Praying for the Dead in the Orthodox Church: Place Their
Souls Where the Righteous Repose
by: Anton C. Vrame
Particularly in larger parishes, there
seems to be a memorial service almost every Sunday. Family and friends come to church, and the entire congregation
prays for and remembers a fellow parishioner who has departed this life. Everyone receives a small offering of
boiled wheat. The congregation
sings the hymn “Memory Eternal.”
Death and what happens after death is
a great mystery, beyond human knowledge.
Throughout history, all people of all religions and even some with no
religion have wrestled with the question and have offered answers and theories
about what happens to the souls of the departed.
In the Orthodox Tradition, there is
one doctrinal statement of the Church about death and what happens
afterward. It is found in the
Nicene Creed: “I expect the
resurrection of the dead and the life of the age to come.”
Orthodox Christians express this hope
in the resurrection of the dead based on what God already has done in the past
and what He promises to do in the future, as revealed in Scripture and
explained through the teachings of the Church. We believe that a person’s existence does not end with death;
it is transformed. We believe that
Christ will come again to judge the living and the dead.
Our belief in the communion of the
saints points to the reality that those who have died are still members of the
Church and with us. Praying for
the departed keeps them alive in our memories. Doing so we remember (that is to say, reconnect with)
them. Their names, their deeds,
and their lives may serve as models of Christian living. In the Church and the kingdom of God
that is to come, no one is forgotten or nameless.
In our prayer for the departed, we ask
God to forgive them of any sins they have committed in their lives so that they
may enter life with God. As the
prayer states, “No one has lived and has not sinned.” In our life in Christ, we are always preparing fom the
eventual reality of our deaths.
To understand the Church’s teachings
on the matter, we can turn to the hymns and prayers of the Funeral and Memorial
Services (the Memorial Service is excerpted from the Funeral Service) and use
the principle that we pray what we believe (lex orandi lex credendi).
The Funeral Service is an Orthros
(Matins) service, the centerpiece of which is Psalm 118 (110). In the Funeral, the reality of death is
presented quite starkly. For
example, one hymn states, “I looked carefully at the tombs and I saw the bones
which were stripped of their flesh.”
They are also coupled with the message that death was never God’s intent
for humanity, and that death has been vanquished by the resurrection of Christ: “For You are the Resurrection and the
Life…” Throughout the service, the
hymns and prayers call on God to forgive all of the offenses of the departed
and grant him or her a place among the saints: “Give rest, O God, to Your servant, and grant him (her) a
place in Paradise.”
Beyond what we find in these sources, what
happens to the souls of the departed is among the many theologoumena of the
Church. A theologoumenon is an
open theological question to which there are no official answers or doctrinal
Over the centuries, Orthodox thinkers
have offered their opinions on the topic of what happens to the souls of the
departed, providing comfort to the faithful and help the living cope with the
loss of a loved one.
The most widely accepted teaching is
that the souls of the departed receive a “foretaste” of their eternal reward,
in a “prejudgment” until the second coming of Christ, when all the living and
dead will receive their final judgment.
There is no possibility for the person after death to correct his or her
errors in life. The prayers of the
living, asking for God’s loving mercy on the departed, become important because
these prayers may improve the fate of the departed. No one can buy salvation, neither while alive nor through
the donations of those who survive them.
The Orthodox Church does not accept
the Roman Catholic teachings about purgatory and indulgences. Purgatory is the place where the dead
are purified, neither heaven nor hell, where sins are purged, hence the name,
until the person reaches the level necessary to enter heaven. Indulgences are given by the Roman
Church to the living and on behalf of the departed to lessen the punishment for
sins committed while alive and to aid in the deceased’s purification while in
A second and quite controversial
explanation offered by some Orthodox writers is the “aerial toll-house” theory,
where the souls of the departed pass through twenty “checkpoints” after death
to be judged by the angels on specific issues, such as theft or lying. At each stop, the departed may repent
for their sins and wipe away any offenses. In a poor pastoral application of this theory, living family
members may be pressured to offer memorial prayers and make offerings to the
Church to ensure the soul passes through.
This teaching has been criticized widely for its possible pagan or
Gnostic origins and its resemblance to Purgatory and indulgences.
Basis for Prayer for the Dead
The Bible teaches us the belief in the
resurrection of the dead. Passages
in Scripture teach about hope based not in fanciful thinking – i.e., wishing –
but in the reality of the resurrection of Jesus, who destroyed the power of
In the Old Testament, we find Judas
Maccabeus offering prayers for the dead (2 Maccabees 12:39-45) following a
battle in the Jewish war for independence from Roman rule (ca. 175 BC) During this war, the Temple was
rededicated, an event that is remembered in the Feast of Hanukkah.
