Prayer for the dead

Prayer for the dead

Wherever there is a belief in the continued existence of man's personality through and after death, religion naturally concerns itself with the relations between the living and the dead. And where the idea of a future judgment or of purgatory obtains, prayers are often offered on behalf of the dead to the Higher Powers.

In Judaism

Prayer for the dead appears in the PharisaicHarris, Stephen L., Understanding the Bible. Palo Alto: Mayfield. 1985.] book 2 Maccabees. [" [A] nd they turned to prayer, beseeching that the sin which had been committed might be wholly blotted out. And the noble Judas exhorted the people to keep themselves free from sin, for they had seen with their own eyes what had happened because of the sin of those who had fallen. He also took up a collection, man by man, to the amount of two thousand drachmas of silver, and sent it to Jerusalem to provide for a sin offering. In doing this he acted very well and honorably, taking account of the resurrection. For if he were not expecting that those who had fallen would rise again, it would have been superfluous and foolish to pray for the dead. But if he was looking to the splendid reward that is laid up for those who fall asleep in godliness, it was a holy and pious thought. Therefore he made atonement for the dead, that they might be delivered from their sin." 12:43-45] Judas Maccabeus offers a sacrifice as a propitiatory sin-offering and a memorial thank-offering. These prayers and sacrifices were intended to improve the standing of the dead during the resurrection. Jews do not regard 2 Maccabees as canonical, perhaps because of its theological innovations.Harris, Stephen L., Understanding the Bible. Palo Alto: Mayfield. 1985.]

Within Judaism, prayers for the dead form part of the Jewish services. The prayers offered on behalf of the deceased consist of: Recitation of Psalms; Reciting a thrice daily communal prayer in Aramaic known as "Kaddish" which actually means "Sanctification" (or " [Prayer of] Making Holy") which is a prayer "In Praise of God"; or other special remembrances known as Yizkor; and also a Hazkara said either on the annual commemoration known as the Yahrzeit as well on Jewish holidays.

The form in use in England contains the following passage: "Have mercy upon him; pardon all his transgressions . . . Shelter his soul in the shadow of Thy wings. Make known to him the path of life."

In the New Testament

A passage in the New Testament which refers to a prayer for the dead is found in bibleverse|2|Timothy|1:16-18, which reads as follows:

:May the Lord grant mercy to the house of Onesiphorus, for he often refreshed me, and was not ashamed of my chain, but when he was in Rome, he sought me diligently, and found me (the Lord grant to him to find the Lord’s mercy in that day); and in how many things he served at Ephesus, you know very well.

As with the verses from Maccabees, these verses refer to prayers that will help the deceased on Judgment Day. It is not stated that Onesiphorus, for whom Saint Paul prayed, was dead, though it is implied, based on the way Paul only refers to him in the past tense, and prays for present blessings on his household, but for him only "on that day". And towards the end of the same letter, in [bibleverse|2|Timothy|4:19, Paul sends greetings to "Prisca and Aquila, and the house of Onesiphorus", distinguishing the situation of Onesiphorus from that of the still living Prisca and Aquila.

In the Christian tradition

Prayer for the dead is well-documented within the early Christian church, both among prominent church fathers and the Christian community in general. The Eastern Orthodox view is that Christians were praying for "such souls as have departed with faith, but without having had time to bring forth fruits worthy of repentance". [ [ The Longer Catechism of the Orthodox, Catholic, Eastern Church,] 376] The Roman Catholic view is that Christians were praying for souls who were undergoing the purification laterLe Goff, Jacques. The birth of purgatory. University of Chicago Press. 1984.] known as Purgatory. [ [ Catechism of the Catholic Church,] 1032] Prayer for the dead continues in both these traditions, but many denominations within Protestantism rejected the practice explicitly or implicitly.

The tomb of Abercius of Hieropolis in Phrygia (latter part of the 2nd century)bears the inscription: "Let every friend who observes this pray for me", i.e. Abercius, who throughout speaks in the first person.

