Prayer for the family of the dead

Therefore, we see panikhidas and prayer at home for the dead are beneficial for them, as are good deeds done in their memory, such as alms or contributions to the church. But especially beneficial for them is commemoration at the Divine Liturgy. There have been many appearances of the dead and other occurrences which confirm how beneficial is the commemoration of the dead. Many who died in repentance, but who were unable to manifest this while they were alive, have been freed from tortures and have obtained repose.

How important commemoration at the Liturgy is may be seen in the following occurrence: Before the uncovering of the relics of St. Theodosius of Chernigov (1896), the priest-monk (the renowned Starets Alexis of Goloseyevsky Hermitage, of the Kiev-Caves Lavra, who died in 1916) who was conducting the re-vesting of the relics, becoming weary while sitting by the relics, dozed off and saw before him the Saint, who told him: “I thank you for laboring me. I beg you also, when you will serve the Liturgy, to commemorate my parents”—and be gave their names (Priest Nikita and Maria).** “How can you, O Saint, ask my prayers, when you yourself stand at the heavenly Throne and grant to people God’s mercy?” the priest-monk asked. “Yes, that is true,” replied St. Theodosius, “but the offering at the Liturgy is more powerful than my prayer.”

prayer for the family of the dead

 Therefore, we see panikhidas and prayer at home for the dead are beneficial for them, as are good deeds done in their memory, such as alms or contributions to the church. But especially beneficial for them is commemoration at the Divine Liturgy. There have been many appearances of the dead and other occurrences which confirm how beneficial is the commemoration of the dead. Many who died in repentance, but who were unable to manifest this while they were alive, have been freed from tortures and have obtained repose. In the Church, prayers are ever offered for the repose of the dead, and on the day of the Descent of the Holy Spirit, in the kneeling prayers at vespers, there is even a special petition “for those in hell.”

St. Gregory the Great, in answering in his Dialogues the question, “Is there anything at all that can possibly benefit souls after death?” teaches: “The Holy Sacrifice 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. For this reason the souls of the dead sometimes beg to have Liturgies offered for them … The safer course, naturally, is to do for ourselves during life what we hope others will do for us after death. It is better to make one’s exit a free man than to seek liberty after one is in chains. We should, therefore, despise this world with all our hearts as though its glory were already spent, and offer our sacrifice of tears to God each day as we immolate His sacred Flesh and Blood. This Sacrifice alone has the power of saving the soul from eternal death, for it presents to us mystically the death of the Only-begotten Son” (Dialogues IV: 57, 60, pp. 266, 272-3).

St. Gregory gives several examples of the dead appearing to the living and asking for or thanking them for the celebration of the Liturgy for their repose; once, also, a captive whom his wife believed dead and for whom she had the Liturgy celebrated on certain days, returned from captivity and told her how he had been released from his chains on some days—the very days when the Liturgy had been offered for him. (Dialogues IV: 57, 59, pp. 267, 270).

Protestant theologians find the Church’s prayer for the dead to be somehow incompatible with the necessity of finding salvation first of all in this life: “If you can be saved by the Church after death, then why bother to struggle or find faith in this Life? Let us eat, drink, and be merry…” Of course, no one holding such a philosophy has ever attained salvation by the Church’s prayers, and it is evident that such an argument is quite artificial and even hypocritical. The Church’s prayer cannot save anyone who does not wish salvation, or who never offered any struggle for it himself during his lifetime. In a sense, one might say that the prayer of the Church or of individual Christians for a dead person is but another result of that person’s life: he would not be prayed for unless he had done something during his lifetime to inspire such prayer after his death.

St. Mark of Ephesus also discusses this question of the Church’s prayer for the dead and the improvement it brings in their state, citing the example of the prayer of St. Gregory the Dialogist for the Roman Emperor Trajan—a prayer inspired by a good deed of this pagan Emperor.

**These names had been unknown before this vision. Several years after the canonization, St. Theodosius’ own Book of Commemoration was found in the monastery where he had once been Abbot, which confirmed these names and corroborated the vision. See the Life of Elder Alexis in Pravoslavny Blagovestnik, San Francisco, 1967, No. I (in Russian).

