The Church’s Prayer for the Dead

CemeteryThe Holy Orthodox Catholic Church, like a concerned mother, daily, at every divine service, offers up prayers for all her children who have departed for the land of eternity. Thus, at the midnight service and compline, troparia and prayers for the departed are read, and they are commemorated at its concluding ektenia. At matins and vespers the departed are remembered by name at the Augmented Ektenia, “Have mercy on us, O God …”  They are commemorated three times during the Liturgy: at the Proskomedia, at the ektenia following the Gospel, and after the consecration of the Precious Gifts when “It is truly right . . .” is sung.  Furthermore, Saturday is set aside each week for prayers for the dead, on which it is customary to have a service for the dead, unless it coincides with a feast, if such is to be served on that day.

The Third Day After Death

We commemorate the dead on the third day firstly, because those who have departed had been baptized in the Name of the Creator, Redeemer and Sanctifier, the One God in three Persons, and had kept the Orthodox Catholic Faith they received at holy baptism; secondly, because they preserved the three virtues which form the foundation of our salvation, namely: faith, hope and love; thirdly, because human nature consists of three internal powers—reason, emotion and desire—by which we all have transgressed.  And since a person’s actions manifest themselves in three ways—by deed, word, and thought—by our commemoration on the third day we entreat the Holy Trinity to forgive the departed all transgressions committed by the three above-mentioned powers and actions. When St. Macarius of Alexandria besought the angel who accompanied him in the desert to explain the meaning of the Church’s commemoration on the third day, the angel replied: “When an offering is made in church on the third day, the soul of the departed receives from its guardian angel relief from the sorrow it feels as a result of the separation from the body. This it receives because glorification and offering is made in the Church of God which gives rise in it to blessed hope, for in the course of the two days the soul is permitted to roam the earth, wherever it wills, in the company of the angels that are with it. Therefore, the soul, loving the body, sometimes wanders about the house in which the body had been laid out, and thus spends two days like a bird seeking its nest. But the virtuous soul goes about those places in which it was wont to do good deeds. On the third day, Christ, Who Himself rose from the dead on the third day, commands the Christian soul in imitation of His resurrection to ascend to the Heavens to worship the God of all.”

The Ninth Day After Death

On the ninth day, the Holy Church offers prayers and the Holy Divine Liturgy for the departed, that one’s soul be accounted worthy to be numbered among the choirs of the saints through the prayers and intercession of the nine ranks of angels. St. Macarius of Alexandria, in accordance with the angel’s revelation, says that after worshipping God on the third day, it is commanded to show the soul the various pleasant habitations of the saints and the beauty of Paradise. The soul considers all of this for six days, lost in wonder and glorifying the Creator of all. Contemplating all of this, it is transformed and forgets the sorrow it felt in the body. But if it is guilty of sins, at the sight of the delights of the saints it begins to grieve and reproach itself, saying: “Woe is me! How much I busied myself in vanity in that world! Enamored of the gratification of lust, I spent the greater portion of my life in carelessness and did not serve God as I should, that I too might be accounted worthy of this grace and glory. Woe is me! Poor me!” After considering all the joys of the righteous in the course of six days, it again is borne aloft by the angels to worship God.

The Fortieth Day After Death [1]

From earliest antiquity the Holy Church has correctly and devoutly made it a rule to commemorate the departed in the course of forty days, and on the fortieth day in particular. As Christ was victorious over the devil, having spent forty days in fasting and prayer, so the Holy Church likewise, offering for the departed prayers, acts of charity and the Holy Divine Liturgy throughout the forty days, asks the Lord’s grace for the deceased to conquer the enemy, the dark prince of the air, and that the sould receive the Heavenly Kingdom as an inheritance. St. Macarius of Alexandria, discussing the state of a person’s soul after the death of the body, says: “After the second adoration, the Master of all commands that the soul be led to hell and that it be shown the places of torment there, the various parts of hell, and the diverse tortures of the wicked, in which the souls of sinners ceaselessly wail and gnash their teeth. The soul is borne about these various places of torment for thirty days, trembling lest it itself be imprisoned therein. On the fortieth day it is once again borne aloft to adore the Lord God, and it is at this time that the Judge determines the place of confinement proper to it in accordance with its deeds. This is a great day for the deceased, for it determines its portion until the Final Judgment of God, and therefore, the Holy Church correctly commands that fervent prayer be made for the dead on this day.”