The inscriptions in the Roman catacombs bear similar witness to the practice, by the occurrence of such phrases as:
*"Mayst thou live among the saints" (3rd century);
*"May God refresh the soul of . . . ;"
*"Peace be with them".

Among Church writers Tertullian († 230) is the first to mention prayers for the dead, and not as a concession to natural sentiment, but as a duty: "The widow who does not pray for her dead husband has as good as divorced him". This passage occurs in one of his later Montanist writings, dating from the beginning of the 3rd century. Subsequent writers similarly make incidental mention of the practice as prevalent, but not as unlawful or even disputed (until Arius challenged it towards the end of the 4th century). The most famous instance is Saint Augustine's prayer for his mother, Monica, at the end of the 9th book of his "Confessions", written around 398.

An important element in the liturgies of the various Churches consisted of the diptychs, or lists of names of living and dead who were to be commemorated at the Eucharist. To be inserted in these lists was a confirmation of one's orthodoxy, and out of the practice grew the canonization of saints; on the other hand, to be excluded was a condemnation.

In the middle of the 3rd century we find St. Cyprian enjoining that there should be no oblation or public prayer made for a deceased layman who had broken the Church's rule by appointing a cleric trustee under his will: "He ought not to be named in the priests prayer who has done his best to detain the clergy from the altar."

Although it is not possible, as a rule, to name dates for the exact words used in the ancient liturgies, yet the universal occurrence of these diptychs and of definite prayers for the dead in all parts of the Church in the 4th and 5th centuries tends to show how primitive such prayers were. The language used in the prayers for the departed is very reserved, and contains no suggestion of Purgatory or any place or state of pain. We may cite the following from the so-called Liturgy of St James:

"Remember, O Lord, the God of Spirits and of all Flesh, those whom we have remembered and those whom we have not remembered, men of the true faith, from righteous Abel unto to-day; do thou thyself give them rest there in the land of the living, in thy kingdom, in the delight of Paradise, in the bosom of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, our holy fathers, from whence pain and sorrow and sighing have fled away, where the light of thy countenance visiteth them and always shineth upon them."

Public prayers were only offered for those who were believed to have died as faithful members of the Church. But Saint Perpetua, who was martyred in 202, believed herself to have been encouraged in a vision to pray for her brother, who had died in his eighth year, almost certainly unbaptized; and a later vision assured her that her prayer was answered and he had been translated from punishment. St. Augustine thought it needful to point out that the narrative was not canonical Scripture, and contended that the child had perhaps been baptized—although Augustine's own speculation was, likewise, "not canonical Scripture".

Eastern Christianity


Among the Eastern Orthodox and Oriental Orthodox, there is no doctrine of Purgatory, and the doctrinal teaching remains as it was in the early church, simply being "prayer for the dead" in hades. Specifically "how" the prayers of the Church help the departed is not elucidated; Orthodox simply believe that tradition teaches "that" prayers should be made for the dead. [Timothy Ware, "The Orthodox Church" (Penguin Books, 1964, ISBN 0-14-020592-6), p. 259.]

Saint Basil the Great († 379) writes in his Third Kneeling Prayer at Pentecost "O Christ our God...(who) on this all-perfect and saving Feast, art graciously pleased to accept propitiatory prayers for those who are imprisoned in hades, promising unto us who are held in bondage great hope of release from the vilenes that doth hinder us and did hinder them ... send down Thy consolation... and establish their souls in the mansions of the Just; and graciously vouchsafe unto them peace and pardon; for not the dead shall praise thee, O Lord, neither shall they who are in Hell make bold to offer unto thee confession. But we who are living will bless thee, and will pray, and offer unto thee propitiatory prayers and sacrifices for their souls." [Isabel F. Hapgood, "Service Book of the Holy Orthodox-Catholic Apostolic Church" (Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese, Englewood, NJ, 1975, 5th edition), p. 255.]

