Prayers for the dead form part of the Jewish services. The prayers offered on behalf of the deceased consist of: Recitation of Psalms; Reciting a thrice daily communal prayer in Aramaic known as "Kaddish" which actually means "Sanctification" (or "[Prayer of] Making Holy") which is a prayer "In Praise of God"; or other special remembrances known as Yizkor; and also a Hazkara said either on the annual commemoration known as the Yahrzeit as well on Jewish holidays.
The form in use in England contains the following passage:
Have mercy upon him; pardon all his transgressions . . . Shelter his soul in the shadow of Thy wings. Make known to him the path of life.El Molai Rachamim is the actual Jewish prayer for the dead although less well known than the Mourner's Kaddish. While the Kaddish does not mention death but rather affirms the steadfast faith of the mourners in God's goodness, El Molai Rachamim is a prayer for the rest of the departed. There are various translations for the original Hebrew which vary significantly. One version reads:
God filled with mercy, dwelling in the heavens' heights, bring proper rest beneath the wings of your Shehinah, amid the ranks of the holy and the pure, illuminating like the brilliance of the skies the souls of our beloved and our blameless who went to their eternal place of rest. May you who are the source of mercy shelter them beneath your wings eternally, and bind their souls among the living, that they may rest in peace. And let us say: AmenA record of Jewish prayer and offering of sacrifice for the dead at the time of the Maccabees is seen being referred to in 2 Maccabees, a book written in Greek:
But under the tunic of each of the dead they found amulets sacred to the idols of Jamnia, which the law forbids the Jews to wear. So it was clear to all that this was why these men had been slain. They all therefore praised the ways of the Lord, the just judge who brings to light the things that are hidden. Turning to supplication, they prayed that the sinful deed might be fully blotted out. The noble Judas warned the soldiers to keep themselves free from sin, for they had seen with their own eyes what had happened because of the sin of those who had fallen. 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 of the dead in view; for if he were not expecting the fallen to rise again, it would have been useless and foolish to pray for them in death. 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 freed from this sin.A passage in the New Testament which may refer to a prayer for the dead is found in 2 Timothy 1:16-18, which reads as follows:
"May the Lord grant mercy to the house of Onesiphorus, for he often refreshed me, and was not ashamed of my chain, but when he was in Rome, he sought me diligently, and found me (the Lord grant to him to find the Lord's mercy on that day); and in how many things he served at Ephesus, you know very well."As with the verses from 2 Maccabees, these verses refer to prayers that will help the deceased "on that day" (perhaps Judgement Day). Onesiphorus, for whom Saint Paul prayed, was dead, based on the way Paul only refers to him in the past tense, and prays for present blessings on his household, but for him only "on that day". And towards the end of the same letter, in 2 Timothy 4:19, Paul sends greetings to "Prisca and Aquila, and the house of Onesiphorus", distinguishing the situation of Onesiphorus from that of the still living Prisca and Aquila.
Prayer for the dead is well documented within early Christianity, both among prominent Church Fathers and the Christian community in general. In Eastern Orthodoxy Christians pray for "such souls as have departed with faith, but without having had time to bring forth fruits worthy of repentance".. While prayer for the dead continues in both these traditions and in those of Oriental Orthodoxy and of the Assyrian Church of the East, many of the newly invented Protestant groups reject the Christian practice.
The tomb of the Christian Abercius of Hieropolis in Phrygia (latter part of the 2nd century) bears the inscription: Let every friend who observes this pray for me, i.e. Abercius, who throughout speaks in the first person.
The inscriptions in the Roman catacombs bear similar witness to the practice, by the occurrence of such phrases as:
- Mayst thou live among the saints (3rd century);
- May God refresh the soul of . . . ;
- Peace be with them.
Among Church writers Tertullian († 230) mentions prayers for the dead, and not as a concession to natural sentiment, but as a duty: The widow who does not pray for her dead husband has as good as divorced him. This passage occurs in one of his later Montanist writings, dating from the beginning of the 3rd century. Subsequent writers similarly make incidental mention of the practice as prevalent, but not as unlawful or even disputed (until Arius challenged it towards the end of the 4th century). The most famous instance is Saint Augustine's prayer for his mother, Monica, at the end of the 9th book of his Confessions, written around 398.
An important element in the Christian liturgies both East and West consisted of the diptychs, or lists of names of living and dead commemorated at the Eucharist. To be inserted in these lists was a confirmation of one's orthodoxy, and out of the practice grew the official canonization of saints; on the other hand, removal of a name was a condemnation.
In the middle of the 3rd century we find St. Cyprian enjoining that there should be no oblation or public prayer made for a deceased layman who had broken the Church's rule by appointing a cleric trustee under his will: "He ought not to be named in the priests prayer who has done his best to detain the clergy from the altar."
The universal occurrence of these diptychs and of definite prayers for the dead in all parts of the Christian Church, East and West, in the 2nd and 3rd centuries shows how primitive such prayers were. We may cite the following from the so-called Liturgy of St James:
Remember, O Lord, the God of Spirits and of all Flesh, those whom we have remembered and those whom we have not remembered, men of the true faith, from righteous Abel unto to-day; do thou thyself give them rest there in the land of the living, in thy kingdom, in the delight of Paradise, in the bosom of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, our holy fathers, from whence pain and sorrow and sighing have fled away, where the light of thy countenance visiteth them and always shineth upon them.Public prayers were only offered for those who were believed to have died as faithful members of the Church. But Saint Perpetua, who was martyred in 202, believed herself to have been encouraged in a vision to pray for her brother and a later vision assured her that her prayer was answered and he had been translated from punishment.
