Praying for the dead is one of the fundamental practices of Christianity. While there are some indications of prayer benefiting the dead in the Jewish Scriptures, the full experience of death, judgment, heaven or hell only began to be revealed through the Christian Scriptures and then fully affirmed through Christian tradition. The Book of Sirach reveals some notion of sympathy for the dead: “Do not withhold kindness even from the dead.” (Sirach 7:33) Judas Maccabeus, in the one of the last books of the Old Testament, indicates belief in the conviction that prayer can avail those who have passed: “He then took up a collection among all his soldiers, amounting to two thousand silver drachmas, which he sent to Jerusalem to provide for an expiatory sacrifice. In doing this he acted in a very excellent and noble way, inasmuch as he had the resurrection in mind; for if he were not expecting the fallen to rise again, it would have been superfluous and foolish to pray for the dead. But if he did this with a view to the splendid reward that awaits those who had gone to rest in godliness, it was a holy and pious thought. Thus he made atonement for the dead that they might be absolved from their sin (2 Macc. 12:46).”
In the New Testament, Jesus himself speaks of some sins being forgiven not only in this age but also “in the age to come (Mt.12:31).” Other writings offers broad indications of cleansing after death as in St. Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, “…the person will be saved, but only as through fire (3:15),” and again in the first letter of St. Peter, “now for a little while you may have to suffer through various trials, so that the genuineness of your faith, more precious than gold that is perishable even though tested by fire, may prove to be for praise, glory, and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ (1:6-7).” The Christian catacombs of ancient Rome give ample testimony to the early Christian belief that the faithful can insure the speedy deliverance of souls into heaven. “Ora pro illo…Ora pro illa” (pray for him…pray for her) is found scrawled into the tombs of the deceased. St. John Chrysostom would also write of the Christian belief that the Church’s beloved dead can be assisted by the prayers of the faithful: “…why would we doubt that our offerings for the dead bring them some consolation? Let us not hesitate to help those who have died and to offer our prayers for them.”
The month of November begins with a solemn, joyous remembrance of all the saints gathered around the heavenly throne of God in the next life. Then, with great hope, the Church on the following day remembers those believing souls who have passed on to the next life but await the fullness of redemption in purgatory, a state of “final purification of the elect,” as the Catechism describes this last stage before the beatific vision. Throughout the Christian year, the Church recommends benefitting these souls, above all, by the offering to God of the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass on their behalf as well as by performing charitable works, the applying of indulgences and the taking on of works of penance with their relief in mind.
Previous generations of Catholic believers were much more keenly aware of and alert to the various opportunities to do good for one’s beloved dead. Certainly within the memory of many readers, wakes with attending prayers for the deceased lasted two afternoons (2-4pm) and two evenings (7-9pm). Five decades of the rosary led by the pastor or the curate was the standard regimen. The expected funeral Mass would be followed by a Month’s Mind Mass and then successive anniversary Masses. Prayer cards with indulgenced prayers on the reverse were made generously available. A prayerful visitation and fresh flowers at the grave on certain occasions were expected.
Many of the Catholic faithful are keen to maintain practices which place a respectful emphasis on prayers for the deceased. Others, alas, fail to honor most traditional ways of insuring the eternal happiness of a loved one in the next life. The Mass of Christian Burial at church often yields to a simple Memorial Service at the funeral home. When Mass is offered, the funeral homily after the Scripture readings is often overwhelmed by a celebratory eulogy after Communion offering anecdotal evidence that the deceased was a jolly good fellow. The prospect of heavenly happiness in the future defers to a celebration of earthly life in the past. And lately, the reserving of ashes as a treasured memento rather than the burial (actually the planting) of remains in the hope of an eternal harvest has become quite common.
Honoring the dead became quite morbid in the nineteenth century. Attitude toward the dead is sadly becoming rather dismissive in the present century. Re-examining the roots and benefits of Christian burial rites is sorely needed.