Prayers in death

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.”

prayers in death

 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

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“Why do they put fences around cemeteries?” a 91-year-old priest asked my children with a twinkle in his eyes. Knowing his penchant for cracking jokes, the children waited for the punch line.

“Because everybody’s dying to get in!” he laughed, and the children giggled along with him.

This saintly priest—a dear family friend—makes no secret that he himself is (at least somewhat) close to “finishing the race,” as St. Paul says. He takes death seriously, of course, when it actually happens; but he lives in the joy of the Risen Christ, and he knows that death is not an end, but a new beginning.

I must remember this hope in November, when death is on my mind. It’s on my mind because November is the month when the Church remembers the dearly departed and asks the faithful to pray for their souls in a special way. It’s also on my mind because my life separated in two during the first week of a long-ago November. That was when I left behind the first part of my life—the life where I had a living father on earth—and began the second part—the life without my dad.

It’s been 19 years since my dad died, and you would think that would be enough time to get over it. But, as anyone knows who has lost a loved one, you don’t get over it. You live a different life without that person, and that life becomes the new normal—but you never stop missing the person. In some ways, time makes the separation harder, because every year is one year farther away from the time when you last saw your loved one. And every year is one more year that dims and fades the memories you wanted to press so firmly into the pages of your heart.

The fall my dad died, I was freshly out of college and had moved all the way across the country, from the east coast to California. When my dad dropped me off at the airport that August, he had to step away from the gate. I saw him shielding his eyes, and I knew that my father, whom I had never seen shed a tear, was crying. I didn’t know that it was the last time I would ever see him on this earth. But maybe he sensed, somehow, that it was the last time he would ever see me.

Three months later, while I went to work as a classroom teacher and spent a warm, sunny California day with my fourth-grade students, my father went in the November cold to his office in Washington, D.C., had a massive heart attack, and died. He had just turned 59.

It’s been 19 years, but when the phone rings, I still flinch in fear that the person on the other end will tell me that someone I love died suddenly.  It’s been 19 years, but when I put on John Michael Talbot, I feel like I’m a child again and my dad is listening to his music in the living room. It’s been 19 years, but I still can’t help wishing my children had the chance to know their grandfather.

This is the nature of death: It is not an end. If it were an end, these loose ends would have been tied up and finished. But my father’s life goes on in his absence. And I can’t help but believe that this endless mourning is a sign that God has given us to remind us of a promise that life does not have to end in death. There is life in death.

I feel this promise in the air when I visit one of the loveliest places in our city, where I often go to think and pray in peace: a cemetery. Built in the 1800’s, this cemetery is full of life. This is a strange way to describe a cemetery, I know; yet it’s true. It is full of visitors who quietly stroll its winding paths, of workers who mow and trim its grass, of deer silently watching from the woods.

It is also full of headstones bearing the names of people who lived. People who once walked winding roads, breathed deep breaths of crisp fall air, got married and had babies and went to war and hosted Sunday family dinners and lost loved ones. Some of the headstones honor lives that ended at 85; some at 30; some at 2. Whether they lived one day or twenty thousand days, they all lived this life—and so even the plots of the cemetery are full of life.

Each headstone marks a life, and it marks a death. But since death is not an end, each headstone heralds a beginning, too. Just as my life split in two when my father died, his life split in two, also. His earthly life had ended, but the life of his soul in the hope of eternity stretched out before him.

On this side of the cemetery—the earthly side—I see visible paths twisting, leading people around the grounds. On the other side of the cemetery—the heavenly side—each headstone marks a new path, a hidden path. We cannot see it with our eyes, but each person who lived has taken that path. Where does it lead?

We hope and pray that for every person, the path leads into the arms of the Risen Christ. And in the month of November, the Church, in the mercy of God, gives us a special gift to help souls reach the end of that salvific path. I never fully learned about this devotion in years past, but I hope to make up for it this year:  From November 1-8, Catholics in a state of grace who visit a cemetery and pray there for the dead can receive a plenary indulgence for the souls in Purgatory. (The conditions for the indulgence are: to pray for souls of the deceased, to receive Communion on each day you seek an indulgence, to go to Confession within 20 days, and to pray at least one Our Father and Hail Mary for the Pope.)

The other day, I visited the cemetery after reading Timothy Lusch’s helpful article about the Jesus Prayer. It occurred to me then that the Jesus Prayer can also be a way of praying for the souls in the cemetery. So I began: Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on the souls in this cemetery. At times, I noticed the names on different graves and put those specific names into the Jesus Prayer: Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on (person’s or family’s name).

