NB: Prayer for the Dead. Why do we do it?


A short explanation of “Saturday of the Dead”


Around the time of Great Lent, we have some Saturdays which are set aside for the commemoration of the dead. We call these days “Saturday of the dead”, or “All Souls Saturday”, and we just celebrated the first one appointed during this time of year, on the Saturday before the Sunday of the Last Judgment (the penultimate Sunday before Great Lent begins).


The full list of “Saturdays of the dead” for the year is::

·  The second Saturday before Great Lent (before the Sunday of the Last Judgment)

·  The third Saturday of Great Lent

·  The fourth Saturday of Great Lent

·  The Saturday before Pentecost

·  Demetrius Saturday (Saturday before Saint Demetrius of Thessaloniki – 26 October)


The proper way to celebrate these days is to serve Vespers the evening before and on Saturday morning, celebrate “requiem matins”, which is a special form of matins in which the dead are commemorated by name two times (if memory serves) and all of Psalm 118 is chanted in two parts. Some people call this a long “panakhida” (parastas in Greek) which is the typical prayer service for the dead which Orthodox Christians are familiar with.


Of course, following matins, the Divine Liturgy is celebrated, and the dead are again all commemorated by name. It is important that an Orthodox Christian submit the names of Orthodox loved ones who have reposed. We have the custom of accepting names by email or other means, and are not prejudiced against the dead because their loved ones are not at the service to pray for them as well, but it is much better to pray in person for one’s loved ones. The priest prays for the people and with the people, but (as much as possible), not instead of the people!


It is a shame that the requiem matins is almost unknown among modern Orthodox. Just check the online calendars for most churches. This service is almost never mentioned. With God helping us, we have preserved this tradition. Like Philip, I must say “Come and see” to those who do not know of this service. It is good to make an effort to pray for the dead, and to hear compunctionate hymns, and think of our own death. Somehow a quickie “Trisagion Service” just does not cut it on these days.


Why do we pray for the dead?  


Many people who call themselves Christians are offended when they hear that we pray for the dead. This begs the question: Why do we pray for the dead?


The answer is really easy. We pray for the dead for three reasons that I can think of off the top of my head.


Most importantly, we believe in the resurrection. God is the God of the Living, and not of the dead, our Lord told us, and we believe this truth. If this is true, then the dead have not ceased to exist, because “all are alive to God.” Praying for the dead, as much as asking the dead (those whom we believe to be righteous) to intercede for us shows that we really do believe in the resurrection.


We also know that “all men have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God”, and there is “not one man who liveth and sinneth not”, and we (at least as a church, if not individually) are profoundly humble. How can we know the judgments of God? They are a vast abyss. We do not presume to declare that one is blessed and another is damned. God knows, and only rarely reveals to us this with certainty.


We also pray because we love. Love remembers. We continue to remember our loved ones even though they are no longer with us who have living flesh.


Why do we pray for the dead? Because, knowing the weakness of flesh and mans predilection to sin, we hope in the resurrection, leaving all judgment to God, and because we love, we remember.


Here is another reason: We pray because we love, and also prayer teaches us to love. It takes effort and time to pray for those from whom we hear no answer. Let’s face it – we rarely think of death, and mostly think of ourselves. By making an effort to pray, We not only remember our loved ones; God also remembers us and softens our hearts and teaches us to love. Remember an important principle in the Christian life: What we do affects who we are and vice-versa!  


The next Saturday for the dead that we will remember (we cannot do all of them yet) is March 6 (ns), the third Saturday of Lent. Will you remember your loved ones on that day?


More about the Commemoration of the Dead



“NB” is shorthand for “nota bene” ,which is Latin for “Note well”. These shorter posts are meant to be “noted well” more often because they are briefer than the usual blog posts. I have “noted well”  that many of my flock does do not read the longer posts. I have a lot of stuff to tell you, so there will still be longer posts, but I also plan to post shorter “snippets” which will have “NB:” in the title.

Priest Seraphim Holland 2010.     St Nicholas Russian Orthodox Church, McKinney, Texas


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10 Responses to “NB: Prayer for the Dead. Why do we do it?”