Among the Eastern and Oriental Orthodox, while there is no doctrine of purgatory, prayer for the dead is encouraged in the belief that it is helpful for them. Specifically how the prayers of the faithful help the departed is not elucidated; Eastern Orthodox simply believe that tradition teaches that prayers should be made for the dead.
Saint Basil the Great († 379), a saint of undivided Christianity, writes in his Third Kneeling Prayer at Pentecost O Christ our God...(who) on this all-perfect and saving Feast, art graciously pleased to accept propitiatory prayers for those who are imprisoned in hades, promising unto us who are held in bondage great hope of release from the vilenes that doth hinder us and did hinder them ... send down Thy consolation... and establish their souls in the mansions of the Just; and graciously vouchsafe unto them peace and pardon; for not the dead shall praise thee, O Lord, neither shall they who are in Hell make bold to offer unto thee confession. But we who are living will bless thee, and will pray, and offer unto thee propitiatory prayers and sacrifices for their souls.
Saint Gregory Dialogus († 604) in his famous Dialogues (written in 593) teaches that, "The Holy Sacrifice (Eucharist) of Christ, our saving Victim, brings great benefits to souls even after death, provided their sins (are such as) can be pardoned in the life to come." However, St. Gregory goes on to say, the Church's practice of prayer for the dead must not be an excuse for not living a godly life on earth. "The safer course, naturally, is to do for ourselves during life what we hope others will do for us after death." Father Seraphim Rose († 1982) says, "the Church's prayer cannot save anyone who does not wish salvation, or who never offered any struggle (podvig) for it himself during his lifetime."
The various prayers for the departed have as their purpose to pray for the repose of the departed, to comfort the living, and to remind those who remain of their own mortality. For this reason, memorial services have an air of penitence about them.
The Church's prayers for the dead begin at the moment of death, when the priest leads the Prayers at the Departure of the Soul , consisting of a special Canon and prayers for the release of the soul. Then the body is washed, clothed and laid in the coffin, after which the priest begins the First Panikhida (prayer service for the departed). After the First Panikhida, the family and friends begin reading the Psalter aloud beside the casket. This reading continues until the funeral begins (usually on the third day after death), being interrupted only by more Panikhidas (at least one per day).
Orthodox Christians offer particularly fervent prayers for the departed on the first 40 days after death. Traditionally, in addition to the service on the day of death, the memorial service is performed at the request of the relatives of an individual departed person on the following occasions:
- Third day after death
- Ninth day
- Fortieth day
- First anniversary of death
- Third anniversary (some will request a memorial every year on the anniversary of death)
In addition to Panikhidas for individuals, there are also several days during the year that are set aside as special general commemorations of the dead, when all departed Orthodox Christians will be prayed for together (this is especially to benefit those who have no one on earth to pray for them). The majority of these general commemorations fall on the various "Soul Saturdays" throughout the year (mostly during Great Lent). On these days, in addition to the normal Panikhida, there are special additions to Vespers and Matins, and there will be propers for the departed added to the Divine Liturgy. These days of general memorial are:
- Meatfare Saturday (two Saturdays before Great Lent begins)—in some traditions families and friends will offer Panikhidas for their loved ones during the week, culminating in the general commemoration on Saturday
- The second Saturday of Great Lent
- The third Saturday of Great Lent
- The fourth Saturday of Great Lent
- Radonitsa (the second Tuesday after Pascha (Easter)
- The Saturday before Pentecost—in some traditions families and friends will offer Panikhidas for their loved ones during the week, culminating in the general commemoration on Saturday
- Demetrius Saturday (the Saturday closest to the feast of Saint Demetrius, October 26)
The most important form of prayer for the dead occurs in the Divine Liturgy. Particles are cut from the prosphoron during the Proskomedie at the beginning of the Liturgy. These particles are placed beneath the Lamb (Host) on the diskos, where they remain throughout the Liturgy. After the Communion of the faithful, the deacon brushes these particles into the chalice, saying, "Wash away, O Lord, the sins of all those here commemorated, by Thy Precious Blood, through the prayers of all thy saints." Of this action, Saint Mark of Ephesus says, "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... 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."
Normally, candidates for sainthood, prior to their Glorification (Canonization) as a saint, will be commemorated by serving Panikhidas. Then, on the eve of their Glorification will be served an especially solemn Requiem, known as the "Last Panikhida."
In the West there is ample evidence of the custom of praying for the dead in the inscriptions of the catacombs, with their constant prayers for the peace and refreshment of the souls of the departed and in the early liturgies, which commonly contain commemorations of the dead; and Tertullian, Cyprian and other early Western Fathers witness to the regular practice of praying for the dead.
The sixteenth-century Protestant Reformation continued at first the traditional custom of praying for the dead, but before long, as they began to reject much of traditional Christian Theology, including Books of the Bible, they came to denounce it.
In Islam, there is a prayer called Salat al-Janazah. In Hinduism there are funeral speeches with prayers for the dead. Along reading Buddhist sutras such as Sutra of The Great Vows of Ksitigarbha Bodhisattva, Amitabha Sutra or Diamond Sutra, Ritsu offer refuge, Pure Land Buddhists nianfo and Tibetan Buddhists chant Om mani padme hum repeatedly. Taoists chant Qinghuahao (青華誥) or Jiukujing (救苦經). Zoroastrians chant prayers in funeral ceremonies. In Bahá'í Faith a prayer is required only when the deceased is over the age of fifteen. There are prayers in other religions as well.