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A Question About Open Coffins


"Holidaying in Bulgaria, we saw part of a funeral in a village church and noticed that the coffin was open during the service. Although it took us a hit by surprise, there seemed to he something right and reverent about it. Is this general practice in Orthodox churches and is there a reason for it?"—M. & B. S, Swindon.

It is indeed the general practice of the Orthodox Church, although in Britain and other Western countries you find more and more that it is a practice which is being lost because the Orthodox peoples here are conforming more and more to the ways of the non-Orthodox peoples around them. It is sad to reflect how swiftly in all sorts of areas this seems to happen, whereas people of other religious faiths are most zealous to hold on to their traditions: Jews, Muslims, etc. In this we should take an example from them.

There are of course occasions when the coffin is closed during the funeral quite properly: usually when the deceased has been horribly wounded or disfigured, say in dying in a car accident, or perhaps has not been found until some long time after death.

And, I think that it should also be noted, that this is not a custom which is specifically Orthodox. In many religions and cultures, the coffins of loved ones are left open during their funeral rites. I suspect that it is only countries which have been nourished on a Protestant, and a post-Protestant humanistic, world-view that the closed-casket custom prevails. In such circumstances the concern is more for the sensitivities of the mourners (and these have been cultured by the increasingly godlessness and self-fullness of post-Protestantism), than for the respect due to the deceased.

I cannot of course answer why in these other cultures, the coffins are open, although I suspect that there are parallels with our own beliefs, the main difference being that our beliefs are founded on Christ and His Gospel, whereas theirs, though similar in some respects, are not, but perhaps derive from an understanding of what is right and proper, once shared by all mankind.

For us, the coffin is open, because we believe the body to be an honourable and even a holy thing. For us the body is not something which is dishonourable or defiled, or to be hidden away or hurriedly disposed of It is less than the soul, and we know that, deprived of the soul, it will dissolve into its elements, but we believe also that on the last day, whether the deceased were a Christian or not, it will be raised up again. We believe that it was part of that person who has died and is therefore to be treated with reverence. One sometimes gets the impression that in closed-casket funerals, the deceased is the only person who is not present and does not matter.

Further, when the body is one of an Orthodox Christian it is a holy thing. It is that body which was washed in Holy Baptism, anointed with holy Chrism, which partook of the Body and Blood of Christ in the Eucharist, which was anointed with holy oil, which received the tonsure at Baptism, at Ordination or at monastic profession, which was crowned in marriage, which made the sign of the Cross, which looked at and kissed the holy icons, which reverenced and touched the sacred relics, which stood in prayer, which made prostrations, which listened to the chants and readings, which read the Scriptures and prayers, which smelled the incense and fragrances, which went on pilgrimage, wept,, suffered illnesses and pains, suffered in child-birth, which struggled against the passions, which gave alms, which fasted, restrained itself, tried to keep itself pure,—indeed which participated in the true worship of the True God. Know ye not that your body is the temple of the Holy Spirit? (I Cor. 6:19). It is, of course, this reverence for the body of a departed Christian as something sacred which, among other considerations, forbids us as Orthodox Christians to countenance cremation.

I beseech You therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, that ye present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable unto God, which is your reasonable service (Romans 12:1). This presenting of the body as a sacrifice is, of course, something which we accomplish in the struggle of our earthly life, when for instance we restrain our appetites though we would like to satiate ourselves, when we refrain from unlawful sexual activities even though such are now "conformity to this world," and even though we are tempted, and in a host of other ways. But in a very special way the funeral of the deceased is a presentation of the body as a sacrifice, a coming before the Lord to receive either an award or judgment for our contest at the very end of our earthly struggle.

It is also necessary for the Orthodox funeral rites fully to be performed that the coffin is open. At various points in the service, the body (not the coffin!) is censed by the clergy, because of the beliefs outlined in the paragraphs above. Towards the end of the service, the faithful come for-ward to give the deceased a last kiss. They usually kiss the forehead, the icon on the chest of the departed, and the hand. This requires that the coffin be open. Also in the Russian practice particularly, a paper chaplet is placed on the forehead of the deceased, representing the crown of victory at the end of the contest, and a prayer of absolution is read for the departed and a copy of it is then placed by the priest in the hands of the deceased. These things too require that the coffin be open. One might say that these are only rites and therefore not of great importance, but such is not an Orthodox attitude towards our Divine services, which are, we believe, inspired by the Holy Spirit, sanctified by the words and usages of the saints and generations of the faithful. To put forth such an argument merely bears witness to our falling away from a full understanding of our Church and her life.

We might add here as a kind of postscript, that in fact the coffin is not essential to a funeral at all. To this day in many monastic communities, the monks and nuns are not buried in coffins, but merely wrapped in their monastic mantles and laid to rest. This harks back to an older usage, when coffins were not used at all. They are in any case simply means of transporting the body from the place where it died to the church and then to the grave,—that they have no function. Those who buy expensive and ornate coffins for their loved ones are wasting their money The money spent would be much better given in alms for the benefit of their souls, for whether ornate or not, the coffin will simply rot in the ground. Undertakers have told us that people often ask whether the coffin they are contemplating buying for their deceased will last long, but there is no reason why it should, although we doubt that they point this out to prospective purchasers.

Again we come full circle: even in this "Protestant Island" it is a relatively modern thing for people to have coffins. In earlier ages, they were carried to their graves on biers; then coffins began to be used, but not individual ones. Parish churches would have a coffin which was kept for all funerals, merely used to carry the body out, and then brought back and washed out and limewashed to clean it, and kept in the vestry or at the back of the church for the next occasion it was to be used. Only in the last century did such practices generally give way to the modern practices which we are all familiar with—our ancestors were much more environmentally friendly and considerably less pretentious than we are!

This note then appeared in the following issue:

"One of our correspondents has rightly pointed out that in our reply last month we omitted a point of some importance regarding open coffins, namely that they are also open for the spiritual edification of the people present. We admit that failure. The point is a true one, and one which is brought to our attention several times by the words of the funeral service itself. By looking upon the deceased we are reminded that this life is transitory, that the flesh is corruptible, that death is, in the proverbial phrase, "the great leveller." All of these are reflections, which, though perhaps painful, are to our spiritual benefit—perhaps especially so in our generation, when so much of our concern is to forget that it is appointed unto men once to die, but after this the judgment (Heb. 9:27).

From The Shepherd, Vol. XVI, No. 9 (June, 1996), pp. 6-7, 13-16.