Death is one of the great realities of life to which the church must respond with the Word of God. The prayer for the dead celebrates the life and death of a person and helps the ordinary Christian cope with bereavement.
In spite of the pharisaic custom in Judaism of praying for the departed, the early church, expecting the imminent return of Christ, understandably gave little energy to such prayer. Only as more and more believers “fell asleep” did the church begin the slow process of articulating a theology of death as well as the relationship of the living to the dead. From the walls of the catacombs we know that early prayers confidently celebrated the journey of the dead through the gates of death.
By 160 to 220, the time of Tertullian, Christians prayed for the refreshment of the departed souls on the anniversary of their death. From the fourth century we have the writings of Augustine, who prayed for his deceased mother, eagerly reminding God of her sinless life since her baptism. Prayers for the dead came to include petitions for forgiveness, thus forming the seedbed of belief in purgatory. By the fourth century, it was common to pronounce regular prayers for the dead. Especially in the case of martyrs, churches maintained lists of the dead for the purpose of prayer.
Today the prayer for the dead continues to root itself in the anguish of bereavement. Prayers for the dead usually take place in a worship service, either at a general memorial occasion such as All Saints’ Day or at a funeral or memorial service. This service of prayer offers a celebration of the promise of resurrection; thanksgiving for the person that affirms, without false glorification, the life that has been lived; ministry to the grieving family, friends, and community; and transition for the church to express farewell and adjust to the changes of life without the deceased.
By Patricia D. Brown. From p. 226 of The Upper Room Dictionary of Christian Spiritual Formation. Copyright © 2003 by Upper Room Books.