Excerpt from The Soul after Death by Fr. Seraphim Rose

Do you see a mistake in the text? Highlight it and click: Ctrl + Enter

Many pray for the hope of their family and relatives, but what about praying for the dead? Those that have died, now live in the kingdom of Christ. Here is a look at some good prayers for the recently deceased that may help encourage you to find the right words you are searching for.

Prayer #1

God our Father,
Your power brings us to birth,
Your providence guides our lives,
and by Your command we return to dust.

Lord, those who die still live in Your presence,
their lives change but do not end.
I pray in hope for my family,
relatives and friends,
and for all the dead known to You alone.

In company with Christ,
Who died and now lives,
may they rejoice in Your kingdom,
where all our tears are wiped away.
Unite us together again in one family,
to sing Your praise forever and ever.


Prayer #2

In your hands, O Lord,
we humbly entrust our brothers and sisters.
In this life you embraced them with your tender love;
deliver them now from every evil
and bid them eternal rest.

The old order has passed away:
welcome them into paradise,
where there will be no sorrow, no weeping or pain,
but fullness of peace and joy
with your Son and the Holy Spirit
forever and ever.

Prayer #3

Lord Jesus Christ,
by your own three days in the tomb,
you hallowed the graves of all who believe in you
and so made the grave a sign of hope
that promises resurrection
even as it claims our mortal bodies.

Grant that our brother/sister, N., may sleep here in peace
until you awaken him/her to glory,
for you are the resurrection and the life.
Then he/she will see you face to face
and in your light will see light
and know the splendor of God,
for you live and reign forever and ever.

Prayer #4

O God,
by whose mercy the faithful departed find rest,
send your holy Angel to watch over this grave.
Through Christ our Lord.

Prayer #5

Eternal rest grant unto them , O Lord,
and let perpetual light shine upon them .
May the souls of all the faithful departed, through the mercy of God, rest in peace.

Prayer #6

O God, Who hast commanded us to honor our father and mother, look in the tenderness of Thy mercy upon the souls of my father and mother and forgive them their sins, and grant unto me the joy of seeing them again in the glorious light of everlasting life. Through Christ our Lord. Amen.

Prayer #7

O God, who hast commanded us to honor our father and our mother; in Thy mercy have pity on the souls of my father and mother and forgive them their trespasses; and make me see them again in the joy of everlasting brightness. Through Christ our Lord. Amen.

Prayer #8

O God, who by Thine unspeakable providence was please to number Thy servant Pope (Name here) among the Sovereign Pontiffs, grant, we beseech Thee, that he who reigned as the vicar of Thy Son on earth, may be joined in fellowship with Thy holy Pontiffs forevermore. Through the same Christ our Lord. Amen.

Grant, we beseech Thee, O Lord, that the soul of Thy servant Bishop (Name here), which Thou hast taken from the toilsome conflict of this world, may have fellowship among Thy saints. Through Christ our Lord. Amen

O Lord, we pray Thee that the soul of Thy priest, Thy servant (Name here), which, while he abode in this world, Thou didst adorn with sacred gifts, may ever rejoice in a glorious place in heaven. Through Christ our Lord. Amen.

Prayer #9

Death is nothing at all. I have only slipped away into the next room.
I am I, and you are you. Whatever we were to each other that we still are.
Call me by my old familiar name, speak to me in the easy way which you always used.
Put no difference in your tone, wear no forced air of solemnity or sorrow.
Laugh as we always laughed at the little jokes we enjoyed together.

Play, smile, think of me, pray for me.
Let my name be ever the household word that it always was,
let it be spoken without effect, without the trace of shadow on it.
Life means all that it ever meant. It is the same as it ever was; there is unbroken continuity.
Why should I be out of mind because I am out of sight?
I am waiting for you, for an interval, somewhere very near, just around the corner.

All is well.

Prayer #10

O Loving Father and Savior, send your angels to carry the soul of your servant from this earth to the heavenly place of eternal and everlasting life. Let family and friends who have passed before in faith be reunited in joy with the departed. Forgive any wrongs that have been committed and welcome this beloved spirit into the warm embrace of your unending peace. Amen.