It felt like an inspiration from the Holy Spirit, and I was grateful to have received a new way (in addition to the Eternal Rest prayer and other beautiful traditions of the Church) to pray for the souls in Purgatory, especially for the souls of my loved ones and those buried in this cemetery. The Jesus Prayer is the perfect length to repeat over and over while walking the cemetery’s loops.

I wish I could say I always remember to pray for the souls in the cemetery, but I don’t. Too often, I get so caught up in the beauty that surrounds me there that I forget I should be praying for the dead. And I don’t always fulfill my calling to pray fervently for my deceased loved ones, either. At times, I have a tendency (as I have written about before) to expect and want so much for people to be in heaven that I forget how much I should be praying for them to get there. The Church’s liturgical year grants a beautiful reminder to me, in this first week of November, that our prayers for the souls who have died can assist them in finding eternal joy.

Praying for souls also reminds me that there is life in death. The name of that life is Jesus.

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

The traditional attitude of Judaism was not to encourage excessive grave visitation. The rabbis were apprehensive that frequent visiting to the cemetery might become a pattern of living thus preventing the bereaved from placing their dead in proper perspective. They wanted to prevent making the grave a sort of totem, at which the mourner would pray to the dead rather than to God, and thereby be violating one of the cardinal principles of Judaism: that God is One and that there are no intermediaries between a man and his God.

Proper Times for Visiting

Various customs have arisen regarding the proper times for visiting the graves of dear ones:

  1. Propitious times to visit the grave are on days of calamity or of decisive moments in life: on the concluding day of shiva and sheloshim, and on yahrzeit; on fast days, such as Tisha B’Av, or before the High Holy Days; on erev Rosh Chodesh, the day prior to the first days of the months of Nissan and Elul. One or another of these days seems proper for families to visit their beloved dead. There is no rule of thumb as to the annual frequency of such visitation, excepting that people should avoid the extremes of constant visitation on the one hand, and of complete disregard on the other.

  2. Visitation should not be made on chol ha’moed–the middle days of Passover and Succot—nor on Purim, as these are holy days of joy.

  3. There is dispute regarding the propriety of visiting at certain other times, such as Rosh Chodesh, Hanukkah and erev Purim, Lag B’omer, the days in Nissan which precede Passover, and other days on which tachanun is not recited. Consequently, these days should be avoided for visitation and unveiling if at all possible. If for some reason, whether it is because members of the family must leave town, or will be visiting from out-of-town at certain other times, or because a mate wishes to be remarried following the unveiling and insists upon waiting until that time, or some other cogent reason (and not mere arbitrariness), the visitation may be held at those times. If held on these days the rabbi will avoid provoking unnecessary tears and, therefore, will not recite the malei memorial prayer. He should temper his eulogy so as not to bewail, but rather to praise the dead. These days are days of national joy and the spirit of total tragedy should not prevail. However, the psalms and Kaddish may be recited.

Personal Prayers and Devotions

  1. If one has not visited a cemetery in 30 days he should recite the following blessing addressed to the deceased:

    Baruch ata adonai Elo-kenu melech ha-olam asher yatzar etchem badin, v’dan v’chilkail etchem badin, v’hemit etchem badin, v’yode-ah mispar koolchem badin, v’atid l’ha-chazir ul-ha-chayot etchem badin. Baruch ate adonai-m’chayeh hemetim.

    “Praised be the Eternal, our God, the Ruler of the Universe who created you in judgment, who maintained and sustained you in judgment, and brought death upon you in judgment; who knows the deeds of everyone of you in judgment, and who will hereafter restore you to life in judgment. Praised be the Eternal who will restore life to the dead.”

  2. It is entirely proper for learned Jews to study the mishnah for several minutes at graveside.

  3. Several chapters from the Book of Psalms are usually recited. Also Psalm 119, whose verses are grouped according to the alphabet, may be read, selecting those portions which begin with the letters of the name of the deceased. These Psalms may be recited as close to the grave as desired. Some people customarily place their hand on the tombstone during the recitation.

  4. Much care must be taken to direct one’s personal prayers at graveside to God. To pray to the deceased, or to speak directly to him in the form of prayer, borders on blasphemy.1

Memorial Prayer

The Kel Maleh Rachamim, is a memorial prayer of undetermined origin that has been taken to heart by all Jews. Its ubiquitous appeal and profound emotional effect has caused it to be chanted at funerals and unveilings, at every visitation to the cemetery, and in the synagogue on Sabbaths before yahrzeits, and at yizkor services. This prayer may be recited in English without any loss of religious significance.


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