Praying for the Dead

Today was All Souls’ Day, which in the Western tradition has been the day of commemoration for all the departed. Although the great triduum of Allhallowtide has almost entirely collapsed with only the remnant of Halloween surviving, a very complicated adaptation of this continues in the Latin American holiday(s) of Día de los Muertos.

I was able to pray the prayers for the dead today thanks to my colleague returning my breviary to me at a rather opportune timing, and afterwards I was reminded of a conversation I had with a dear friend of mine three years ago, during the year I was in Korea. One day, after we attended a funeral, I was flabbergasted to learn that he was categorically opposed to praying for the dead. Funerals, he thought, served the function of catharsis of the living. The dead are dead and gone, and praying for those who are now either in heaven or in hell is useless and merely a sentimental superstition. Though I was aware superficially that many Protestants have aversion to praying for the dead, this was the first time I ever encountered such an opinion being said with such affirmation. There wasn’t much of a debate, as both of us simply took for granted until that moment that Christians did or did not pray for the dead, and the fact that the other person thought differently on this was a source of great puzzlement for both of us.

This problem of how to comport ourselves in relation to the departed goes far beyond the confines of internal, sectarian Christian squabbles. In North America especially, we live in a culture that is so deathly afraid of actually facing death in all its horrors and sorrows. The modern Christian infantalizing of death through syrupy banalities is mirrored closely by the secular morphing of the mourning for the dead with “celebrations of life”–indeed, they are often identical both in form and content. Even with the dead in front of us we are increasingly incapable of actually facing death in the face, as if by papering over the grievousness of death we will outrun both the finality of their departure and our own impending end. We will all return to the dust.

It is too much to go into the theology of prayer and praying for the dead here, and I can only say that in the depths of my guts and in the corners of my heart, I confess that praying for the dead is a deeply human thing to do. It is, I believe, one of the purest acts of love that can be performed by us mortals, an act of love given for those who we have committed to the earth and will never see again in this life, an act of love given by us as mortals in a way that can only be done by mortals; a remembrance of our beloved and of our own real and urgent mortality in perpetuity. There is a beauty to praying for the dead because it is good, and it is good because it speaks to something true about our mortal relation to the eternal. For even if you are not inclined to prayer in any way, for even if you do not believe in the eternity of the soul and of the promise of the life everlasting, we know in each other, because we are all mortal humans, that our love for our beloved does not end with their death. But, if you will pardon my interjection, neither does our love for our beloved end with our deaths.

“Rest eternal grant unto them, O Lord. And let light perpetual shine upon them.

May they rest in peace. Amen.”

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