It was a grief-stricken New Year! Our parish of 150 buried five members in the few weeks surrounding Christmas, four of them young, three dead of AIDS, and we were reeling. The funerals and the holidays went by in a flash, and most of us felt dazed and exhausted and unable to sort out so much loss.
My colleague who had grown up in the Greek Orthodox Church brought us a wonderful mourning custom from that culture in which grief is communal and visceral and has its ritually marked stages. Greek village culture gives the cemetery pride of place, and regularly widows and other bereaved people visit and tend and sit by the graves of those they love, where candles burn by photographs and fresh flowers are laid, and conversation is shared with other mourners. After seven years in the earth, the bones are dug up by the family, cleaned, boxed, and moved to a family vault with prayer and ceremony and the period of socially sanctioned grieving comes to an end.
In the early days of grief, at the fortyday and the one-year anniversary of death, the bereaved family and friends gather to make a cake of spiced wheat called kolliva. For us, doing this on a Saturday meant the kolliva could be shared at Sunday worship. Whole wheat berries are boiled, drained, and then mounded onto clean sheets on a table where they are rolled and patted between layers of the cloth for an hour or so until the grain is dry and the sticky starch has been removed. Handling the grain this way is reminiscent of laying out the body of the dead person, and as the work is done, stories are swapped about her or him. Then the wheat is gathered into a large bowl, spices and fruit are chopped and mixed in, and finally the whole is turned onto a tray and patted into a rectangular cake. There are plenty of tasks for six or eight people to be involved with the drying, toasting of pine nuts and sesame seeds, chopping of parsley and walnuts, and peeling of pomegranates. Then, painstakingly, graham cracker crumbs are sifted over the top into a thick layer, and over that, confectioners’ sugar is sifted thickly and then pressed very gently with waxed paper into a firm smooth crust. Traditionally, the top is decorated with a cross of white Jordan almonds and the initials IC XC NI KA (Greek for Jesus Christ conquers) and the initials of the deceased person in the four quadrants. In Greece, the ornamentation of the kolliva may be highly elaborate, like a wedding cake here, but for those new to the practice, simple is better.
There are prayers over the kolliva (see below)–perhaps a little incense is burned, a little wine drunk as well–and then it is carried into the church with exquisite care so as not to crack the thick sugar coating, and set on a small table flanked by candles in the place that the casket is placed at a funeral. At the close of the Sunday eucharist, the congregation moves in to circle the kolliva and the threefold Trisagion is sung. There are prayers for the dead (as below, or some from the burial service might be used) and for the bereaved, and then the kolliva is taken out of the sanctuary to the coffee hour, scooped into small bowls or cups and eaten. In a graphic way, the spiritual body of the deceased is remembered and eucharist made, and then that “body” is shared and incorporated into the survivors. The circle of close friends have half a day of story-telling and mutual support in the making of the kolliva, and then the whole congregation shares in the prayers and the eating, which moves in a rather organic way from sorrow to joy.
In the Greek Orthodox Church this custom is called Mnemosimon, a memorial or remembrance or reminder. Kolliva (also transliterated as kollyva, boiled wheat) is a symbol of resurrection and is not made on any other occasion but to mark the milestones of bereavement.
Here is the recipe:
For the mixture: 10 cups whole wheat kernels (about 5 lbs.) 2 cups sesame seed, toasted 5 tablespoons powdered cinnamon 4 tablespoons cumin ¼ cup pine nuts, toasted 2 cups walnuts (chopped) 3 cups golden raisins 1 or 2 pomegranates 1 small bunch of parsley (dry), chopped finely
for decorating: 2 cups graham cracker or zwieback crumbs (fine) 2 lbs. confectioner’s sugar 1 cup whole blanched almonds 2 cups white candied Jordan almonds ¼ cup silver dragees
equipment: a large table sifter a large tray (can be covered with foil) wax paper serving scoop paper cups, small bowls, or sandwich bags for serving several bath towels and large sheets
1. The day before assembly, clean and wash wheat and boil for 2½ hours, adding more boiling water as needed to keep kernels covered as they swell. After cooking, let the wheat soak in its water for another ½ hour then drain and rinse well with cold water in a large colander. Heap the wheat on top of towels and two sheets, lapping the edges of the sheets over the grain. Let sit overnight.
2. Crush or grind crackers into fine crumbs and set aside.
3. Grind or finely chop walnuts. Finely chop dry parsley. Toast sesame seeds and pine nuts just till lightly browned. Mix in a large bowl the nuts, spices, parsley, raisins, pomegranate seeds, sesame and pine nuts, and set aside.
4. Roll the wheat in its sheet, squeezing gently. Change the sheets when they become wet. It takes about an hour of rolling to get the wheat well dried and starchfree. (Wash the sheets promptly.)
5. Mix the wheat with the other ingredients in the bowl.
6. Heap the mixture onto a large tray, patting it firmly with wax paper into a rectangular cake shape with a flat top. Cover the wheat with a thick layer of crumbs and press gently with wax paper.
7. Sift confectioners sugar thickly (at least ¼ in.) over the top and sides of the cake, and press very gently with squares of wax paper and a steady hand to form an unbroken smooth compact surface.
8. Also with a steady hand, mark out a large cross with white almonds and silver dragees. On the right quadrants of the cross mark the initials like this:
IC XC NI KA
On a left quadrant place the initials of the deceased in blanched almonds. Use the rest of the almonds and dragees to make a decorative border. Keep in a dry place. If you have to move the cake, take some extra sugar, sifter and wax paper to repair any cracks or moist spots.
The memorial service (adapted): Blessed is our God always, now and for ever and to the ages of ages. Amen. The Trisagion is sung (The Hymnal 1982, S98ff.).
All: God of all, we pray to you for N. and for all those whom we love but see no longer. Grant to them eternal rest. Let light perpetual shine upon them. May her soul and the souls of all the departed, through the mercy of God, rest in peace. Amen.
Give rest, O Christ is sung (settings appear in The Hymnal 1982, 355, and the Accompaniment Edition, S383).
Presider: O God of spirits and of all flesh, you have trampled upon death and have abolished the power of the devil, giving life to your world. Give to your departed servant N. rest in a place of light, in a place of repose, in a place of refreshment, where there is no pain, sorrow, and suffering. For you, Christ our God, are the resurrection, the life, and the repose of your servant N., and to you we give glory with your eternal Father and your all-holy, good and life-giving Spirit, now and for ever. Amen.
Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death and giving life to those in the tomb is sung. (A setting by Bruce Ford is in The Hymnal 1982, Accompaniment Edition S384; several versions of this troparion are included in Music for Liturgy published by St. Gregory of Nyssa Church, San Francisco; or the canon in The Hymnal 1982, 713 might be used.)