  1. Deborah says:

    Father, Bless,

    Most of the Protestant believers that I know feel very much the reality of life after death and the hope of the Resurrection–many feel very strongly a continuing connection with their loved ones who have died. Some even pray to their deceased loved ones (although they might not call it prayer) and believe that their loved ones watch over them. However, unless they have doubts about the salvation of their loved one, the idea of their believing friend or family member still needing prayer would be a frightening, if not offensive one. In most Protestant evangelical theology, a believer who has professed faith in Christ has the assurance of his salvation and upon death is in the presence of the Lord in Heaven. The idea that there would be any remaining needs or troubles that required us to pray for them would thus go against their beliefs and would be very upsetting since death is seen as an end to their suffering.

    I have given comfort to some Protestant friends with the idea that we do not know the final judgments of God when it comes to their loved ones that they believe are eternally lost. In those circumstances, presenting the idea that we should continue to pray for them can bring great comfort to those in grief.

    ‘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 vileness 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'” –St. Basil the Great (from the Third Kneeling Prayer at Pentecost)

  2. Steven Clark says:

    Father bless:

    my short answer to the question: “Why do you pray for the dead? I mean, they’re DEAD” is…
    We do not find that dying is a proper reason to excommunicate people from the Church. Although they have died they are still the Body of Christ, and as such deserve our prayers and our love.

  3. Deborah, I always (since becoming Orthodox and really thinking hard about prayer for the first time) have found this perspective odd. In fact, most evangelical prayers that I’ve heard even for living people have been exclusively for “earthly cares” such as health and success, etc., probably for precisely this reason: the more weighty, eternal matters that occupy so much of our attention in prayer are, to them, already taken care of.

    Like pretty much every difference between Orthodox and protestant practice, this comes down to how we understand salvation. We agree that we are saved by faith, but what is faith? Yes, if we have faith in Christ we will be saved. That is our assurance. But is faith merely an affirmation of belief, or is it a complete change of heart, so that we place all of our trust and hope in the Lord. This sort of faith is the sort that cannot help but manifest itself in our life, in works of mercy and piety. Ceasing to fear “what man can do to me,” and freed from the tyranny of death, we are free to obey the Lord’s commandments at all times and in all ways. This is the Orthodox understanding of faith – at least as I understand it. And none of us can be assured that we have this faith. It is a gift of God, but one that requires constant nurturing on our part. And so we pray for salvation both for ourselves and for one another, on both sides of the grave.

  4. Deborah says:

    Fr. Dn. Nicholas,

    Thank you very much for this excellent explanation. It is so simple and yet, to our human minds, so complex, at the same time. And it is a challenge to accept and live with complex realities. Uncertainty and the idea that our struggle towards God could continue with great effort, with the need of continuing intercession, even after death, is not one that everyone is ready, willing and able to accept. From what I have read, it was, in part, Martin Luther’s anguish over the uncertainty of his salvation that moved him in a direction that led, ultimately, to the Protestant Reformation.

  5. Prayers for the dead, if continued for quite a long time, produce sometimes a very unexpected effect. Example: Since I entered the church, I collected the names of our reposed relatives. Of some of them I knew before. One of them, the “main character” is my grandfather’s mother – Evdokiya. She was a wonderful Orthodox Christian, lived in a village in very tight conditions, gave birth & brought up 5 sons (my grandfather Ioann – the eldest). She always went to the church, observed all fasts, prayed, and was a very hospitable & generous woman. But she dies in early 60s, before my birth, and was buried in a cemetry quite far from the town where I live now. I always wanted to know the date of her death, but nobody knew it exactly. Then, after praying for her & my other reposed relatives for about 10 years, the following happened: my uncle offered to give us a drive to the town where our family lived many years ago, and drive also to that cemetery, which was from that small town in a distance of approximately 1-2 hours drive, to which my mother & I gladly agreed (as except from Evdokiya some other relatives were buried there). So we set off. In the end of our trip, during which we walked about that small town, visited the memorial places for our family there, the house where they lived, the church (St Nicholas!), the place where my grandfather & grandmother worked that time, and proceeded for the cemetery. It is very old, and it took us much time to find the dear graves. The grave of Evdokiya was covered with leaves & half of it (where the note with the dates were) was hidden a bit because was covered with a big green branch of the big tree nearby. I came up there first, lifted the branch and saw the name & the dates…The date when she reposed was 26th of June. We were there approximately at 5 PM or a little bit later…So our merciful Father brought us there right before the day when she reposed in the Lord, and allowed me to commemorate her memory at that very day!
    Thus I not only found out what I longed to know many years, but also came there right in time. No need to explain what I felt…and how grateful to Christ I was! I also understood in my heart that day that the reposed ones pray for us as well…The event I described took place in June, 2005.
    Glory be to God!

