For the righteous will never be moved; he will be remembered forever.

Psalm 112:6

As the funeral comes to an end, we sing a simple yet beautiful and powerful hymn, “Memory Eternal.” This hymn evokes emotion, it is probably the most emotional hymn in the funeral. It’s the hymn that basically confirms that our loved one is now a memory, not someone whom we will sit across the dinner table from, or laugh with, or spend the holidays with. When someone who is grieving is able to put some space in between the shock and extreme sorrow that often follow a death, this hymn can, and should, be one of inspiration, that the memory of someone will live on. Someone once said at a funeral that “when someone dies, part of you dies with them. However, part of them lives in you.” People have come and gone throughout my life, but pieces of them live on in me, and they add a depth to who I am. It’s like people who collect passport stamps of all the places they’ve been to, or people like me who are trying to visit all fifty of the United States (47 as of this writing). I may be a resident of Florida for the past twenty years, but there are pieces of beauty from each state I’ve visited that create the depth of my life experience. As I go through life, I collect memories, inspiration, and life lessons from the people whose path of life has crossed mine.

There is a man named John who I met many years ago and the first time I shook his hand, he said my grip should be stronger. He would shake a hand almost hard enough to break it. Not really. I think of John often when I shake hands with someone.

Fr. John was one of my priests growing up. I love how he celebrated the Divine Liturgy. He was my priest when I was 9-14 years old, some very impressionable years. Some of his mannerisms definitely live on in my liturgical mannerisms.

There have been innumerable people who have left impressions on my life, given me good quotes, mottos, advice, etc. Many of these, thankfully, are still alive. When they pass away, their advice and lessons will continue to shape my life and I will remember them.

Over my years as a priest, several people have offered me gifts which I have used to buy my priestly vestments. I can remember the year I bought each set and who offered me the gift that enabled me to purchase them.

Think of the people who have influenced you, especially the ones that have passed on. And while you may miss them, even a lot, pause to be thankful that their path crossed with yours and that their memory lives on in your life.

We’ve already discussed the concept of the Church Militant and the Church Triumphant. The Orthodox Church has two very specific liturgical acts that unite the two, that unite those who have passed away with those who are still living on earth.

The stole of the priest traditionally has two rows of fringe at the bottom. One represents the Church Militant and one represents the Church Triumphant. Each time the priest puts on his stole, for something as big as a packed church on Pascha, or a wedding, or something small like a confession or a hospital visit, he does so bringing with him the whole church. The whole church, symbolized on the stole, gathers for each service, each sacrament, each house blessing, each time the priests puts on his stole and exercises his priestly function. It is with the participation of the entire church.

The second is the connection between the two in the preparation and consecration of the Holy Gifts. When the Holy Gifts are prepared, in what is called the “Proskomide” or service of their preparation, the priest will take crumbs of bread and place them on the Diskos (paten) for those belonging to the Church Militant and those belonging to the Church Triumphant. He will pray for the names of people in both categories. Both my parents are deceased, and my brother and his family live in California while I live in Florida. In the preparation of the Holy Gifts before each Divine Liturgy, I pray for my family and for my brother’s family and place particles of bread on the left side of the Diskos, which is reserved for the Church Militant. I then remember my parents and place particles for them on the right side of the Diskos, which is reserved for the Church Triumphant. Even though I will never share a dinner table with my parents again and I rarely do with my brother, our whole family is together on the Holy Altar Table each time I celebrate the Divine Liturgy. This is the place we can always be with our loved ones. When you want to remember someone, just give their name to your priest and ask him to commemorate them when he prepares the Holy Gifts.

At the time of the consecration of the Holy Gifts, when we kneel and pray for the Holy Spirit to descend on bread and wine and consecrate them into the Body and Blood of Christ, the priest elevates the Holy Gifts with these words: Your own of Your own we offer to You, in all and for all. (Divine Liturgy, 2015 translation, p. 53). “For all” is a true statement, as it covers those who are in the Church Militant and those who are in the Church Triumphant. After the Holy Gifts have been consecrated, the priest prays: Again, we offer You this spiritual worship for those who have reposed in the faith: forefathers, fathers, patriarchs, prophets, apostles, preachers, evangelists, martyrs, confessors, ascetics, and for every righteous spirit made perfect in faith. (p. 55) That covers all those who have come before us and connects us with them at the most solemn moment of every Divine Liturgy.

There is nothing wrong with going to a cemetery to “visit” our loved ones. It gives us a tangible place to go and feel connected to them. However, the best place to feel connected is actually in the Divine Liturgy.

The funeral service concludes with the priest placing oil and earth on the deceased. This used to be done in cemeteries but because most municipalities prohibit opening the casket at a cemetery, it is done generally in the church. (Some Orthodox jurisdictions place oil and earth on top of a closed casket once it is at the cemetery or is about to be lowered into the ground, and in some cases after it has been lowered into the ground. The Greek Orthodox Church places oil and earth on the body of the deceased before the casket is closed for the final time in the church.) As the priest places the oil over the deceased, he prays a verse from Psalm 50/51: Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean; wash me and I shall be whiter than snow. (v. 7) As he places the earth over the deceased, he says the words from Genesis 3, spoken by God to Adam and Eve giving them the final consequence of the Fall of mankind: You are dust, and to dust you shall return. (v. 19)

The people in attendance should greet each other with the words “May his/her memory be eternal.” There is a Greek custom where people say “Zoi se mas,” which literally is translated “life to us.” This is a good or bad phrase, depending on how one means it. If “life” is referring to life on earth, then this is a bad phrase. It’s like saying “life to us (who are living), thankfully we are not them (the one who has passed).” If “life” is referring to eternal life, then it is a good phrase, because it means we hope for eternal life for ourselves who are left, just as we hope it for the person who has passed. The better phrase to say when someone has passed is “memory eternal,” or “may his/her memory be eternal.” Because this means that the life of the person deceased is worthy to be remembered and that each of us will carry something of them with us as we continue on.

Let my cry come before Thee, O Lord; give me understanding according to Thy word! Let my supplication come before Thee; deliver me according to Thy word. My lips will pour forth praise that Thou dost teach me Thy statutes. My tongue will sing of Thy word, for all Thy commandments are right. Let Thy hand be ready to help me, for I have chosen Thy precepts. I long for Thy salvation, O Lord, and Thy law is my delight. Let me live, that I may praise Thee, and let Thy ordinances help me. I have gone astray like a lost sheep; seek Thy servant, for I do not forget Thy commandments. Psalm 119:169-176

May the memory of our loved ones be eternal, and may God grant us comfort as we grieve, joy as we remember, and strength as we go on.