Prayers For The Dead

The earliest Christian Father to refer to the practice of praying for the departed, Tertullian,* admits also that there is no direct biblical authority for doing so. Third-century inscriptions indicate the kinds of petitions made in these prayers, usually a simple and general request for the dead person to be with God or to know the forgiveness of sins. It is possible that such prayers arose out of the confused ideas over the consequences of postbaptismal sin, which caused much debate in the church of Tertullian's time. One suggested solution to this problem was the idea of a purgatorial discipline after death, which was discussed at Alexandria in the early third century and spread in the West through the powerful advocacy of Augustine* and Gregory the Great.* Meanwhile, at Jerusalem in the mid-fourth century the Eucharist came to be regarded as a propitiatory sacrifice which could be offered on behalf of both the living and the dead. Consequently intercessions for the departed came to be inserted in the anaphora, or canon of the Mass. In the Roman Church, a Mass offered specifically for a dead person is called a “requiem,” although since the early Middle Ages the dead have also been remembered in the daily Mass.

In England, Cranmer's* second Prayer Book (1552) abolished all prayers for the dead; but a thanksgiving for the faithful departed was added to the intercessions in 1662. In modern times pastoral needs in the Church of England, where many non- churchgoers are given Christian burial, have led to the consideration of a form of prayer to include the unfaithful departed, and this has been included as an option in the Series 3 Orders for Holy Communion and Funerals. There remains a tension in Christian thought between the best way of expressing the biblical truth of an unbreakable fellowship of believers in Christ, and a sub-Christian desire to provide for, and communicate directly with, the spirits of the dead.

See Prayer and the Departed: A Report of the Archbishops' Commission on Christian Doctrine (1971).