Saint Gregory Dialogus († 604) in his famous "Dialogues" (written in 593) teaches that, "The Holy Sacrifice (Eucharist) of Christ, our saving Victim, brings great benefits to souls even after death, provided their sins (are such as) can be pardoned in the life to come." ["Dialogues" IV, 57.] However, St. Gregory goes on to say, the Church's practice of prayer for the dead must not be an excuse for not living a godly life on earth. "The safer course, naturally, is to do for ourselves during life what we hope others will do for us after death." [Id. IV, 60.] Father Seraphim Rose († 1982) says, "the Church's prayer cannot save anyone who does not wish salvation, or who never offered any struggle (podvig) for it himself during his lifetime." [Fr. Seraphim Rose, "The Soul After Death" (Saint Herman of Alaska Brotherhood, Platina, CA, ISBN 0-938635-14-X), p. 191.]


The various prayers for the departed have as their purpose to pray for the repose of the departed, to comfort the living, and to remind those who remain of their own mortality. For this reason, memorial services have an air of penitence about them. [For instance, the Panikhida does not have the chanting of "God is the Lord..." as the Moleben does; but instead, the "Alleluia" is chanted, reminiscent of the "Alleluia" that is chanted at Lenten services.] The Church's prayers for the dead begin at the moment of death, when the priest leads the "Prayers at the Departure of the Soul ", consisting of a special Canon and prayers for the release of the soul. Then the body is washed, clothed and laid in the coffin, after which the priest begins the "First Panikhida" (prayer service for the departed). After the First Panikhida, the family and friends begin reading the Psalter aloud beside the casket. This reading continues until the funeral begins (usually on the third day after death), being interrupted only by more Panikhidas (at least one per day).

Orthodox Christians offer particularly fervent prayers for the departed on the first 40 days after death. Traditionally, in addition to the service on the day of death, the memorial service is performed at the request of the relatives of an individual departed person on the following occasions:
*Third day after death [In calculating the number of days, the actual day of death is counted as the first day. According to St. Macarius the Great, the reason for these days is as follows: from the third day to the ninth day after death, the departed is soul is shown the mansions of Paradise (the funeral is normally performed on the third day); from the ninth to the fortieth days, the soul is shown the torments of hell; and on the fortieth day, the soul stands before the throne of God to undergo the Particular Judgement and is assigned the place where it will await the Second Coming. For this reason, the fortieth day is considered to be the most important. In some traditions, there is also a commemoration on the six-month anniversary.]
*Ninth day
*Fortieth day
*One-year anniversary of death
*Three-year anniversary (some will request a memorial every year on the anniversary of death)

In addition to Panikhidas for individuals, there are also several days during the year that are set aside as special general commemorations of the dead, when all departed Orthodox Christians will be prayed for together (this is especially to benefit those who have no one on earth to pray for them). The majority of these general commemorations fall on the various "Soul Saturdays" throughout the year (mostly during Great Lent). On these days, in addition to the normal Panikhida, there are special additions to Vespers and Matins, and there will be propers for the departed added to the Divine Liturgy. These days of general memorial are:
*Meatfare Saturday (two Saturdays before Great Lent begins)—in some traditions families and friends will offer Panikhidas for their loved ones during the week, culminating in the general commemoration on Saturday
*The second Saturday of Great Lent
*The third Saturday of Great Lent
*The fourth Saturday of Great Lent
*Radonitsa (the second Tuesday after Pascha (Easter)
*The Saturday before Pentecost—in some traditions families and friends will offer Panikhidas for their loved ones during the week, culminating in the general commemoration on Saturday
*Demetrius Saturday (the Saturday closest to the feast of Saint Demetrius, October 26)

The most important form of prayer for the dead occurs in the Divine Liturgy. Particles are cut from the prosphoron during the Proskomedie at the beginning of the Liturgy. These particles are placed beneath the Lamb (Host) on the diskos, where they remain throughout the Liturgy. After the Communion of the faithful, the deacon brushes these particles into the chalice, saying, "Wash away, O Lord, the sins of all those here commemorated, by Thy Precious Blood, through the prayers of all thy saints." Of this action, Saint Mark of Ephesus says, "We can do nothing better or greater for the dead than to pray for them, offering commemoration for them at the Liturgy. Of this they are always in need... The body feels nothing then: it does not see its close ones who have assembled, does not smell the fragrance of the flowers, does not hear the funeral orations. But the soul senses the prayers offered for it and is grateful to those who make them and is spiritually close to them." [Quoted in Seraphim Rose, "The Soul After Death", p. 192, op. cit.]