Special commemoration has been established by the Orthodox Catholic Church on the fortieth day after death, and also on the yearly anniversaries of the death. Grain (i.e., koliva or kutiya) [3] is brought by the relatives for the commemoration, presenting an image of the Resurrection itself. In general, the custom of observing days for the commemoration of the dead has been continuously observed in the Orthodox Church from the beginning of its establishment until our own times, being handed down from generation to generation, from century to century. The Divine Liturgy has always been celebrated in memory of the dead, the great propitiatory sacrifice is offered up for them, psalms are read, and on these days many have increased and continue to increase their offerings in the church out of love for their departed brothers and sisters. [4]

Aside from personal days set aside for commemorating our departed friends and relatives, the Orthodox Catholic Church, like a mother that loves her children, has set aside certain days on which all Orthodox Catholic Christians that have departed in hope of resurrection and eternal life are commemorated. Such days are termed “universal,” or simply “ancestral” days. They are as follows:

Meatfare Saturday

The first universal, ancestral Saturday is on Meatfare Saturday. It falls during Meatfare Week and before the last day on which one may eat meat before the Great Fast begins. The following day, Sunday, commemorates the Dread judgment of Christ, and the Church prays for all that have departed in faith and hope of resurrection, beseeching the righteous judge to show mercy upon them on the very day of impartial retribution at the universal judgment. The establishment of this Saturday dates from the first years of Christianity. Among the prayers during the divine services on this Saturday, we hear one for all “that from Adam until today have reposed in piety and correct faith,” of every calling and every age; “for all that have drowned, that have fallen in battle, that have died in earthquakes, that have been slain by murderers, that have died by fire, that have been devoured by wild beasts, birds and serpents, that have been struck by lightning and have perished in freezing cold, that have died by the sword, that have been trampled by horse, stoned by rock or buried by earth, that have been poisoned, or have choked on bones … “, i.e. all that have met untimely deaths and have been left without an opportunity for a proper funeral.  Thus does the Church care for all of our fathers, mothers, brothers, sisters, relatives and friends.

Trinity Saturday

This falls on the eve of Pentecost, hence the appellation “Trinity Saturday.” On the day of Pentecost (or Trinity Day), the Holy Spirit descended upon the earth to teach, sanctify and lead all people to eternal salvation. Therefore, the holy Church calls upon us to make a commemoration on this Saturday, that the saving grace of the Holy Spirit wash away the sins from the souls of all our fathers, mothers, brothers, and sisters, that have reposed throughout the ages and, asking that they all be united in the Kingdom of Christ and praying for the redemption of the living and for the return of their souls from captivity, she begs the Lord to “give rest to the souls … that have fallen asleep, in … a place of refreshment; … . for the dead shall not praise Thee, O Lord, neither shall they that are in hell make bold to offer unto Thee confession. But we that are living will bless Thee, and will pray, and offer unto Thee propitiatory prayers and sacrifices for their souls.”

Second, Third and Fourth Saturdays of the Great Lenten Fast

Since throughout the Great Lenten Fast such commemorations as are performed at every other time during the year do not occur during the celebration of the Presanctified Liturgy, it is the accepted practice in our Orthodox Catholic Church to commemorate the departed on these three Saturdays, that the dead be not deprived of the Church’s saving intercession. (The remaining Saturdays of the Great Fast are consecrated to special celebrations: Saturday of the first week to St. Theodore the Recruit; Saturday of the fifth week to the praise of the Theotokos; the sixth Saturday commemorates the resurrection of the Righteous Lazarus.) [6]

Tuesday of St. Thomas Week (1st Sunday after Pascha [Easter])

On this day, in accordance with accepted custom, a commemoration of the dead is made by the faithful, with the pious intent that, having celebrated a radiant festival to the glory of Christ’s Resurrection they share the great joy of this paschal feast with those that have departed in the hope of their own blessed resurrection, the joy of Which our Lord Himself announced to the dead when He descended into hell to proclaim His victory over death and to lead forth the souls of the righteous of the Old Testament. Because of this great spiritual joy, the day of this commemoration bears the name “day of rejoicing.” [8]

Examples of the Efficacy of Prayers Offered for the Dead at the Liturgy and of the Church’s Prayers for the Dead

St. Gregory the Dialogist, Pope of Rome [9], sets before us a remarkable example of the effectiveness of prayer and the bringing of offerings for the departed, which took place in his monastery.

