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 pronouncements.
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 purgatory.
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.
The Biblical 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 death.
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.
Remembering 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 or more!
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.
Anton C. Vrame, PhD, is the Director of Religious Education of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America.
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