Death in different cultures is celebrated with a wide variety of feast days, days of mourning, remembrances, and memorials. For the Eastern Orthodox Church, the Saturday of Souls is a day for remembering the souls that have departed earth. According to Orthodox beliefs, a person does not cease to exist. Rather, they exist as a soul in the spiritual realm when they stop living in their physical bodies on earth.
Jump ahead to these sections:
- What’s the Origin of the Saturday of Souls?
- When Does It Take Place?
- What Happens During Saturday of the Souls?
Because there is still a life to be lived in the spirit world, remembrances and memorials are held on behalf of those who have passed away. During these memorials, such as the Saturday of Souls, family members, friends, and the church prays for the one who is “lying in repose” or “at rest.”
It is thought that prayers on behalf of deceased relatives and friends can alter their eternal status and encourage the forgiveness of sins for a more lenient sentence during the final day of judgment.
What’s the Origin of the Saturday of Souls?
Mourning for, remembering, and praying for the dead doesn’t stop when a Greek Orthodox funeral ends. In the Greek Orthodox tradition, those who pass away are commemorated through a series of memorials in addition to the funeral service.
These days occur on the third, ninth, and 40th days after death, as well as the third, sixth, and ninth months after death. A one-year memorial is also celebrated in addition to yearly anniversaries if the family chooses to request them.
In addition to the specific anniversaries for an individual’s death, there are other important days to remember those who have gone on before. These days are known as Saturdays of Souls and they are for commemorating and holding memorials for friends and loved ones. They are also for remembering and praying for people who passed away who didn’t have any family with them or who death took by surprise.
It is on these days that a memorial is made for every person who has ever been part of the Orthodox Church from the time of Adam to the present day.
According to Greek Orthodox beliefs, the soul continues to live on. It’s also believed that a person will be judged by God, not only on the basis of their deeds on earth but potentially for the time between death and judgment after the return of Christ. Because of this concept, memorials where friends and family offer prayers for the departed are incredibly important.
The concern, therefore, was raised regarding those who passed away and were not able to be given a proper burial and memorial occasions. The Apostolic Constitution written in the 4th century provided direction, “Let us pray for our brethren that are at rest in Christ, that God, the lover of mankind, who has received his soul, may forgive him every sin, voluntary and involuntary, and may be merciful and gracious to him….”
From those early days onward, church members have made it a point of tradition to gather together to pray for their loved ones who passed away in addition to those they never met. Though specific traditions related to the Saturday of Souls may change from culture to culture, the event itself is seen as a religious holiday that should be kept regardless of a person’s culture or location.
Who celebrates it?
Though celebrated with slightly different traditions, you can witness Saturday of Souls services taking place throughout the world. Wherever there is an Eastern Orthodox Church present, you’ll witness these events.
Since the Eastern Orthodox Church is so widespread, you’ll be able to find services in countries such as the U.S., Russia, Greece, Syria, and Jordan. The predominant areas the Orthodox Church can be found are throughout Eastern Europe and many parts of the Middle East.
All told, membership in the Orthodox Church is around 300 million people, accounting for 13% of those who claim Christianity as their religion around the world.
When Does It Take Place?
In total, there are four Saturdays of Souls that take place during a calendar year. The first two come prior to the season of Lent, the third is prior to Easter, and the fourth is just before Pentecost.
The exact dates are different each year but in general, you can expect the following:
- Saturday of Souls 1: February or March
- Saturday of Souls 2: February or March
- Beginning of Lent: March
- Saturday of Souls 3: March
- Easter: April
- Saturday of Souls 4: June
- Pentecost: June
Because the first two Saturdays of Souls are close to Lent, there are more somber overtones than on other celebrations and remembrances of deceased family members such as the celebration of Radonista.
Saturdays have long been held as traditional days to remember those who have died. This tradition is believed to have started because Saturday was the day when Jesus laid in the tomb after he was crucified.
