Other articles from this issue | Version in English | Version in French
The Christian confronts Death - Funeral rites in churches of the syriac tradition
Jeanne-Ghislaine Van Over Straeten
Death for a Christian is a Passover, a passage. It is a participation in Christ's Paschal mystery. As Saint Paul wrote:
Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life. (Rom. 6:3-4)
Christ's resurrection anticipates our own resurrection on the last day. For centuries already, Christian tradition has called death dies natalis, a new birth.
Among the numerous Christian rites which find their unity in the same profession of faith, we will limit ourselves to the funeral rites of the Syriac tradition, since these are closest to the Jewish-Christian origins of the Church. This is particularly true of the Chaldean rite which is, as we shall see, a witness-rite.
Titles used for the Office of the Dead
The Chaldeans use the expression Taksa d-annidé (lit. Rite for those who have gone from here). The idea of departure predominates in this title. The 'annidâ is the Christian who has left us for a journey from which there is no return. In all the Syriac rites this term is the one most frequently used to designate death.
Among the Syrians of Antioch (or Western Syrians) and the Maronites, besides this term 'annidô, the expression lewaoyô (lit. accompanying) or going with the 'annidô is also used. The Ordo is therefore called The Book of Accompanying.
The symbolism of the Road, the Passage, is highlighted by the texts. This idea is found again in the title of the Byzantine Office of the Dead: ton Exodiastikon (the Exodus) 2.
The Chaldean (or Eastern Syriac) Rite is distinguished not only by the stability and sobriety of its form, par¬ticularly in the funeral liturgy, but also by the theology of death and resurrection expressed through its hymns 3.
Up until Vatican II, and even today, the Nestorians are remarkable for the uniformity shown between the most ancient written tradition and current practice, with only a few variations.
Form of the funeral liturgy
The Chaldean funeral liturgy comprises four parts which are found more or less complete in the context of other traditions.
1. The ritual washing of the corpse.
2. A vigil of prayer in the home of the deceased person.
3. A solemn procession, accompanied by singing, from the house to the cemetery.
4. The burial itself. 1. The ritual washing of the corpse 4
The New Testament speaks of it in Acts 9:36-37. The detailed instructions given mark the respect with which the body of a dead person should be treated: it is made in the likeness of God, temple of the Holy Spirit and destined to rise to eternal life. According to the Chaldean liturgy the dead person is to be dressed in a white garment as on his wedding day'. The white garment, symbol of an incorruptible life, goes with songs of rejoicing rather than lamentation. It is opportune to remark that the robust popular faith of the Orient is concerned more with help to be given to the dead personon his journey towards true life, than with psychological considerations pertaining to the grief of near relatives
2. The vigil of prayer
Saint Gregory of Nyssa already speaks of a vigil of prayer which took place before the funeral of his sister Macrina (PG XLVI, 992-3). This vigil is composed of three parts (mawtwé), the first two with psalms and hymns; the third one has readings from Scripture in addition. The psalmody for each mawtwâ is broken up by a short and unchanging antiphon: Glory to Thy name, O Thou who givest life to the dead'. The hymns are of two kinds: one is a meditative song which expresses the theology of death and resurrection. The other, a more popular form of lament, which allows for the expression of the human tragedy inherent in death and the grief of those who have been bereft. Brief priestly prayers are also to be found among the psalms and hymns; these are mostly concerned with the need to glorify God at all times, especially in the face of death.
Readings from Scripture are not chosen from the Epistles or the Gospels, as in other rites. but from the Old Testament or the Acts of the Apostles. This peculiarity is due to the fact that this service takes place in the home from which lay people are taken directly to the cemetery. The Epistles and Gospels are reserved for the Liturgy of the Word at the Eucharistic Sacrifice. There are different readings for men, women and children.' These are composite readings from passages which do not follow each other in the Bible. eg First Reading for men: Num. 20:23-29; Deut. 32:48-50; 34:12. This use of Scripture is fairly uniform in the three Syriac traditions: Chaldean, Maronite and Syrian from Antioch. Most of the texts teach about resurrection, especially the thanksgiving of Hezekiah after he was cured of a fatal illness (Is. 38:10-20) and the resurrection of the dry bones in Ezekiel's prophecy (Ezek. 37:1-14)
3. The funerals of lay persons and ecclesiastics
The essential difference lies in the fact that an ecclesiastic is taken to the church, whilst a lay person is taken straight from the house to the cemetery. The reason is found in the funeral rite itself: the lay person, whose life has been spent in the world, says farewell on leaving his house or his village whilst the ecclesiastic, who dedicated his life to the service of the Church, is taken to the church to which he was attached and goes from there. Departure from this world is a journey towards true life in the next.
