rev. Fr. Barouyr Shernezian
We rarely reflect on the spirituality of Armenian Church funeral rite. When we lose a family member, we grieve, which takes our mind away from the service’s spirituality. However, when we lose a peer or a colleague, we are better able to understand our need for comforting words, a different perspective, or contemplative words. We realize that we are not ready to face death, or feel an emptiness in our hearts. These prevent us from finding comfort. This highlights the importance of reflecting on death, which will prepare us to face it anytime.
This reflection will explain the three stages of the funeral rite of the Armenian Church and the spiritual meanings behind it.
The funeral rite of the Armenian Church consists of three stages: a) the wake service, b) the funeral service at the church, and c) the gravesite service. These correspond to the three main stages of humanity: a) humanity before Christ, b) humanity after Christ, and c) humanity in the afterlife. Let me introduce them briefly and touch upon their meanings and spiritualities in the meantime.
a) The wake service can be performed in the hospital, funeral home, or at home. The family of the deceased asks the parish priest to pray for their loved one right after their death. This takes place in the presence of the deceased’s immediate family, and may include other loved ones close to the deceased’s family.
St. Paul the Apostle described spiritual life as a spiritual battle, which ends with death. When we successfully live our life in faith and in Christ, we are the victors of the battle. The deceased symbolizes a spiritual soldier who died in battle. Symbolically, the priest is called to collect the warrior’s body. Further reinforcing this symbolism, the first humans, Adam and Eve, were left outside of their “home” because of their disobedient act. They were left outside of God’s immediate presence to survive on their own. In contrast, Our Lord Jesus Christ does not let His soldiers die on an enemy battlefield. He fought for His soldiers, and by the grace of Holy Baptism, they bear His mark, the sign of the holy cross. The priest brings the warrior’s body to the church, where they belong.
b) The funeral service takes place at the church. The priest leads the deceased to the Church with a procession. This may be a scene of mourning for the loved ones, but is also a “victory march” for the warrior, triumphant in Christ. However, at this moment the “warrior” is brought “home” to church, symbolically the garden of Eden. Here, through prayers and hymns, the priest asks God for mercy and forgiveness for the deceased. In other words, the service honors the life of and asks for God’s rewards for the deceased, who lived their life defending the faith.
At this point, the priest prays for God to receive the deceased’s soul among the righteous. The attendees’ loved one, whose body lays in the coffin, is no longer among the living on earth. Rather, they are among the saints and angels in heaven, praising God’s name and works. They move from the “militant church” to “the triumphant church.” The following prayer recited by the priest reflects this:
“Receive the soul of this Your servant/handmaiden, and rest him/her among Your saints who from the beginning have done Your will. Receive him/her among Your righteous ones and give him/her domicile in the dwelling place of those who love You…”
The people who are gathered around the deceased are present for him/her and accompany him/her in his/her departure to the “home,” God’s kingdom.
c) The gravesite service is an eternal farewell. Our Lord Jesus Christ died on the Holy Cross and was buried in the tomb, just like every human on earth. However, He changed the meaning of the tomb. He was buried in a “dead end” grave, where only dead bodies were placed. In other words, life has no place in a grave. Christ, the Life-giver, came to a place devoid of life, giving life to those who have been placed under the ground. Furthermore, He blessed and sanctified the soil where our spiritless bodies rest. The priest therefore blesses the soil, so that like “seeds,” we die in the soil and give rise to new life. Rather than weighing down our resting bodies, the earth gives rise to new life.
The second stage of the funeral rite is sealing the gravesite of the deceased. The priest seals and blesses the four sides of the grave after lowering the casket. This sealing symbolizes Christ sealing us with the sign of the cross, indicating that we belong to Him and not even death can take us away from the root of Life. Even under ground, our bodies are protected by the sign of the holy cross. Our bodies are not merely worthless and lifeless corpses, but rather temples of the Holy Spirit. While the attendees experience great sorrow seeing their loved one lowered into the grave, the deceased is honored by Christ with salvation and new life.
Experiencing the death of a loved one, and bidding them farewell, causes us great sorrow and fear. However, the Holy Spirit reminds us that our deaths are not meaningless anymore. Our Lord Jesus Christ turned death upside down with His life, which graces us with eternal life. The funeral rite of the Armenian Church does not highlight the sorrow of death, but rather comforts us by reminding us that Christ conquered death, gracing us with that victory. The beautiful spirituality behind the funeral rite reminds us of Christ’s victory, and exhorts us to take heart. While the end of our earthly journeys seems unjust and unfair, Christ covers and warms us with His cloth of righteousness, holiness and life. Glory to His life-giving Resurrection!