Normally, candidates for sainthood, prior to their Glorification (Canonization) as a saint, will be commemorated by serving Panikhidas. Then, on the eve of their Glorification will be served an especially solemn Requiem, known as the "Last Panikhida."

Western Christianity

In the West there is ample evidence of the custom of praying for the dead in the inscriptions of the catacombs, with their constant prayers for the peace and refreshment of the souls of the departed and in the early liturgies, which commonly contain commemorations of the dead; and Tertullian, Cyprian and other early Western Fathers witness to the regular practice of praying for the dead.Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church (Oxford University Press 2005 ISBN 978-0-19-280290-3), article "dead, prayer for the"]

The West felt that it was inappropriate to pray "for" the martyrs, since they were believed to be in no need of such prayers. Theoretically, too, prayer for those in hell would be useless, but since there is no certainty that any particular person is in hell, prayers were and are offered for all the dead, except for those believed to be in heaven. These are prayed to, not for. With the development of the doctrine of purgatory, the dead prayed for were spoken of as being in purgatory, and in view of the certainty that by the process of purification and with the help of the prayers of the faithful they were destined for heaven, they were referred to as the "holy souls".

Limits were placed on public offering of Mass for the unbaptised and notorious sinners, but prayers and even Mass in private could be said for them. The present Code of Canon Law states that, unless the person concerned gave some signs of repentance before death, no form of funeral Mass may be offered for notorious apostates, heretics and schismatics; those who for anti-Christian motives chose that their bodies be cremated; and other manifest sinners to whom a Church funeral could not be granted without public scandal to the faithful. [ [ canons 1184-1185] ]

On the other hand, "provided their own minister is not available, baptised persons belonging to a non-catholic Church or ecclesial community may, in accordance with the prudent judgement of the local Ordinary, be allowed Church funeral rites, unless it is established that they did not wish this." [ [ canon 1183 §3] ]

During the slaughter of the First World War, Pope Benedict XV on 10 August 1915, allowed all priests everywhere to say three Masses on All Souls' Day. The two extra Masses were in no way to benefit the priest himself: one was to be offered for all the faithful departed, the other for the Pope's intentions, which at that time were presumed to be for all the victims of that war. The permission remains.

At first the Protestant Reformers continued the traditional custom of praying for the dead, but before long they came to denounce it, partly because they believed it to be without biblical foundation, partly through their rejection of the doctrine of purgatory and the practices associated with it.

The Church of England 's 1549 Book of the Common Prayer still had prayer for the dead, such as (in the Communion Service): "We commend into thy mercy all other thy servants, which are departed hence from us with the sign of faith and now do rest in the sleep of peace: grant unto them, we beseech thee, thy mercy and everlasting peace." But since 1552 the Book of Common Prayer has no express prayers for the dead, and the practice is denounced in the Homily "On Prayer" (part 3). ["Neither let us dreame any more, that the soules of the dead are any thing at all holpen by our prayers: But as the Scripture teacheth us, let us thinke that the soule of man passing out of the body, goeth straight wayes either to heaven, or else to hell, whereof the one needeth no prayer, and the other is without redemption" ( [ An Homilie or Sermon concerning Prayer] , part 3] Nonjurors included prayers for the dead, a practice that spread within the Church of England in the mid-nineteenth century, and was authorized in 1900 for forces serving in South Africa and since then in other forms of service. But prayer for the dead is still avoided by those of marked Evangelical belief.


ee also

*Saturday of Souls
*All Souls Day

External links

* [ Prayers for the Dead] article in Catholic Encyclopedia
* [ Papal Document Promulgating the Simplification of Indulgences] from the Vatican website, with resulting [ Manual of Indulgence]

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