Today we remember the tenth anniversary of the funeral service for my grandfather. I wrote about him previously in my account of our family’s journey to Orthodox Christianity. Since the practice of praying for our loved ones after they die is not common in America, I thought I would attempt to briefly explain our approach to the dead.
When our loved ones do die, it is incumbent on us to continue our petitionary prayers. As Bishop Kallistos says, “we pray for the dead because we love them.” “Death,” he says, “is a separation that is no separation. The living and the dead are still part of a single family.” Another perspective is that they are dead to us, but alive in Christ. They are not with us, but they are still in existence. Prayer is the means by which we can continue in our relationship with our loved ones who no longer live a life in this physical realm. A priest, Makary Glukharev, wrote a beautiful letter about our relationships with our departed loved ones to a bereaving spiritual child:
In Christ we live and move and have our being. Whether alive or dead, we are all in Him. It would be more true to say: We are all alive in Him, for in Him there is no death. Our God is not a God of the dead but of the living. He is your God, He is the God of her who has died. There is only one God, and in that one God you are both united. Only you cannot see each other for the time being. But this means that your future meeting will be all the more joyful; and then no one will take your joy from you. Yet even now you live together; all that has happened is that she has gone into another room and closed the door…Spiritual love is not conscious of visible separation.
One attending a Trisagion service—a short service when we pray for our dead— might be in wonder at the presence of the Kaliva, or the wheat that is sweetened and decorated. It is placed on the table along with the candles while the priest sings the memorial hymns. Afterward, those present share and eat of the dish. Jesus taught that the wheat must die and be planted into the ground in order to produce life. This imagery is used in the scripture—see I Cor. 15:35-58, and also John 12:24: “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. “
The wheat is sweetened, which symbolizes the sweetness in the life to come—the life in the Resurrection. In days past, this was considered a great treat. Some of this meaning is lost in our day of abundance and gluttony, along with ready availability of sweetened dishes and treats.
The words themselves serve many meanings. A couple of words from Fr. Pulcini help us to understand their significance. The oft used expression, Memory eternal—may he have their name written in the eternal book of life. May their name be inscribed in the eternal book of life and always remembered before the presence of The Lord. May their memory be preserved, so that their name may be remembered during our prayers. Some people have a book listing those for whom we pray. These loved ones are often remembered during the services for this purpose: during the service on Soul Saturday. The prayers that we offer for these people are in the spirit of the eternal, warm, healing and unmitigated love of Christ. None of these things is magic; it is all about love. God is love. This better enables the soul to be prepared for the last days. They are not legalistic payoffs. People who refuse prayers to those who have died are denying that we are all united in the Resurrection.
We don’t know exactly where these souls are. We refer to that time before the resurrection as Paradise. We are taught that this is a time of waiting. It is not likely that our time of repose will be felt as particularly lengthy, however, because we exit the physical elements and enter into a dimension of timelessness. Fr. Pulcini describes it as a sort of restful time of individual contemplation, when the conscience of a man recounts his life and relationship with God, during which, he will begin foretasting of his future glory or suffering. This is a restful state of contemplation—a type of repose. “I slept, but my heart was awake” (Song of Solomon 5:2).
During the Orthodox service for the departed, we pray the following:
With the souls of the righteous dead give rest, O Saviour, to the soul of thy servant, preserving it unto the life of blessedness which is with thee, O thou who lovest mankind.
In the place of they rest, O Lord, where all they Saints repose, give rest also to the soul of thy servant; for thou only lovest mankind.”
O Thou who with wisdom profound orderest all things in Thy love for mankind, who bestowest on all, O only Creator, that which is best for each: give rest, O Lord, to the souls of Thy servants, for they have set their hope in Thee, our Maker and Creator and our God.
With the saints give rest, O Lord, to the souls of Thy servants, where there is no pain, no sorrow, no sighing, but life without end.
May Christ give you rest in the land of the living, and open for you the gates of paradise; may He receive you as a citizen of the Kingdom, and grant you forgiveness of your sins: for you were His friend.
We ask for rest in their place of repose; we confirm that the life of blessedness is in the presence of the Lord, which is where all the Saints repose. The job of those remaining on earth is to continue praying for them. Some traditions have taken issue with this practice and ask what benefit can be bestowed on one who has died and whose fate must already be decided. In terms of why we pray, the answer is told to us by Bishop Kallistos, “Because we love them.” And, if to be absent in body is to be present in the Lord, then we know that they too must be praying. And if they are praying, we hope that they too are praying for us. If they have run the race and ‘endured until the end,’ then they must be in the presence of God. “The prayer of a righteous man has great power in its effects.” (James 5:16) This is how we continue our “solidarity in mutual love.” “To refuse to pray for the dead is so cold a thought…so contrary to love that it must, needs, on that ground alone, be false” (Bp. Kallistos Ware).
Liturgically, we pray for them immediately through the Trisagion Prayers. Then, of course, we pray for them during their funeral service. We also pray for them during certain festal cycles throughout the year. It is not a ‘nice bonus’, but an integral part of our life in prayer. This only refers to the Liturgical prayer cycle. We as Christian persons must remember our loved ones who have passed before us in our personal prayers. One of the most beautiful services reflecting this practice is the Saturday of the Dead during Great Lent. It is a wonderful expression of our Christian love when we meet to pray for those who have died. After the main services previously mentioned, the dead are not remember regularly in liturgical prayer. This service is meant to remember those persons: “…remembering today by name all the dead from all the ages who have lived in piety and faith, let us sing praises to the Lord and Savior, asking Him fervently to give them in the hour of judgment a good defense before our God who judges all the earth.”
We continue our relationship with our loved ones who have died through prayer and through celebration of the Eucharist in the Divine Liturgy. For the newly departed, public prayers are offered with regularity for the first forty days. We continue to pray for them regularly, of course, in our personal prayers. While prayer does not alleviate the pain of losing the ones we love, it does allow us to stay close to them in a special way. We continue our journey toward a more full union with God and the dead begin their own journey. As T.S. Elliot says, “the end is where we start from.” The hour of our death is a new birth. “And I heard a voice from heaven saying, “Write this: Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord henceforth.” “Blessed indeed,” says the Spirit, “that they may rest from their labors, for their deeds follow them!”” (Rev 14:13 )
Grandpa, may your memory be eternal!