4. The funeral procession 9
The funeral procession is central to the Chaldean liturgy and gives its particular meaning to the whole. This represents the journey of the Christian from this world to Paradise. From the third century, when Christian rites began to evolve, some eye-witness accounts speak of the psalmody with which the funeral cortège accompanied the dead person to the cemetery 10. The Chaldean church has replaced this tradition of psalms with a series of eleven processional chants. These certainly very ancient chants are found in a Jacobite funeral collection of the year 823 A.D. (Vat. Syr. 92) and they are attributed to Saint Ephrem. Their themes express the different ways in which the dead person travels, not towards the corruption of the body but towards the glory and joy of resurrection, of which Christ is both model and pledge. Hence the very strong link in these liturgies between resurrection and the Eucharist". Even though the funeral procession is at the heart of the rite, in our world today it can only take place in a rural area. This means the chants are often much reduced, the first hymn being sung at the house and the last on arrival at the cemetery.
5. The grave
The ceremonies which take place at the graveside are dominated by the hope of a glorious resurrection. First of all the deacon exhorts the assembly to pray for the deceased:
May the God who has taken him/her in true faith lead him to the end of all the just; and when He raises up all those who sleep in the earth (...) may He call him and place him at His right hand, may He inscribe his name in the Book of Life 12. May He wish to include him in the number of the elect and join him to the multitude of those who give glory unto Him...
A second priestly prayer prepares for the lowering of the body into the grave:
Blessed be the order and authority of Thy majesty which bringeth to death and restoreth to life, which leadeth down to Sheol and back again, and which doth clothe our bodies with the glory of the resurrection...
After a homily has been intoned, generally one of the metrical homilies attributed to Narsai 13, the officiating priest takes a small amount of earth in his right hand and addresses the dead person, reciting a last blessing:
May God, the Lord of all, who gave the command which concerns thee: Thou art dust and to dust thou wilt return: call thee and place thee at His right hand, resplendent in the glory of the resur¬rection; and may the Holy Mysteries (the Eucharist) which thou hast received plead thy cause and win thee pardon at the Judgment Seat. Amen.
To end the prayer, the priest throws a handful of earth into the grave and those around him do likewise. Thus the resurrection theme permeates the whole funeral rite. First of all the theme of the general resurrection at the Last Day is reflected upon, because it is towards this that the dead person is making his way; nevertheless the relationship of the glory of this resurrection with that of Christ and His Cross is also clearly expressed.
Themes and images most frequently found in the Syriac rite
Besides the theology of death, the broad outline of which has already been given, there is much to say about the different kinds of chant and also the images to be found in the three traditions. Long dialogues take place between the community and the dead person they are supporting as he makes his journey to the other side; this prayer in persona defuncti 14 continues even in the readings, at least one of which places Job's complaint to God (Job 19:1-29) on the lips of the deceased. There is an acute sense of sin, and therefore a fear of judgment and of darkness, balanced by a strong desire for light and peace. The dead are called those who sleep or the sleepers (I Thess. 4:13) 15. There is frequent reference to the creation of man, made by God in His own image. The expression God of both spirit and body or of all flesh, referring to Num. 16:22; 27:16, is frequently found in the Antiochian and Maronite Syriac liturgies 16
The themes of a bridge to be crossed, a pilot, or a boat coming into port appear frequently. In the funeral rite for ecclesiastics, which takes place in the church, there is a long series of blessings related to the virtues attributed to the soul of the deceased. The angels of peace (the watchers) come to meet him, while the bad spirits, who dwell in the upper atmosphere, threaten to capture him. These do not dwell in Sheol, the home of the dead, but in the intervening heavens. This idea is characteristic of Jewish/Christian cosmology, some of which has found its way into the Syriac liturgies 17.