  6. Our trip was on 25th of June, we came to the cemetery early afternoon.

  7. Deborah says:

    Beautiful story, Natasha. Thank you.

  8. I would like to craft another RTT post from these comments (probably two), with the commenter’s permission. Please send to me at – seraphim@orthodox.net

    The closer one comes to being holy (the Christian aim – we do not aim to be forgiven, we are called to perfection), the more one is aware of ones’ lack of holiness, and paradoxically, the more boldness one has before God.

    Humility cannot be manufactured; it is not a skill that one can practice. True, perfect humility is a gift from God, but it is only given after a long time of ascetical effort. Of course, the asceticism I am talking of is not prostrations and fasting, but the wrestling with the passions in the arena of life. Whatever is done in this life or death struggle – fasting, vigils, alms, prostrations, feeding the poor, clothing the naked – must come out of the burning desire of the heart to be with God.

    Since the more holy we become, the more humble we are, and the more we understand that God’s judgments are indeed a vast abyss, we therefore make no judgments about ourselves or anyone else.

    The church has this profound perfect humility, because she is an unspotted garment. It is for this reason that the church prays with humility for the living and the dead. The only way to understand this prayer is to become humble.

    I have said before that I have met individuals who are “Protestant” that are humble, but their religion is proud. There is so much that those who love the bible but do not understand the church which lives according to the bible (and wrote it) do no know, and cannot know.

    Inherent in the Orthodox faith, which knows all things that God has revealed, is the humility to know that there are many things we do not know. So, we can pray for the dead, and the living, and not require from God the full understanding as to how our prayers affect either one.

  9. Deborah says:

    I just received word of the death of a very dear friend of mine. So this post has become very timely. I am gathering myself together to pray for her and her family. She was not Orthodox but she was a very bright light in the world, loving and loved by many.

    In my search for prayers for the deceased, Orthodox, non-Orthodox and unbelievers, I ran across this story:

    “There was an occasion during the life of the Optina Elder Leonid (Lev in the Great Schema), who died in 1841. The father of one of his disciples, Paul Tambovtsev, had died an unhappy and violent death by suicide. The loving son was deeply grieved by this and poured out his sorrow before the elder thus: “The hapless end of my father is a heavy cross for me. I am now upon a cross whose pain will accompany me to the grave. While imagining the terrible eternity of sinners, where there is no more repentance, I am tortured by the image of the eternal torments that await my father who died without repentance. Tell me, father, how I can console myself in this present grief?” The elder answered, “Entrust both yourself and your father’s fate to the will of the Lord, which is all-wise, all powerful. Do not tempt the miracles of the All-high, but strive through humility to strengthen yourself within the bounds of tempered sorrow. Pray to the All-good Creator, thus fulfilling the duty of the love and obligation of a son.” Question: “But how is one to pray for such persons?” Answer: “In the spirit of the virtuous and wise, thus: ‘Seek out, O Lord, the perishing soul of my father: if it is possible, have mercy! Unfathomable are Thy judgements. Do not account my prayer as sin. But may Thy holy will be done!’ Pray simply, without inquiring, entrusting your heart to the right hand of the All-high. Of course, so grievous a death for your father was not the will of God, but now it rests completely in the will of Him Who is able to hurl both soul and body into the fiery furnace, of Him Who both humbles and lifts up, puts to death and brings to life, takes down to Hell and leads up therefrom. And He is so compassionate, almighty and filled with love that before His highest goodness the good qualities of all those born on earth are nothing. You say, ‘I love my father, therefore I grieve inconsolably.’ That is right. But God loved and loves him incomparably more than you. And so, it remains for you to entrust the eternal lot of your father to the goodness and compassion of God, and if it is His good will to show mercy, who can oppose Him?””

  10. Deborah, I have not heard this story from the life of Elder Leonid. Thank you so much.

    “Entrust both yourself and your father’s fate to the will of the Lord”. This is what I miss so much, and of what I humbly ask you to pray for me…

    Those who managed to do this – are the happiest people in the world. And this is what a real belief is.

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