Always remembering…

PoppiesIn the second part of her blog, student journalist Helena Clennett writes about the Greek Orthodox tradition:

How we navigate our way through the dark times that death brings varies between individuals and cultures.  I grew up in a Greek Orthodox Christian home and experienced my grandparents’ deaths through this lens, but having a mixed cultural background I am also aware of English and other traditions.

From the funeral to regular visits to the gravesite, rituals, whether religious or secular, are arguably fundamental to the mourning process in all cultures. Ethnographer Arnold Van Gennep considered rituals to be tools for navigating transitions in life. Funerals are ‘rites of separation’ both for the deceased and those left behind, allowing them a period of time to become accustomed to the new situation. In Western societies the funeral is held and that is in effect the end of the formal mourning period, (although many people regularly visit the gravesite and carry out symbolic activities as they see fit).  Greek Orthodox custom extends the formal grieving period to one year. This allows the bereaved to remain in the transition period without feeling so much pressure to be their ‘normal’ self.

I was first introduced to the rituals of mourning when my Yiayia (grandma) died. I was young but I recall significant things. The funeral was held in Greece as we repatriated her to the village of her birth.  The casket was open. The sight of my beloved Yiayia, grey and waxy amongst the satin and flowers, left me disturbed.  Older ladies cried and wailed, leaving me  bemused, (as I explain later, lamenting is an ancient custom, but to my uninitiated eyes it appeared as ‘crocodile tears’). People gave us condolences in Greek that I didn’t understand. I don’t recollect much after that, except going to the grave to light candles, and then back in England, carrying out the memorials, my mother wearing black for a year and feeling terribly overwhelmed.

The Greeks have never shied away from the reality of bodily death, but seem to have long had a perception that the essence of us survives.

In antiquity they believed the soul left the body at the moment of death, going to the underworld ruled by Hades, regardless of how good or bad they had been (although the underworld was divided into sections dependant on this!). Women prepared the body for the ‘prothesus’ (viewing or wake) and placed a crown made of gold or branches on the head, then the ‘ekphora’ (procession) would take place as the body was moved to the burial place. On route women would wail, lament and tear at their hair and faces as they walked the streets to attract attention (a practise stopped by the Christians).

After burial family members visited the grave with floral wreaths and foods to honour the dead, such as honey cakes and pomegranates. They carried out ceremonies on the third, ninth, and thirtieth days after death and then visited monthly, annually and so on.

What we do today is similar. Climatic conditions mean bodies are buried within 24-72 hours. During preparation an icon is placed on the heart and a crucifix around the neck to signify the faith of the departed.

At the funeral the coffin is customarily open for mourners to pay their respects (as they did during the prothesus in times past).

For the first forty days after the passing, close family wear black (women continue to wear it for one year for a parent or, in the case of a spouse, always, if they wish to). They will avoid social occasions and entertainment like music and dancing.

The family will perform  memorials on the third, ninth and fortieth days. This is significant because Jesus was dead for three days, the spirit has now joined the nine choirs of holy angels and on the fortieth day we believe the soul has ascended to heaven. The family offer bread and Koliva (a symbolic food) for blessing.  Wheat signifies the earth, nuts represent the wood of the holy cross and coffin, parsley/herbs remind us of the bitterness of death and pomegranates are symbolic of life and rebirth. Memorials are then carried out on the third, sixth, and ninth months and on the first anniversary of the passing.

When my beloved Grandad passed on suddenly 18 months ago it shook my faith in God. I’ve always kept an open mind but at that time the shattering pain of loss clouded my thoughts with doubt.

Three days later as my mother, our priest, and I held the first memorial I listened to the prayers that said Grandad was now in a place with no pain, sorrow, or grief, and my heart lifted a little.  In the following year I found comfort in the regular memorials and visits to the gravesite, having times when the fact that I was still mourning and broken could be ‘officially’ acknowledged. I felt I could still do something special for Grandad. I wore black clothes to signify my mourning (even though most people here didn’t realise the reason). Having a ‘uniform’ also freed me from concerns about my appearance when I had no energy for such matters.

Ultimately each individual will grieve and mourn the passing of a loved one differently and nothing can take away the inevitable pain it causes. I hope my discussion about  one culture that accepts death but incorporates it into life by regularly remembering those who have passed has offered a different perspective.

Helena Clennett is from Oxford. She is a volunteer community journalist with Oxford Community Media and a family carer for her uncle. She holds a Bsc in Sociology and Anthropology from Oxford Brookes University, and has particular interests in issues around mental health and learning disabilities, cultural diversity, religious studies and women’s’ health.

In her spare time she enjoys cooking, reading, jewellery making and has just started a blog focusing on Greek-inspired dishes.