A good person close to your correspondent died recently and was buried in the Orthodox area of the Helsinki’s main Hietalahti Cemetery after a rather long funeral service (two long hours) of the Orthodox Church in Tapiola, some 12 kilometres west from Helsinki.
The Orthodox Church is split between Russia and Greece in their traditions and organisations, but since Finland once belonged to the Russian Empire before the Revolution, as the Grand Duchy of Finland, and since we are neighbours one cannot miss the strength of that connection between the two countries when visiting any Orthodox church here.
The church in Tapiola is relatively new. It was built in 1988, and is decorated with hundreds of huge life-size frescos of saints and other religious personages who are important to the church (see above photograph).
The walls and ceilings are covered top to bottom in such religious art. The colours are impressive and the style is somewhat hard with sharp well-defined brush strokes. Every other surface is covered in large and small icons, and a hundred candles burn in brass stands.
Incense fills the air and the cantors’ sweet voices hold you in a heavy trance for those two hours. The services are predefined and for the uninitiated confusing and difficult to follow. The priest leads the congregation in prayer and readings from the bible. The choir stand on one side of the church with their leader facing the congregation. She has half a dozen song books in front of her from which she rapidly jumps from one to the next. For each new canticle (a religious song), she gently bangs a tuning fork on her head and sings out a cadence for the other choir members. There are many canticles and chants. The chants are a series of words that are repeated again and again so long as the priest is performing the same ritual.
Most of us stand during the ceremony, while older adults and young children occupy the few high-backed chairs that are positioned along the sides. The open coffin is at the centre of the church, and we are drawn towards it as if it is like a powerful magnet.
Our thoughts are intense when confronting the calm frozen body, expertly framed with religious artefacts and beautiful white and pink flowers. We do not face death like this on the outside. Being so close inspires many grave and happy memories. We are still in pandemic times and many in the congregation wear masks. These masks hide the tears rolling down our cheeks – an experience that provides some relief from confronting death. Many would be embarrassed to show their emotions unmasked.
The service is long, and two hours standing requires stamina and concentration. The music from the choir is based only on their voices. There is no organ, piano or other musical instrument other than their vocal cords. They even sing as we walk towards to the open grave where we lower the coffin. The sandy pathway is soft under foot, and the coffin is heavy.
We spend another 30 minutes lowering the coffin in prayers led by the priest.
When the ceremony is finally over the priest invites those closest to the deceased to shovel sand into the gaping grave to completely cover the coffin. Your correspondent was invited to shovel the heavy wet earth. It was an interesting and unexpected experience that contained some relief of final closing,
If you have travelled to Russia, Ukraine or any of other countries of East Europe, you cannot miss the prominence of the Orthodox Church that has embedded itself firmly in their society. This funeral service reflected all that is Russian – not the Putin thing, more the Doctor Zhivago thing!
When you dig around into society here in Finland, you will find traces of a Russia soul embedded in many Finns – a serious, rather shy and introverted soul – not that modern cheap replica found in today’s Russians, but the other, that was lost some 100 years ago, one that remains strongly alive in this very Russian Orthodox church.