WHY DO ORTHODOX CHRISTIANS PRAY FOR THE DEAD?
Icon: The Burial of Christ
PRAYING for the dead is self-evident to us Orthodox Christians. Even Monophysites, Nestorians, Roman Catholics and Uniates have retained this practice from their Orthodox Christian past. Yet many of our Protestant neighbors question or reject such prayer, mistakenly thinking it is not biblical. For this reason, we must understand why we pray for the dead and be able to explain this practice to others. “Always be ready to give an answer to everyone who asks you the reason for the hope that is in you, but do it with gentleness and awe.”1
“Pray for one another,” the Bible tells members of the Church.2 And so we pray for her members, dead or alive, for death does not end our membership in the Church, “the Body of Christ.”3 As Orthodox Christians, “whether we live or die, we belong to the Lord,”4 for we are “members of His body, of His flesh and of His bones.”5 The Church is “the heavenly Jerusalem, the city of the living God” that includes “tens of thousands of angels” and “the spirits of righteous people made perfect” as well as us alive on earth.6 So we pray for “the dead in Christ”7 out of love for our late brothers and sisters, “convinced that neither death nor life … will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord,”8 because God “is not the God of the dead, but of the living — for all are alive to Him.”9
*The wheat kernels allude to Christ’s words about death and resurrection: “Unless a kernel of wheat falls into the ground and dies, it remains a single seed but....”
These words from the Bible point out that we remain alive to God and part of His Church even if we are dead to the world. Death is the parting of our souls and bodies, not the end of our existence or the obliteration of our personhood. The Bible bears witness that our souls live on after death, both conscious10 and active11 after our earthly lives, lying in wait for “the resurrection of the dead”12 when Christ returns to “judge the living and the dead.”13 For this reason, the Church speaks biblically of the dead as those who have “fallen asleep,”14 for they are destined to awake and rise on Judgment Day. So with an eye toward “the resurrection of the dead and the life of the age to come,”15 we ask God, “who gives life to the dead,”16 to keep them in His eternal memory and grant them mercy, peaceful rest, forgiveness of their sins and a good answer for themselves before the awesome judgment seat of Christ.
By praying for the dead, we follow the example set by people of God in the Bible. The Old Testament, telling of how Judas Maccabaeus offered prayers and sacrifices for his fallen soldiers with the future resurrection of the dead in mind, says: “It is therefore a good and wholesome thought to pray for the dead, so they may be set loose from their sins.”17 In the New Testament, Saint Paul the Apostle, reminiscing about his late friend Onesiphorus, prayed: “May the Lord grant that he find mercy from the Lord” on Judgment Day.18 And so we do likewise.
“If we have hope in Christ only in this life, we are the most pitiful of all people.”19 This is decidedly not the case, from an Orthodox Christian perspective: we have hope in Him beyond this earthly life as well. The God-Man Jesus Christ, our Savior, is “the Lord of both the dead and the living”20 who said of Himself: “I am the One who lives, and became dead, and behold, I am alive for ages and ages … And I hold the keys of death and death’s underworld.”21 And so we Orthodox Christians turn to Him in prayer for both the living and the dead, as the Church has always done, sure that it is right and good to do so in line with the Bible’s testimony about life, death, resurrection and the boundless, timeless love of God.
Postscript: Memorial Wheat
At memorial services for the dead, we Orthodox Christians bless and share a special dish, “memorial wheat” (called grure among Albanians, ameh among Arabs, kollyva among Greeks, colivă among Romanians, and kolyvo, kutya or zhito among Slavs). This custom is inspired by the Gospel’s perspectives on death, burial and resurrection. Though recipes vary by location and family, its three basic ingredients are boiled whole wheat kernels, dried fruit and some sort of sweetener, such as sugar or honey.
* The wheat kernels allude to Christ’s words about death and resurrection: “Unless a kernel of wheat fall into the ground and dies, it remains a single seed; but if it dies, it brings forth much fruit.”22 Saint Paul the Apostle echoes these words: “What you sow does not come to life unless it dies. And what you sow is not the body that is to be, but a bare kernel, perhaps of wheat or something else. But God gives it a body as He wills … So it will be with the resurrection of the dead: sown in perishability, raised in imperishability; sown in dishonor, raised in glory; sown in weakness, raised in power; sown as a natural body, raised as a spiritual body.”23
The fruit betokens the risen Christ, the “first fruits” of the dead, whose resurrection heralds our own: “Christ has risen from the dead as the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep. As death came through a man, the resurrection of the dead also comes through a Man. Just as all die in Adam, so all will be made alive in Christ, but each in his own order: Christ the first fruits, then those who belong to Christ, at His re-turn.”24
The sweetener reminds us of the sweetness of the afterlife that awaits those who follow Christ “the Wisdom of God”25 in this life — for “wisdom is sweet to your soul; if you find it, there is future hope for you, and your hope will not be cut off.”26
When those attending the memorial service eat their serving of memorial wheat, they offer a brief prayer for the dead being remembered: “May God forgive them.”
The custom of memorial wheat is one of many examples of how the Orthodox Christian worship of the Church appeals to all five senses of the human being to make us aware of God’s truth, grace and life in our lives.
1 1 Peter3:15.
2 James 5:16.
3 1 Corinthians 12:27, Ephesians 5:23, Colossians 1:18.
4 Romans 14:8.
5 Ephesians 5:30.
6 Hebrews 12:22-24.
7 1 Thessalonians 4:16.
8 Romans 8:38-39.
9 Luke 20:38.
10 Luke 16:19-31.
11 Revelation 6:9-10.
12 1 Corinthians 15:20-23 and 15:35-44.
13 2 Timothy 4:1.
14 1 Corinthians 15:18, 1 Thessalonians 4:13-16. (In the same vein, our English word cemetery comes from the Greek word koimeterion, “a place for sleeping,” from the root word koimisis, “sleep.”)
15 Articles 11 and 12 of the Creed.
16 Romans 4:17.
17 2 Maccabees 12:39-46. (Most Protestant editions of the Bible omit this book or class it as “apocrypha,” but it remains in Orthodox Christian and Roman Catholic editions, which are more ancient and predate Protestantism, relying on the Septuagint version of the Old Testament cited by the apostles of Jesus Christ in their writings.)
18 2 Timothy1:16-18.
19 1 Corinthians 15:19.
20 Romans 4:19.
21 Revelation 1:18-19.
22 John 12:24.
23 1 Corinthians 15:36-44.
24 1 Corinthians 15:20-24.
25 1 Corinthians 1:24.
26 Proverbs 24:14.
What you sow does not come to life unless it dies. And what you sow is not the body that is to be, but a bare kernel, perhaps of wheat or something else. But God gives it a body as He wills … So it will be with the resurrection of the dead: sown in perishability, raised in imperishability; sown in dishonor, raised in glory; sown in weakness, raised in power; sown as a natural body, raised as a spiritual body.” 1 Corinthians 15:36-44.