Prayer #11

Grant us, Lord Jesus, always to follow the example of Your holy family, that at the hour of our death Your glorious Virgin Mother with blessed Joseph may come to meet us, and so we may deserve to be received by You into Your everlasting dwelling-place.

Prayer #12

Jesus, Mary, Joseph, I offer you my heart and my soul. Jesus, Mary, Joseph, may I breathe forth my soul with you in peace.
From sudden and unlooked for death, O Lord, deliver us

Dr. Charles Stanley discusses the topic of praying for the dead in the following video. Dr. Stanley offers the answer to your questions with the Word of the Lord.

“Does Paul’s prayer for Onesiphorus (2 Timothy 1:18) provide Bible authority for praying for the dead?”

Some have sought to argue this position. Roman Catholic theologians frequently appeal to the text in an attempt to establish their case for praying on behalf of the dead. Regrettably, even some Protestants have yielded to this position, in spite of a total lack of solid evidence for the case, and in spite of evidence which is decidedly against it.

First, the following article, from The Catholic Encyclopedia (online) presents an authoritative position regarding the matter.

“In his Second Epistle to Timothy (i, 16-18; iv, 19) St. Paul speaks of Onesiphorus in a way that seems obviously to imply that the latter was already dead: ‘The Lord give mercy to the house of Onesiphorus’ — as to a family in need of consolation. Then, after mention of loyal services rendered by him to the imprisoned Apostle at Rome, comes the prayer for Onesiphorus himself, ‘The Lord grant unto him to find mercy of the Lord in that day’ (the day of judgment); finally, in the salutation, ‘the household of Onesiphorus’ is mentioned once more, without mention of the man himself. The question is, what had become of him? Was he dead, as one would naturally infer from what St. Paul writes? Or had he for any other cause become separated permanently from his family, so that prayer for them should take account of present needs while prayers for him looked forward to the day of judgment? Or could it be that he was still at Rome when the Apostle wrote, or gone elsewhere for a prolonged absence from home? The first is by far the easiest and most natural hypothesis; and if it be admitted, we have here an instance of prayer by the Apostle for the soul of a deceased benefactor” (

The Text

In 2 Timothy 1, there is a form of prayer on behalf of the family of Onesiphorus (v. 16). Subsequently, in verse 18, the apostle prays for Onesiphorus himself. He petitions the Lord that this brother might “find mercy” in “that day,” which obviously is the day of Judgment.

Because the verbs regarding the brother are all in the past tense, and since only his family is alluded to later in 4:19, some have assumed that Onesiphorus was dead (White, p. 159; Fee, p. 237; Kelly, p. 171). The latter argues that this reflects a New Testament example of prayer on behalf of the dead. N.J.D. White also contended that the apocryphal 2 Maccabees (12:44-45) would allow an orthodox Jew to pray for the dead (p. 159). Fee is more cautious.

In response, this must be noted.

  1. There is no concrete evidence at all that Onesiphorus was dead. The arguments for his demise are all based upon inferences, none of which are “necessary.”
  2. That his actions are spoken of in the past tense is perfectly understandable since he was no longer in Rome (17a).
  3. The fact that Paul did not mention him in 4:19, in sending greetings to those in Ephesus, is not troubling — if Onesiphorus himself was somewhere other than in Ephesus.
  4. The fact that Paul prayed for this brother is proof within itself that he was not dead, since there is not a shred of evidence in the New Testament that prayers for the dead are acceptable. Lenski is emphatic that the “analogy of Scripture” is against the idea of any Christian praying for the dead (p. 776). If the brother was dead, why did the apostle offer no word of comfort to the family? (Note: While some deny that this was a “prayer” (Mounce, p. 494), most scholars affirm that it is, and even Mounce later calls it a “wish prayer” (p. 496).
  5. The writers of the New Testament did not consider the apocryphal books as inspired and authoritative. Though they had access to them (since they were “bound up” with the Greek Old Testament), they never quoted from them; this is powerful evidence that they did not view them as in the same class with the Old Testament documents.
  6. If Onesiphorus, as a godly man, was dead, there would be no need to petition God for mercy on his behalf; he would have been a recipient of that mercy already.
  7. If the brother died as an apostate (of which there is no evidence), Paul’s prayer for “mercy” would be worthless inasmuch as mercy will be bestowed on the basis of one’s personal relationship with the Lord, not on that of another’s actions (Ezekiel 18:20; 2 Corinthians 5:10). Moreover, the wicked dead cannot leave their place of torment (Luke 16:26), and their punishment is “eternal” in duration (Matthew 25:46).