In the New Testament, the resurrection
of the dead is a point of contention among Jews, separating the Pharisees and
Sadducees. In the Gospels, we read
that a group of Sadducees, “who say there is no resurrection” (Matthew 22:23,
Mark 12:18, Luke 20:27), question Jesus about the matter. He refutes them and predicts His own
death and resurrection three times in the Gospels. Among His miracles, Jesus demonstrates having power over
death, raising the widow of Nain’s son (Luke 7:11-17), the daughter of Jairus
(Mark 5:21-43, Luke 8:40-55) and Lazarus (John 11:1-44) after four days in the
tomb. At the death of Christ on the
cross, the Gospels report that “the tombs opened and many bodies of the
saints…were raised” (Matthew 27:52-53).
Finally, we have Jesus’s own resurrection on the third day after his
death, the ultimate triumph.
The faith in resurrection of the dead
continues in the letters of Saint Paul, who writes, “But we would not have you
ignorant, brethren, concerning those who are asleep, that you might not grieve
as others do who have no hope. For
since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God
will bring with him those who have fallen asleep (1 Thessalonians
4:13-14). This passage opens the
Epistle reading in the Orthodox Funeral Service.
the Dead in the Early Church
The early Church, during the many
times of persecutions, remembered and honored the martyrs. In writings from this period, we find
that catechumens, i.e., those who had not yet been baptized, would be given a
Christian burial if they died after their enrollment as a catechumen. In this period, we see the Christians
beginning to honor the memory of the martyred saints and their relics. The Martyrdom of Polycarp, written in
the second century AD, describes the emerging practices of the first
Christians. They celebrate the
liturgy at the tombs or over the bones of the saints – which is why we enclose
them in our altar tables today, and why saints’ feast days are celebrated on
the anniversary of their death.
And so we afterward took up his
(Polycarp’s) bones, which are more valuable than precious stones and finer than
refined gold, and laid them in a suitable place; where the Lord will permit us
to gather ourselves together, as we are able, in gladness and joy, and to
celebrate the birth day of his martyrdom for the commemoration of those that
have already fought in the contest, and for the training and preparation of
those that shall do so hereafter.
How do the
Orthodox Pray for the Dead?
Orthodox Christians offer memorial
services following the death of a loved one. The practice has changed over the years, and there is no
fixed rule for when memorial services should occur. Generally, people schedule memorial services on the fortieth
day after someone has died, on the first anniversary of the death, and then
perhaps occasionally afterward.
Throughout the centuries, different Orthodox writers recommend
additional dates, including the first, third, ninth and twentieth days, and at
the end of three and six months.
However memorial services can be offered at any time, as often as the
family of the departed wish.
The faithful can ask the priest to
read the names of the departed in the Service of Proskomide before any Divine
Liturgy. Many clergy will maintain
long lists or even small books going back many years containing the names of
parishioners that they commemorate in the Proskomide. There are the “Saturday of Souls” (Psychosabbato), before
Great Lent and before Pentecost, where a memorial service is celebrated. Family members sometimes submit lists
of dozens of names for commemoration, no matter when they departed this
life. In this memorial service, it
is not unusual for the priest to read names of the departed for twenty minutes
The Memorial Service repeats many
hymns and prayers from the Funeral Service. In the series of hymns called the Evlogetaria (“Blessed are
you, O Lord”), we ask God, once again, to place the departed with the saints
and to restore the beauty of being created in the image and likeness of God by
wiping away the sins of the departed.
The Evlogetaria remind God and us of Christ’s descending into the place
of the dead and freeing humanity from the chains of death.
To accompany the memorial service,
Orthodox Christians prepare kolyva (boiled wheat), which is usually sweetened
with various ingredients such as pomegranate seeds, raisins, nuts and
sugar. Kolyva is a symbol of the
hope in the resurrection of the dead.
St. Paul writes:
But someone will ask, “How are the
dead raised? With what kind of
body do they come? You foolish
man! What you sow does not come to
life unless it dies. And what you
sow is not the body which is to be, but a bare kernel, perhaps of wheat or of
some other grain. But God gives it
a body as he has chosen, and to each kind of seed its own body. (1 Corinthians 15:35-38)
In addition, a family might offer the
prosphoro and wine for the Divine Liturgy. In many parishes today, families will sponsor or host the
coffee hour after the Divine Liturgy.
C. Vrame, PhD, is the Director of Religious Education of the Greek Orthodox
Archdiocese of America.