What Happens During Saturday of the Souls?
During Soul Saturdays and the special Saturday of Souls, numerous rituals take place. If you attend one of these memorials, expect to witness several examples of death rituals that take place during the Saturday of Souls.
Prayers for the deceased are a focal point of Saturday of the Souls. Friends, relatives, and the priest offer prayers on behalf of the departed for their eternal rest, the forgiveness of sins, and mercy on their behalf.
One common prayer you will likely hear is a prayer for all who have died an untimely death. The prayer includes, “...all that have drowned, that battle hath mown down, that earthquake hath swallowed up, that have been slain by murderers, that fire hath consumed…” and many more instances of death that took a person by surprise.
Recitation of names
Every church member who has loved ones they want to remember during the Saturday of Souls can submit their names. During the service, the priest will read the list of names.
Though names can be submitted to be read during any Saturday of Souls, family members are encouraged to submit the names to be read during the Saturday closest to their relative’s death.
Since Saturday of the Souls is for all departed who may or may not be known, this memorial takes place in the church. Toward the front of the church, a memorial table is set up.
The table traditionally contains an icon (a picture or statue) of the crucifix, the Virgin Mary, and sometimes the Apostle John. The table will also have room for attendees to place lit candles in honor of the deceased.
Service-goers traditionally hold lit candles to represent the souls of those attending. The candles are lit and remain burning through the entire memorial service.
During the final hymn or Troparia, each person will either extinguish their candle or place it in a candle holder on the memorial table. This act serves as a reminder that each person will give up their soul in death.
Koliva is a traditional food made of boiled wheat berries and sweetened with honey, raisins, almonds, and pomegranate seeds.
The dish is typically placed in front of the memorial table and blessed by the priest or deacon after the service with the sprinkling of holy water. Once the service has concluded and the blessing is given, the Koliva is taken into the refectory, or dining area, and served to all in attendance.
The liturgy is similar to a script for the memorial service. During the service, a priest and the congregation will read or recite familiar prayers such as this one for remembrance: “In a blessed falling asleep, grant, O Lord, eternal rest unto thy departed servants and make their memory to be eternal!”
All sayings, prayers, and recitations during the Saturday of Souls are used to point attendees to the reality that there is life after death, people are spiritual beings, and prayer can continue to be given for those who have passed away.
Acts of charity
It is believed that acts of charity on behalf of those who have passed away can help and aid them in the spirit realm.
These are viewed as being done by the person themselves and counts for good deeds done. This is seen as especially crucial for those souls who died by tragic or sudden means or had no one to pray for them.
In some communities, after the Saturday of Souls service, family and friends visit the graves of their loved ones. During this time they clean the headstones and decorate the area with fresh flowers.
Remembering Those at Rest
Saturday of the Souls provides an opportunity to pray for your loved ones and remember those who died without the comfort of family by their sides.
If you have the opportunity to participate in a Saturday of the Souls, be prepared to reflect, pray, and gather together in memorial to remember that life is short and should be lived to the fullest.
If you're looking to read more about death in different cultures, read our guides on what ancestor money is and filial piety.
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- Antinoes, Panteleimon. “Saturday of the Souls.” Catechisms and Articles, Orthodox Path, 3 September 2013. orthodoxpath.org/catechisms-and-articles/sunday-of-the-prodigal-son-2/.
- Stylianos, Archbishop. “Saturday, the day of Souls.” The Orthodox Messenger, SA Central Youth Press, Australia, January 1992.
- “List of Feasts and Holy Days.” Chapel, Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America, 2017. goarch.org/chapel/paschalion.
- “Saturday of Souls.” Saints and Feasts, Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America, 2017. goarch.org/chapel/saints?contentid=1017&type=saints.
- “Psihosavato, Saturday of Souls.” Religion, Greek City Times, 22 February 2020. greekcitytimes.com/2020/02/22/psihosavato-saturday-of-souls/.