All this is an indication of the wealth to be found in these liturgies, their relationship to the liturgy of the Church of Jerusalem and that of Antioch, and the place they give to both Jewish/Christian theology and Jewish apocalyptic. We conclude with some quotations from the Chaldean funeral liturgy:
1. Our Lord comes and He raises the dead; He brings hope to all the dead.
3. Before I came into being thou didst fashion me from the earth; now that I have gone to my rest, give me life so that I may give thanks to Thee.
4. 0 Son of God, raise up our dead and clothe them with glory in Thy Kingdom.
5. May the soul protected by Thy Cross receive Thy mercy on the day of Thy Coming.
11. At the voice of Thy Son the tombs will open, the
dead will rise and sing: Glory! (Ps. 29:9)
18. Praise to Thee, Jesus our Saviour, because death
is in Thy hands and life depends on Thee 18.
Sister Jeanne-Ghislaine van Overstraeten n.d.s pursued higher studies in Literature and Languages at the Sorbonne (2 M.A. Degrees) and then taught in France. After obtaining her Master's Degree in Liturgy, she continued her studies at the Higher Institute for Liturgy in the University of the Holy Spirit at Kaslik (Lebanon). She has written or translated articles on Syriac and Coptic liturgical traditions and given courses in Ecumenism and the Latin liturgy.
Christ's resurrection anticipates our own resurrection on the last day. For centuries already, Christian tradition has called death dies natalis, a new birth.
1. Although the Roman rite (Latin) is the most important if judged by the number of the faithful, from a liturgical point of view it has no intrinsic superiority over other Christian rites. According to Vatican II:
The Catholic Church values highly the institutions of the Eastern churches, their liturgical rites, ecclesiastical traditions and their ordering of Chris¬tian life. For in those churches, which are distinguished by their venerable antiquity, there is clearly evident the tradition which has come from the Apostles through the Fathers and which is part of the divinely revealed, undivided heritage of the Universal Church. (Decree on the Catholic Eastern Churches, cf. A. Flannery, ed. Vatican Council II, Dominican Press, Dublin 1975, p. 441.
The Chaldean Office, even more than the Syrian traditions of Antioch and the Maronites, possesses unknown spiritual wealth. A number of manuscripts written in Syriac have not yet been given due con¬sideration. A Catholic edition of the Office of the Dead, printed at Mossoul in 1907, is the most easily obtainable of the traditional texts. The Chaldean church in Paris (Catholic) (5 rue Greuze, 75016 Paris) is considering a translation into French of the entire Eucharistic liturgy and an abridged history of the Assyrian/Chaldean church, while waiting for the trans¬lation of the baptismal and funeral rites which is already under way.
2. The Byzantine rite also developed from that of Antioch by way of Byzantium, adopting the Greek language. Although the formulae of its funeral rites differ, their pattern is nevertheless analogous to the rites in Syriac. cf. Funérailles (French) published by the Diaconie apostolique, Rome, 1979.
3. The wonderful Chaldean funeral hymns with their immensely rich theological content, cannot easily be translated into languages with a different prosodic structure. Moreover, in the Syriac rites of Antioch and Byzantium, hymnody is developed at the expense of the psalter. In the Chaldean liturgy ongoing psalmody has a place in the night office, which is of monastic origin. In other ceremonies the psalms are replaced by hymns, as with the eleven chants in the funeral procession The Latin liturgy makes use of psalmody, but certain processional psalms have disappeared, leaving only the antiphon which formerly accompanied them. This is the case with the antiphon In paradisum deducunt to angeli which is sung as the procession sets out for the cemetery, and which seems to have transposed and developed, by way of angelology, an invocation from the Hashkavah (Jewish funeral prayers): May the spirit of God lead thee to Paradise. The Office of the Dead is a mine of information on the eschatology of the different rites.
4. Cf. Ktabad- Kurrasta, 2; Jewish funeral rite: The tahara, the washing or more precisely, the purification of the dead person.
5. Cf. Jewish funeral rite: the takhrikhim, a white garment.
6. A less theological title given to this Office is: The Book of Consoling Songs by the Graves of the Dead. We know that since Vatican II an effort has been made in the Latin rite to offer a choice of readings suited both to the situation of the person who has died and to the psychological need of the mourners.
7. The Office for Men, according to the Mossoul Catholic edition of 1907, includes Pss. 88(87):2-10, 88(87): 11-19; in the first part or mawtwd different verses are taken from the psalms; the next two mawtwé follow the same psalmodic pattern.
