Death played a large role in my eventual conversion to Orthodoxy. Raised Evangelical, I had witnessed my own grandparents pass away with no preparation. They languished in their hospital beds, trying to pray as best they could. Their pastor came to visit them in the last few weeks, but all he did was pray for their healing and leave as quickly as possible. There was no confession, no prayer for the separation of the soul from the body, no wisdom on what to expect as their time came. As their final hours approached, our family simply gathered in hospital hallways and waited for the end. No incense, no candles, no prayers, no icons. Nothing to inspire, to comfort, to give hope of the Resurrection. Just hushed grief and a sense of dread at the approach of the unknown.
After they died, the funerals were short and uninspiring. Then, as far as their “church” was concerned, my departed grandparents simply ceased to exist. Evangelicals neither pray for their dead, nor even remember them on a regular basis. The bereaved family might remember the anniversary of the death of a loved one, but they do that alone. Their “faith community” has much better things to do. I remember wanting to pray for the souls of my departed grandparents. I also remember forcing myself not to as it was “wrong” according to the teachings I’d imbibed as a child.
No wonder the fear of death is so prevalent that the spread of a mild virus could cause us to lose our minds.
It is natural to be concerned about the souls of our departed loved ones. It is natural to want to pray for them. This is a universal human reaction. Only by forcing ourselves can we stifle the urge to ask God for the care and salvation of those we love the most. It is human to pray for the departed. It is inhuman not to. Realizing this was not the only motivation for leaving Evangelicalism for the Orthodox Church, but it was surely a strong one.
Even before my conversion to Orthodoxy, I understood clearly that prayers for the dead are important for the living. We feel closer to our departed loved ones when we pray to God for them. The memorials in Church make us feel loved and supported by our community as we endure our grief. Praying for the dead helps us meditate on this life, its meaning, and most importantly, its end. The prayers for the dead, and their prayers for us, emphasize the union of the Faithful across even the chasm of death. God is not the God of the dead, but of the living.
I have been in the Orthodox Church over 25 years. I went through a one-year catechism. It was quite thorough. Since then, I have helped teach catechism classes. I have read widely within Orthodoxy, and been blessed to discuss Orthodox topics with some of our most discerning leaders. Until recently, however, I had never properly understood how important prayers are for the dead themselves. Nor it seems, did I really understand the condition of the soul after death. Prayers for the dead is something we Orthodox do regularly. A Trisagion for the dead is chanted, it seems, every week at the Divine Liturgy. Florida, as we are often told, is God’s waiting room after all. But we don’t really talk or read about the topic of death and the journey of the soul afterwards as much as we should. This neglect can lead to a superficial understanding of the most important event all of us will ever face.
My eyes were fully opened on the subject when a friend forwarded me a collection of writings from Saint John of Shanghai and San Francisco, New Hieromartyr John of Riga, Saint Nicodemus of the Holy Mountain, and Saint Mark of Ephesus called The Dead Are in Great Need of Our Help produced by Orthodox Monastery of the Archangel Michael in Australia. In these writings, I really came face to face with how much our dead relatives, brothers, and sisters are helped by our prayers, particularly during the Divine Liturgy, and why our prayers are helpful to them. Below are some of my favorite quotations from the document:
St. John of Shanghai:
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, and especially during those forty days when the soul of the deceased is proceeding on its path to the eternal habitations. 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.
Therefore, panikhidas (memorial services for the dead) and prayer at home for the dead are beneficial for them, as are good deeds done in their memory, such as alms or contributions to the Church. But especially beneficial for them is commemoration at the Divine Liturgy. There have been many appearances of the dead and other occurrences which confirm how beneficial the commemoration of the dead is. Many who died in repentance, but who were unable to manifest this while they were alive, have been freed from tortures and have obtained repose. In the Church, prayers are continually offered for the repose of the dead, and on the day of the Descent of the Holy Spirit, in the kneeling prayers at vespers, there is even a special petition “for those in hell.” Let us take care for those who have departed into the other world before us, in order to do for them all that we can, remembering that “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy.”
New Hieromartyr John of Riga:
Death does not separate us who are Christians from communion in love with those who are dear to us.
The power and action of prayer for the souls of the departed is even greater than prayer for the living. There is no greater comfort than prayer and no greater joy than joy in the Lord for those who are separated from their bodies. It is unjust, as some think, to assume that the needs of our departed brethren are unknown to us. However, this is not true. The spiritual needs of the dead are the same as the spiritual needs of the living. The dead need the mercy and goodness of the Heavenly Father, forgiveness and remission of sins, grace-filled help from God in the fulfilment of all good desires, and the peace and ease of the heart and conscience. These things are most important both for the living and the dead. Give rest, O Lord, to the souls of Thy departed servants is the continual prayer and best intention of our Mother Church for the souls of Her departed. We should also beseech the Lord with this intention for the departed souls of our own loved ones.
Saint Mark of Ephesus:
The sinners and those imprisoned after death in Hades benefit from these prayers [for the reposed] on the one hand because they have not been definitively condemned and do not yet have the final decision of the tribunal, on the other hand because they have not yet fallen into hell, which will happen after the Second Coming of Christ. If this is effective for sinners, much more do the memorial services and prayers benefit those who have repented but did not have time to be purified completely and therefore illuminated. If these have very small or light sins, they are restored to the inheritance of the righteous or remain where they are, that is to say in Hades, and “their troubles are lightened and they return towards more honourable hopes.”
Here is the full PDF. It is short at only 20 pages and well worth not only reading, but keeping for reference. Our departed loved ones, brothers, and sisters need us! For more articles on death, click here.
Nicholas – member of the Western Rite Vicariate, a part of the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese in America
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