God of Spirits and All Flesh: The Grace of Prayer for the Dead
In a culture that likes to pretend death does not exist, there are some vocations which don’t have the luxury of ignoring the most unavoidable aspect of human existence. People who work in law enforcement, medicine, ministry, and mortuary services experience death as a regular, if not constant, companion. Of those four, it is the minister and the mortician who are most often called only after a person has died. We show up when the family, doctors, and nurses have run out of things to do.
Anyone who has witnessed a loved one dying can probably relate to the feeling of helplessness that comes from having nothing left to do. For those who die after a long illness, the kind that took every ounce of energy to attend to, the shock of having nothing to do can be disorienting. For those whose loved ones die suddenly, the fact that there is nothing to do to reverse the shock and horror of the unexpected death can be crippling.
And, for many, these feelings persist long after the deceased is buried. I remember the feeling the day after my grandmother’s funeral, when the out-of-town family had gone home. There were no more errands to run, programs to design, friends to notify, flowers to order, or food to cook. What was I supposed to do? How was I supposed to go back to life as usual with her missing?
I once attended a non-religious memorial service at a funeral home. During the service, the family and any guests were invited to offer remembrances. The testimonies were sweet, heartfelt, and a great testament to the life of the woman who had passed. What struck me, however, was that most speakers ended their talk by looking away from the congregation, up to the ceiling and saying, “I love you, Mom” or “I miss you, Grandma.” The assumption was that their loved one was somewhere else, that she was “up there” as opposed to “down here.”
People want something to hold on to. They want to know that the person they love is still somewhere somehow connected to their lives and to the life they shared together. This, of course, is not a Biblical notion, as New Testament scholars are quick to point out. Scripture never offers an immediate, personal and eternal heaven. Christians who have died in the peace of Christ wait for the return of the Lord and their bodilyresurrection on the Last Day. Where they wait is not clear.
But however Biblically correct it may be, it is still a very bad idea to tell the weeping woman in your office who says “I know Mom is in heaven, but I miss her” that the New Testament gives no guarantee whatsoever that her mother is in heaven, that we don’t know “where” she is or what is happening to her, and that the Bible is actually vague on the whole afterlife thing. But at the same time, I am not sure it is healthy to offer meaningless feel-good platitudes. Saying “She is in a better place” is unhelpful when the place we want our loved ones to be is here.
Thankfully, our tradition offers a way to respond with both pastoral sensitivity, Biblical integrity, and to give people something to do in the days and hours after their loved one dies. Instead of looking up to the ceiling, hoping that the dead can hear us wherever they are (which is almost certainly not the ceiling), we can talk to the God who does hear us on behalf of those who can’t.
Praying for the dead is, admittedly, not explicitly in the Bible, and throughout history the practice has been abused (in the sale of Indulgences and charging for votive Masses, for example). But this is not enough reason to throw the baby out with the bathwater. All Christians can, or at least should, affirm that there is nowhere a person can “go” where God is not. If God is who we say He is—if He truly is Lord of all heaven and earth, and of all things visible and invisible—then there is no reality that is not held in the care of God. And, if the Resurrection teaches us anything, it is that Death is nothing in the light of God’s grace.
Why, then, should we believe that the dead are not still held in the love and care of God? That wherever they are, they are still in the presence of Christ? And if this is the case, why should we not pray for them? It is possible, of course, that they don’t “need” anything. But since when has the primary purpose of prayer been to fulfill material needs?
Given how vague Scripture is about what happens after we die, it is at least possible that our beloved friends and family could continue to grow into the full stature of Christ, knowing that they can never be separated from His love. And if that is the case—if death does not have the final word on who we will become in Christ—then those who have died still need our prayers, the same way those who are seeking to grow in Christ in this life need our prayers. To pray for the dead is to hope that grace extends beyond death.
But whether or not there is benefit for the one we pray for, there is certainly a grace given to the one who offers the prayer. When we pray for those who have died, we are engaging, for a moment, in an act of selfless, agape, love. The dead can’t do anything for us. There is no hope of exchange or quid pro quo. It is a gift of love for a person who we can no longer love with words or actions.
It is also a statement of trust. The fate of those who have died is, quite literally, out of our hands. We turn them over to God, but we do not forget them. They are still held in the Body of Christ, and so we do what we do for any member of the Body, for we are a people of prayer.
O LORD, the God of spirits and all flesh, who didst put death under thy feet, didst destroy the power of the devil, and gravest thy life for the world: grant rest, O Lord, to all the Faithful Departed: bring them, we pray thee, to that promised place of light and refreshment, whence pain and sorrow and sighing are driven away; and in thy goodness and mercy pardon every sin committed them in thought, word, and deed; who livest and reignest, world without end. Amen.