Accordingly, these texts in Paul’s second epistle to Timothy do not come remotely close to providing the coveted evidence for the validity of prayers for the dead.


  • Fee, Gordon. 1988. New International Biblical Commentary — 1 and 2 Timothy, Titus_. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson.
  • Kelly, J. N. D. 1987. A Commentary on the Pastoral Epistles — Timothy I & II, and Titus_. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson.
  • Lenski, R. C. H. 1961. Paul’s Epistles to the Colossians, Thessalonians, to Timothy, Titus, and Philemon_. Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg.
  • Mounce, William. 2000. Word Biblical Commentary — Pastoral Epistles. Nashville, TN: Word.
  • White, N. J. D. 1956. “The First and Second Epistles to Timothy and to Titus,” The Expositor’s Greek Testament. Vol. 4. W. Robertson Nicoll, ed. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans.

Scripture References

2 Timothy 1:18; 1 Timothy 1; Ezekiel 18:20; 2 Corinthians 5:10; Luke 16:26; Matthew 25:46

Cite this article

Jackson, Wayne. “Did Paul Pray for the Dead?” Access date: August 12, 2018.
prayer for the family of the dead

From Wikimedia Commons

Ccontinuing on some of the thoughts I mentioned in my Tuesday post on the occasion of six months since my mother’s passing, I wanted to explore some of these issues further in a more general way, meditating on a few related questions.

I’ve actually gotten a couple of private notes from folks concerned that, from what they read, I was “repressing” my emotions regarding my mother’s passing. I actually alluded to this question in my post, i.e., that some (no doubt from their own experience) have this sense that, when a parent or someone you love dies, you are “supposed to” break down emotionally (“it’s okay to cry,” etc.). Some people do that, of course, and I don’t see anything wrong with it, so long as it doesn’t become destructive. But not everyone mourns that way. And they don’t have to.

Part of what’s going on is probably explainable just in terms of different personalities, and of course with me, as I mentioned, I have a lot of experience with death in a professional capacity. Most people “don’t know what to do”—one hears that phrase a lot in the middle of the experience—but like most clergy, I am literally trained to “know what to do.” I’m nothing special in this regard. This is normal. Just like I need to know how to serve at the altar, I need to know how to process mourning.

That said, I think more is probably explainable—and here I am not only talking about myself—in terms of a key concept in Family Systems Theory (something I have been working to learn about over the past year or so): differentiation of self. I won’t go into the details (though I suggest you read the link, if you’re interested), but the important thing here is to know that some families and individuals do not have a high level of emotional dependency on one another. This doesn’t mean that they’re independent or indifferent. It doesn’t mean they don’t love each other. Rather, it means that their sense of self is not inextricably bound up in another person.

In my own family (including extended family), it’s been interesting to watch the different kinds of mourning for my mother. Some people are devastated. Some people are going through the loss with a lot of stability. And there’s a lot in between. Usually, the most devastated ones are the ones whose emotional selves were much more intertwined with my mother’s. There are a lot of reasons that could be the case, and I won’t go into them, mainly to respect their privacy. But some of those reasons are completely understandable and don’t mean that something is “wrong” with anyone. So it’s normal that, if your sense of who you are has a lot of “hooks” built into another person, when that person is lost (or, alternatively, if he rejects you, behaves badly, etc.), then that is much more upsetting to your own emotional stability.

