Christianity, Eastern Orthodox

The Eastern Orthodox Church is one of the three main branches of Christianity, which also includes the Roman Catholic Church and Protestantism. There are nearly 2 billion followers in these three Christian traditions.

Christianity grew out of Judaism. A Christian is a follower of Jesus Christ who is believed to be the Messiah predicted in the Jewish Scriptures (the Old Testament).  While there is wide variation on many Christian teachings, virtually all groups agree that people are redeemed of their sins, which is broadly interpreted as rebellion against God, by a belief in the sacrificial death and resurrection of Jesus.

At one time in history there was only one Christian Church, but a schism occurred in 1054 AD. two groups emerged, one known as the Western or Roman Catholic Church (Latin) and the other was the Eastern Orthodox church (Greek). Most Americans do not relate to the Eastern Orthodox Church, but it is almost equal in size and power to the Roman Catholic Church.

An Overview of Beliefs

The Eastern Orthodox Church differs because they attach greater importance to the Bible than their Catholic cousins. In the Western churches the focus is on "objective truth," while Orthodox Christians placed the emphasis on how truth is experienced personally. In the West, Christian groups tend to have a creed or statement of faith that they adhere to, but this is unnecessary for Eastern Orthodox believers.

For much of Christendom, including Roman Catholics and Protestants, the great doctrines of the Bible such as sin, grace, and salvation are normally understood in a legal sense. As a result, these believers are always trying to get back in to God's good grace. The Eastern Orthodox Churches see the situation differently. They believe that people were created in the image of God and have the capacity to participate fully in the divine life. Sin in the world separated man and God, and as a result people live in a less than human condition. The entire goal among Eastern Orthodox believers is to reunite with God in the divine life.

The concept of being reunited with God is an essential part of Eastern Orthodox religious experience, and they believe it is possible through the action of the Holy Spirit. Prayers are usually addressed to the Holy Spirit instead of Christ or God. Eastern Orthodox Christians believe in the Trinity, of course, so to them the Father, Son and Holy Spirit are one.

Views on Death and the After-Life

Views of the death and the afterlife among Eastern Orthodox believers paralleled those of the Roman Catholic Church. However, Eastern Orthodox believers do not teach there is a purgatory, so they are much like the rest of Christendom in that regard.

Mourning and Funeral Rites

A priest conducts the Eastern Orthodox funeral and they may be held on any day except Sunday. A priest will not normally conduct a service for those who are not members of the the parish in the church, though they may conduct a service for them at a funeral home. A priest will not conduct a funeral service for Eastern Orthodox people if they are in violation of canon law at the time of their death. Such violations include marriage outside the Orthodox Church, cremation, or suicide.

An Eastern Orthodox priest leads the funeral service. Normally the funeral service is composed of Bible readings, hymns and prayers. There is often an open casket and believers kiss a cross that has been placed on the chest of the deceased person. This is a normal practice for Eastern Orthodox believers, but participation is optional for nonbelievers.

It is traditional to have a graveside service, and each person typically places a flower on the casket before it is interned. Ideally, a person is buried with their feet facing the East in expectation of the resurrection.

How to Express your Condolences

You should express your condolences in person to the spouse of a loved one and his or her immediate family. If you are not able to attend the funeral service, graveside service or wake, then it is appropriate to send a card, letter of condolence or an e-mail. 

Among Eastern Orthodox people it is very common to give a gift in memory of the departed person; it goes to the church or to some worthy philanthropic cause of proved by the family.

Important note: The statements made about beliefs and rites are general in nature and may vary by sect, denomination, country or ethnic group. The information provided here is intended as an overview, and if you have questions about specific matters you should contact the clergy or other person conducting the funeral service.If you read anything in this section that differs from the beliefs in your tradition, please contact usso we can update this page.