8. In the Maronite tradition, which has a lot in common with the Chaldean liturgy, funerals for men are entitled: Ordo for men, Sons of the World; and for women: Ordo for women, Daughters of the World. Cf. Aleppo edition 1926.of the dry bones in Ezekiel's prophecy (Ezek. 37: 1-14).
9. Cf. Jewish funeral rite: the levaya — accompanying the dead person to the cemetery is considered a very important mitzva.
10. The Apostolic Constitutions, a Syrian canonical-lit¬urgical work from the beginning of the Fifth century, prescribes the chanting of psalms and quotes Pss. 114 and 115 (Const. Apost. VI.27) as part of the psalmody to be used at funerals.
11. Maronite funerals (Vat. Syr. 59, p. 80). Office for Bishops, Priests and Deacons: ... By His own death our Lord Jesus Christ destroyed the crown of death, making it perish by His power, and promised men life instead of death and gave a pledge of life to believers: HIS BODY. Cf. also the Maronite Ordo for the funerals of lay people (Aleppo ed. 1926 pp. 46-77) and the thanksgiving prayer of a Syrian priest after the Eucharistic liturgy, quoted in L'Orient Syrien IV, 2, 1959, p. 210.
12. The expression Book of Life or of The Living (sefr5 d-hayé) is used frequently in the Syriac liturgies. The memento of the dead in the current Eucharistic liturgy of the Chaldean rite is also called The Book of Life; it is proclaimed by the deacon during the Greeting of Peace (a rite of Jewish origin). Cf. L'Orient Syrien V, 2, 1960, pp. 131 sqq. Book of Works or Book of Destiny are also found (Ex. 32:32; Ps. 69:29; Phil. 4:3; Lk. 10:20; Rev. 20:12,15 etc...). Cf. Jewish liturgy for Yom Kippur and J. Daniélou: Théologie du Judéo-Chris¬tianisme, Tournai 1958, pp. 51-164: Les Livres Célestes.
13. Narsai of Nisibis (+ 507). The most eminent doctor of the Chaldean Church and one of its principal hymn-writers.
14. In the Latin liturgy, which includes ongoing psalmody, in the vigil of the funeral as well as in the processions to the church and cemetery and at the graveside, most of the hymns and antiphons are sung in persona defuncti i.e. in the first person singular. Before the changes introduced by the liturgical reforms of Vatican II it was the same for two elements of a strongly penitential character: the sequence Dies irae introduced into the funeral Mass after the Tract in the twelfth or thirteenth century and the response to the Absolution Libera me Domine (Deliver me, Lord, from eternal death in this dreadful day when heaven and earth will pass away). We find here that sense of sin and fear of the Last Judgment which are so characteristic of the Syriac liturgies.
In the Eucharistic liturgy (Roman Canon, prior to Vatican II) one finds in the memorial of the dead the wish: Grant your servant, O Lord, a place of refreshment, light and peace, formulated in exactly the same terms as the prayer in the Byzantine rite for the funeral of a lay person (after the first stanza of Ps. 118); it is also found in the Triode on the Saturday for the Dead, at Orthros (Morning Office).
15. Cf. L'Orient Syrien VI, 2, 1959, pp. 193-210. Dr Paul Kruger, Le Sommeil des Ames dans l'Oeuvre de Narsal. Robert Murray: Symbols of Church and Kingdom C.U.P. 1975, p. 279.
16. Cf. Heb. 12:9; II Mac. 3:24; the prayer which follows the first stanza of Ps. 118 at the funeral of a lay person, in the Byzantine rite; prayers for Yom Kippur, especially the morning office and elsewhere.
17. Cf. J. Daniélou, op. cit., pp. 139-146, les anges. NB p. 145 L'Ange de la Paix and pp. 146-151, les démons.
18. Eleventh chant for the funeral procession for a lay person.
This article owes much to a course on the Office of the Dead given by Father Jean Tabet, Rector of the University of the Holy Spirit at Kaslik (Lebanon). Also: William Macomber: The Funeral Liturgy of the Chaldean Church, Concilium 32 (1968) — G.P. Badger: The Nestorians and their Liturgy, Vol. 2, pp. 283-321, London 1852 — W. de Vries, Sacramental Theologie beiden Nestorianern, Orientalia Christiana Periodica 133, Roma 1947, Kap. V-VI, pp. 250-252.