(As an aside, I’ve seen this concept of high and low differentiation of self work out even in the world of blogging, which you might think would be highly differentiated by nature. It’s not, though. A few bloggers I sometimes read have followings that respond in a highly emotional way—they are always telling the bloggers how wonderful they are as persons. And if someone criticizes the bloggers’ writing, the response to that criticism from the following is to tell the critic that they don’t understand the bloggers as persons. Criticism of ideas is perceived as an attack on the person. The systems have emerged with low self-differentiation (perhaps those writers attract that sort of person), so responses are in terms of defining the other person rather than self-definition. An example of a blogging environment with higher self-differentiation is one focused on issues where commenters rarely say anything about each other as persons, whether positively or negatively. Okay, back to the subject at hand.)

The good news is that the loss of equilibrium can be an occasion for healing. And one of the beautiful things about rites of passage—not just death, but also marriages, births, baptisms, moving out, etc.—is that sometimes family emotional processes that have been locked into place can unlock, and the system can adapt to become more healing. People who have been out of touch can reconnect, for instance. Or sometimes people see each other in a new light. I’ve seen that happening in some ways in my family. I’ve watched it happen as a clergyman, too, since I often get inserted into those rites of passage for families.

If I had to generally analyze my family, I’d say that my father’s side tends to be more self-differentiated while my mother’s is somewhat less so. Neither is “right” or “wrong,” exactly, though more differentiated selves do tend to be more stable in the long run. The danger in the more differentiated families is that people can lose touch more easily over distance, while the danger in the less differentiated ones is that shocks to the system are harder to absorb. We’re all messed up human beings, though, and we all need healing in various ways. And most of us are able to differentiate better from some people than from others. You might feel very differently if your father dies than if your mother does, for instance.

I recently had a conversation with a catechumen who is himself a therapist, and he puts stock in the Family Systems approach, which sees people not as isolated “patients” but rather as part of emotional communities. (The language of emotional “repression” comes from the more dominant form of therapy, which is post-Freudian and based on the idea of individualized pathology rather than community function.) He commented to me that one of the reasons he’s becoming Orthodox is that he finds that so much of what he’s experienced in helping other people through recovery is evidenced in the Orthodox tradition.

Great Lent, for instance, if done in the traditional way, contributes to differentiation of self in that it requires a person to go within and find God present there in a deeper way. Doing so stabilizes him and makes him less susceptible to other’s emotional influence, especially negative influence. Probably the ultimate example of how this works out is in the martyrs, who were usually extremely calm in the face of persecution and death.

So on this particular issue of self-differentiation and mourning the dead, the Orthodox tradition says that we can go ahead and pray for the departed. So how does that work out?

If as a Christian you don’t believe in prayer for the departed, especially if you emphasize that the departed cannot see us, etc., then for most purposes a dead person really is dead to you. They’re just gone. You have memories, but you have to wait until reunion in the afterlife to have any access to them.

But if you believe that the bond of prayer does not cease upon exit from the earthly life, then that means that there is still space to work out the relationship in prayer alongside that person. No, it’s not the same as praying with them while they were bodily present, but it’s still there. Rituals of prayer associated with rites of passage (most of which are about separation in one way or another) are generally designed to help with this, though we don’t usually think of them that way.

So there is not just a cutting-off of relationship, which doesn’t actually help in self-differentiation but rather can even lock down the fusion of selves. (A guy who gets dumped by a girl might, for instance, become deeply obsessed with her even while she ignores him completely.) Rather, in prayer for the departed, the relationship’s activity and life are retained, but now they are almost entirely within the context of prayer, which brings the action of grace and healing into play and can settle out the relationship in a peaceful way.

C. S. Lewis once mentioned prayer for the departed in precisely these terms:

Of course I pray for the dead. The action is so spontaneous, so all but inevitable, that only the most compulsive theological case against it would deter me. And I hardly know how the rest of my prayers would survive if those for the dead were forbidden. At our age, the majority of those we love best are dead. What sort of intercourse with God could I have if what I love best were unmentionable to him?

(From Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer)

I have sometimes been asked by people who had lost someone through death or distance or a relationship cut-off of some kind what they should do. “I don’t know what to do” is a common refrain. If they are more churchly-minded, they may follow it up with “All I can do is pray, I guess.” I usually say to them, “What you can do is pray. It may be the only thing you can do, but it’s not all you can do, like it’s the leftovers when you have no other option. It is the best and most critical thing you can do.”

And it is. So we do.

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