“One brother,” he says, “for breaking the vow of poverty, was deprived of a church funeral and prayers after his death for a period of thirty days, in order to strike fear in the hearts of the others. But later, out of compassion for his soul, the Holy Liturgy and prayers were offered for him for the space of thirty days. On the last of these days, the deceased appeared in a vision to his brother, whom he had left among the living, and said: ‘Until now it has gone badly for me, but now I am at peace, for today I received communion.'”

This same holy Father, in his dialogues with the Deacon Peter, tells of the apparition of a dead man who begged a priest to help him by praying for him to God. “From this it is obvious,” he concludes, “how profitable the Holy Liturgy is for souls; for the souls themselves ask it of the living, and indicate the means by which they are cleansed of sins.”

St. John the Merciful, Patriarch of Alexandria, [10] often celebrated the Divine Liturgy for the dead, and stated that it is a great aid to their souls. To corroborate this, he cites the following:

“There was a certain prisoner whose parents, considering him dead, had the Liturgy served three times a year for him—on Theophany, Pascha and Pentecost. After he had been released from captivity, returning unexpectedly to his parents, he recalled that on those very days a certain man of glorious appearance came to him in prison carrying a torch. The fetters fell from his hands and he was freed; the rest of the days he was again in chains as a prisoner.”

St. Gregory the Dialogist also relates that during the lifetime of St. Benedict of Nursia [11] there lived two women who had the unfortunate habit of judging their neighbors, speaking evil and reproaching others. Learning of this, the Venerable Benedict said to them: “Curb your tongues, or I will have to excommunicate you from the Holy Mysteries.” But, all the same, they did not cease their evil habits and even said nothing in reply to the saint’s paternal admonition. Several days later both women died in their virginity and were buried together in the church. When the Divine Liturgy was served and the deacon exclaimed: “Catechumens, depart!”, many Christians beheld the two virgins leaving their tombs and the church, for they were unable to remain there during the Divine Liturgy. This occurred at each Divine Liturgy. When St. Benedict discovered this, he took pity on them and, taking a prosphora, he commanded them to take it to the church and to remove a particle from it for the repose of their souls. He also ordered them commemorated during the performance of the Mysteries of Christ. After that, none of the Christians saw them leaving the church. From this, all understood that, owing to the Holy Church’s prayer for the departed and the offerings, the departed virgins had received forgiveness from God. [12]

“But who can number,” asks St. John of Damascus, “all of the testimonies found in the biographies of holy men, in the accounts of the lives of the holy martyrs and the divine revelations, which clearly indicate that even after death tremendous benefit is rendered to the departed by prayers, Liturgies and the distribution of alms for them. For nothing given to God perishes in return, but is rewarded with the greatest interest.”


1. Throughout the forty days it is essential for each Orthodox Christian to commemorate his departed (newly-reposed) relatives. This consists of commemorating the departed during forty daily liturgies at Proskomedia and in the ektenias of offering to the Church prosphoras, wine, incense and candles, and of distribution of alms for the repose of the newly-departed.

2. cf. the Life of St. Basil the New, March 26.

3. Koliva or kutiya is grain or rice cooked with honey or sugar and sometimes mixed with plums, raisins and other sweets. The grain and fruit brought to the commemoration of the dead signifies that the dead will truly rise again from the grave, for both grain which is sown in the earth and the fruit which is laid on the earth, decays first, and afterwards brings forth abundant ripe, whole fruit. The honey or sugar used in the kutiya signifies that after the resurrection of the Orthodox and the righteous, there awaits a joyous and blessed life in the Heavenly Kingdom, not a bitter or sorrowful one. The koliva or kutiya prepared from grain expresses the faith of the living in the resurrection of the dead to a better life, just as that seed, having fallen upon the ground, although undergoing corruption, yet sprouts forth new life.

4. They also remember the departed on the days of their birth and of their patron saint.

6. “Prayer at Pentecost Vespers”.

7. The origin of the commemoration of the dead on the second, third and fourth Saturdays of the Great Fast dates back to the compilation of the Church’s typicon, but when and by whom it was instituted is unknown.

8. “Радоница” or “Radonitsa”.

9. Commemorated March 12.

10. Commemorated November 12.

11. Commemorated March 14.

12. St. Gregory the Dialogist, The Life and Miracles of St. Benedict, ch. 28 (Collegeville, Minn.: Liturgical Press, n.d.), pp. 52-54.

Excerpts from Orthodox Life, Vol. 78, No. 1, pp. 15-26. Translated from a pamphlet published by the Russian Orthodox Convent of Our Lady of Vladimir in San Francisco.


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