The Orthodox Church prays for the departed. According to our Faith, we believe that each person prepares for life after death in accordance with the faith he or she has, and the kind of life he or she lives. All this is within the grace of God and made possible by the teaching, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Our eternal future is based on what happens in this life.
Nevertheless, the Church reflects the compassion of God and invites us to pray for those who have passed on. We pray for them, trusting in the mercy of God, but not in any calculating way. God is love, so we ask Him to show love to our departed family members. In our Church, we have two services for this purpose. One is called the Trisagion, the shorter of the two. Sometimes it is called the “Commemoration for the Deceased.” The second service is longer and richer in content. It is called the Mnemosynon. It is more formal. Most Orthodox people call it the “Memorial Service,” and we usually conduct the Mnemosynon near the forty-day and one-year anniversaries of the loved one’s death.
Among the characteristics of this longer service is the preparation of a tray of sweetened boiled wheat called Kollyva. It is a symbolic way of praying for the “good resurrection” of the deceased. It is based on Jesus’ teaching that compares the sowing of wheat grains with the General Resurrection to come. In the context of the resurrection of Lazarus, St. John’s Gospel tells us that Jesus said, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit” (John 12:24).
The Kollyva is primarily made of boiled barley wheat grains, and it is mixed with sweet-tasting raisins, nuts, and other chopped fruits. It is then dried and placed on a tray in a mound. Powdered sugar is used to cover it, and almonds are usually used to inscribe a cross and the initials of the deceased. Thus, the Kollyva is a symbol of our prayer that the deceased be blessed with a happy and sweet resurrection, since there is also the resurrection of judgment and eternal punishment. Jesus was clear about that: “As the Father has life in himself, so He has granted the Son also to have life in Himself, and has given Him authority to execute judgment, because He is the Son of man. Do not marvel at this; for the hour is coming when all who are in the tombs will hear His voice and come forth, those who have done good, to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil, to the resurrection of judgment” (John 5:26-29).
When you go to a Memorial Service, you should pray for the deceased during the service. Afterwards, the boiled wheat will be distributed to all in attendance. As you eat it, say “May God forgive him/her.” The Kollyva gives substance to your prayer and honors the deceased.