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The Epitaphion

Our Lord's Tomb, Winding sheet, Epitaphion, Kouvouklion,(Greek) Plaschanitsa ( Russian)

Sometime during this Lenten season, would you comment about the correct terminology of Christ's bier – sepulcher – tomb, which houses the Epitaphion, Plaschanitsa, on Good Friday? I have always understood this to be the "Kouvouklion" – however, many people call this the "Epitaphion."

You are certainly right in pointing to the confusion of the terminology. Demetrios N. Moraites, in an article on the Greek word "Epitaphion" points out that though it is an adjective, which implies a subject which it describes or modifies, it is often used as a noun. He says: "In customary ecclesiastical language, it means: a) the service conducted in the churches on Great Friday, of the burial of the Crucified One "epitaphios brenos" or "ta epitaphia," and b) the vestment, upon which is pictured most usually the icon of the burial of Jesus Christ as well as the "kouvouklion," in which it is placed, in order to be reverenced by the faithful on Great Friday."

The Varied Usages

These comments simply verify that the term "epitaphion" in practice is used in different ways: it refers then, 1) to the Great Friday Lamentation Service itself; 2) to the cloth icon of the dead Christ; 3) to the structure into which or onto which it is placed in the services of Great Friday. Let us see if we can sharpen the meaning of the two terms "epitaphion" and "kouvouklion" and then come to a suggestion as to what might be the most appropriate English terminology to use. We might best do that by looking at the historical use and meaning of the two words, that is, their etymology.

The Meaning of "Epitaphion"

The word "epitaphion" is composed of two Greek words: "epi" means "on" or "upon" or, "over" something; "taphos" means "grave." Therefore in classical Greek, it means "on or over a tomb." Its most frequent use was in reference to a speech given at the grave side. Thus, a "logos epitaphios" was a funeral oration. Obviously other things could also fit this description besides speeches. In the case we are discussing, the cloth icon representing the dead body of Jesus Christ could very well be considered as properly referred to as "Epitaphion" in transliterated English. This is supported by the belief of liturgical scholars who believe that the "Epitaphion" cloth icon of the dead body of Christ, has its origins in the similar, yet much more plain "Antimension," which is placed on every Orthodox Church altar table. Since one of the meanings of the Altar Table is that it is a tomb (both of Christ, and of the saints because relics are embedded in every consecrated Altar Table), it might be wise to reserve use of the transliterated term "Epitaphion" to the cloth icon.

The Meaning of "Kouvouklion"

The Greek word "kouvouklion" comes to us in several comes to us in several variations, but all are derived from the Latin word "cubiculum" which originally meant "a bed chamber, particularly in palace." Christians have always connected the idea of death with "falling asleep." The English word "cemetery" is derived from the Greek word "koimeterion" which means "a place for sleeping." (See for example, Matthew 27:52, John 11:13ff, I Thessalonians 4:13ff).

It is easy to see, therefore, when Altar Tables began to be supermounted with four posts and a canopy, that the canopy, which created a sort of "open room" within the sanctuary or "ieron bema" should be called a "kouvouklion." Given the facts that the Altar Table was symbolically understood to be a tomb, it is easy to see how this canopy could also be referred to as an "Epitaphion."

When the deceased body of a person is placed on a table-like stand, the stand is referred to as a "bier." A "bier" is the stand on which a corpse, or a coffin containing the corpse, is placed to lie in state or to be carried to the grave. But this does not carry with it the idea of a room, which is inherent in the word "kouvouklion." However, both the words "tomb" and "sepulcher" do, since the first is defined as "a vault or chamber serving as a repository for the dead" and the second as a "burial vault." Further, "tomb," is the usual English biblical description of the place where Christ's dead body was placed: they "Laid Him in a tomb which had been hewn out of the rock" (Mark 15:46. See also Luke 23:53 and Matthew 27:60).

What English Words to Use?

As a result of this study of the words, it seems appropriate to restrict the transliterated word "Epitaphion" in English to the cloth icon of the body of the dead Christ. This is called a Winding sheet or Shroud in English. We could use either "tomb" or "sepulcher" to refer to the canopied table upon which the winding sheet is placed. I prefer the word tomb, only because it is simpler and reflects the usual English translation in the Bible. The word "sepulcher" carries with it, it seems to me, a more grand and impressive tone, so many may prefer to use it to translate the word "kouvouklion>'

Finally, there is one problem of pan-Orthodox nature in all of this. To my knowledge, the Slavic Orthodox tradition does not use the canopied table for this purpose, while the Greek and Antiochian traditions do. They use a plain table, sometimes shaped in the form of a casket, upon which the Plaschanitsa icon is placed. In their case, the word "bier" would be appropriate.

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