Kolyva and the Memory of the Departed

MOST BELIEVERS KNOW that the Western Church observes a day of prayer and remembrance for the dead on November 2, All Souls Day. Few know, however that certain Slavic Byzantine Churches also observe memorial days at this time, each with a slightly different focus. The Russian Church, for example, keeps the Saturday before the Feast of St Demitrios the Myrrh-Exuder (October 26) as a memorial Saturday, remembering those who died during an important battle in their struggle against the Mongols. Other Churches keep the Saturday before the Feast of the Holy Archangel Michael (November 8) or the Saturday before the Feast of the Conception of the Forerunner (September 23) as Memorial Saturdays.

Why Saturdays?

The principal memorial days in all the Byzantine Churches also fall on Saturdays: the Saturday before Meatfare Sunday and the Saturday before Pentecost. In addition, most Saturdays during the year (unless there is an important commemoration from the Menaion) are devoted to remembrance of the departed.

The Synaxarion for Meatfare Saturday explains why Saturdays have been chosen for remembering the departed: “We always remember the souls of the dead on the Sabbath, for the Sabbath (Saturday) is the day of rest. In Hebrew, Sabbath literally means ‘rest.’ As the Jews have this day for their repose and paused from every work and professional dealing, we Christians have it to remember the repose of those who preceded us. Since the dead have rested from all worldly cares, we offer supplications for them on the day which means ‘rest’”

The custom is also connected to the “Great Sabbath,” Holy Saturday, the day when Christ’s body lay in the tomb. At vespers on that day we sing the following sticheron: “The great Moses foretold this day when he said, ‘God blessed the seventh day.’ For this is the blessed Sabbath, the day of rest on which the only begotten Son of God abstained from bodily work, as He had ordained that it would occur in death. Through His Resurrection, He returned to what had been His state; and in His goodness and love for mankind, He bestowed eternal life upon us.”

The Synaxarion describes the proper way to observe a memorial: “On this day, we hold memorial services and have kolyva blessed in the church, we give alms, and perform various works of mercy.” Many of our Churches could emphasize the works of mercy as memorials more than they do.

In our day, it has become customary to offer memorial services after the Divine Liturgy on Sunday, the day when people congregate in our churches. Still, the liturgically prescribed memorials are meant to be held on Saturdays.

Praying for the Departed

Eastern Christians who attend funerals or memorial services in a Protestant church, are often struck by the absence of prayer for the dead in these events. The life and work of the departed are recalled by any number of eulogists, but none of them offer a prayer for the departed. In many Protestant traditions, the state of a departed loved one cannot be affected by prayers and Liturgies offered for them by the living. One contemporary Lutheran catechism for example asks: “For whom should we pray? …We should pray for ourselves and for all other people, even for our enemies, but not for the souls of the dead.”

In contrast, prayer for the departed is the chief focus of our traditional memorial services. The Synaxarion quoted above calls on several patristic writers to witness the power of intercession for the dead: “In his funeral oration for his brother Caesarios, St. Gregory the Theologian recommends alms on behalf of the reposed as being good. And the great Chrysostom in his commentary on Philippians says, ‘Let us think of ways to benefit the departed. Let us give them what help we can, namely almsgiving and offerings. For truly this brings them great advantage and very much gain and benefit.

“The custom of the priest commemorating those reposed in faith over the awesome Mysteries has not been without purpose nor arbitrarily ordained and delivered to God’s Church by His all-wise Disciples.’ Again, ‘In making arrangements when you dispose of your property, together with your children and relatives, let your will also include the name of your Judge as a joint heir, and let not the mention of the poor be absent …’” The Judge, of course is the Lord. Chrysostom was encouraging people to include His Church in their wills as offerings in their memory.

“St. Athanasius the Great also says that even if one has died and dissolved into the air, do not decline to provide oil and candles at the grave and to plead with Christ our God, for they are acceptable to God and bring great recompense: if the deceased was a sinner, that you may lose his sins; if righteous, that it may add to his reward. If one is a stranger without means, having no one to take care of these matters, God, being righteous and compassionate, will proportionately measure out to him His mercy, as He knows best.

“Moreover, he who offers such services to the dead also partakes of the reward, because he has shown love and concern for the salvation of his neighbor. It is as when one anoints a friend with perfumes, he receives the sweet aroma first. As for those who do not fulfill the wills and testaments of the deceased concerning these matters, they will positively be condemned.”

Whom Do We Remember?

At Liturgies and memorial services throughout the year people submit the names of their departed family members and friends for commemoration. On certain days specific groups are remembered. On the Church’s principal Memorial Saturdays, however, individuals are not commemorated as such. Rather, the Church asks us to remember “all those who have fallen asleep in the hope of resurrection.” We particularly remember any who may not have received the Holy Mysteries before they died. As we pray in the Canon at Orthros:

“In Your mercy, grant a place with the faithful and the just to those drowned in the sea or slain in battle, buried by earthquakes, murdered or consumed by fire.

“O Lord, all those who have died in faith at sea or on land, in rivers, springs, lakes or wells, devoured by savage beasts, birds or reptiles anywhere on earth come before You. Grant Your rest to them all.

“O Christ our God, on that Last Day when You shall render just judgment, raise up in glory those who have been devoured by the creatures of the sea or the birds of the sky.

“O our Savior, grant rest to all the faithful who died suddenly and unexpectedly, in the midst of joy or sorrow, prosperity or misfortune.

“O Christ our Savior, grant rest to those destroyed by the cold, killed while travelling. overcome by hail, snow or storms, crushed by stones or buried alive.

“You know what is best for every creature which You have formed. O Lord our God, deliver from all torment those whom You have permitted to die unexpectedly through some sudden accident.

“O Lord, grant rest with Your saints to those whom, in Your ineffable Providence, You allowed to die from drugs or poison or by choking on bones.

In short, we recall “all the faithful who died in every generation since time began.”