Petru Streza died at age 34 from injuries received in an accident at the construction project on which he was working. Obviously, the unexpected nature of his death complicated the bereavement experience for his family and close friends, but the customs of his faith and his people provided direction for making their way through loss. Like the Strezas, most Orthodox Christian families come from the Ukraine, Serbia, Greece, Russia, Romania, and other countries Eastern and Southern Europe
When word of her husband's death came to his wife, Florina, she shrieked in disbelief and grief; some people said you could hear her cries a city block away. Florina's brother and sister went at once to the school attended by their two young children to bring them home to their family. Parents, siblings, cousins and other extended family members began coming from throughout the region, and Petru's older brothers were telephoned at their homes in Romania so they could begin making plans to attend the funeral.
Though Petru died away from home, his family began to immediately follow the traditions common to Christian Orthodox households. First, they lit a candle in their home that would continue burning throughout the funeral period of several days. The funeral at St. Mary's Romanian Orthodox Church was scheduled for Thursday morning, three days after Petru's death. Food began arriving, lovingly prepared by ladies in the parish and brought to provide comfort to the young widow and her family.
On Wednesday afternoon, Florina and her extended family assembled at the funeral home for a family prayer service with their priest, and there she saw her husband for the first time since his death. As members of the family passed by the casket, each let out a deep groan and made the sign of the cross. Dozens of arrangements of flowers were already set around the room when the family arrived, reminding Florina and her family of the concern of friends, coworkers, and fellow congregants from St. Mary's. As the only Romanian church in their community, most of their Romanian friends were also members of their parish.
As pastor of St. Mary's Father Demetri had been the family's priest for nearly 20 years, having officiated at the wedding of Petru and Florina eight years earlier. As he led the family and community through the rituals of their faith, he clearly carried the weight of ministry with such a tragic death in their small, close-knit community. Petru's funeral, he would later say, was the most difficult of his ministry.
The entire community came together on Wednesday evening to observe the Trisagion service, an abbreviated prayer service usually held by Orthodox Christians of all nationalities on the evening before the funeral. On Thursday morning, Florina, her two children and the entire family followed Petru's casket as it was carried into St. Mary's Church where the casket was opened for the funeral service. Father Demetri anointed Petru's body with oil and after reading a prayer of absolution, pressed the written words into Petru's left hand. When the service ended, each mourner had the opportunity to kiss Petru or the cross on his casket before it was closed and carried from the church.
After the service in the church concluded, the mourners went in procession to a nearby cemetery where Petru's casket was carried to the grave. Father Demetri offered prayers, read verses from St. John's gospel, and using a vial of sand, made the sign of the cross on Petru's casket. Then, each mourner laid a single flower on the casket as they quietly paid their last respects to their family member and friend.
By the standards of some unacquainted with Orthodox funerals, the funeral for Petru might have seemed morbid and depressing. Father Demetri wore a black hooded robe, the music seemed somber, and the aroma of incense hung heavily in the church. Orthodox funerals do not try to cover up death, choosing, instead, to face its reality head-on.
Following the service at the grave, however, family and friends returned to the church hall where ladies from the parish had prepared a feast of traditional Romanian foods. After the meal was shared, Father Demetri invited those in attendance to share a way Petru had been influential in his or her life. As the afternoon wore on, the mood became lighter, almost festive at times, as people cried and laughed together at the memories of the man with a witty sense of humor, an eye for fashion, and contagious zest for life.
While the Streza family observed many common customs, their story is by no means the only way death, grief and funerals are experienced. The following resources will be helpful in learning more about these customs.
- Orthodox Church in America
- Romanian Orthodox Episcopate of America
- Chirban, J. T. (2007). Raised In Glory: Orthodox Understandings of Death, Resurrection, and Immortality. Brookline, MA: Holy Cross Orthodox Press.
- Chirila, I. (2009). Romanian Theology: A Theology of Dialogue. Theological Studies, 65 (1), 406-410.
- Payton, J. R. (2007). Light from the Christian East: An Introduction to the Orthodox Tradition. Downer's Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.