Prayers for the dead

I am at an age when I have not had to attend too many funerals. A few contemporaries of mine died in the early 1990s, when people did not infrequently die quite young. And relatives have died after a full life. Most funerals I have attended have been Roman Catholic of High Anglican, with a Requiem Mass and prayers for the dead. This seems natural to me. But I know that many funerals are not like that. I think it is true that they often tend to be either a ‘celebration’ of the person’s life, devoid of Christian content (even if in a church), or rather sentimental affairs. I recall seeing a memorial on a roadside to a young man who had been killed there on his motorbike. He said that this was the place where X ‘ascended into heaven’, which seemed presumptuous. Such sentimental certainly would make any thought of praying for the dead unnecessary, I suppose.

The fact is we do not know the state of the dead, either collectively or individually. Even the Roman Catholic Church, with all its presumptions of certainty, is cautious about what it dogmatically proclaims. The Orthodox Church is even more cautious, though it is open to the idea that hell need not be a permanent state in all cases. On balance, however, I think I find the RC notion of purgatory more comforting than the Orthodox idea of heavenly Toll Houses, which one must pass through, being confronted with a category of sins in each one.

But we do not need to know about the state of dead friends, relatives or strangers to care about them. And to care is to want to pray. The 16th century reformers were uneasy about prayer for the dead, and the whole doctrine of the communion of the saints of which it is a part, because of obvious abuses. But they clearly (to my mind) threw out the baby with the bathwater here. In the Church of England the Guild of All Souls has existed since the 1870s to promote prayer for the dead. It has a Chantry Chapel at Walsingham, employing what must be the only Chantry Priest in the Church of England. I was a member in my younger days, but resigned when I became a Roman Catholic. I will probably rejoin. In any event, it must have been deeply controversial when it was founded. But the 1st World War, with the huge loss of life, transformed English attitudes towards praying for the dead (and such things as spiritualism, too). You do not cease to love someone just because they have died. And prayer for the dead is, as I said earlier natural.

So I commend praying for the dead. And asking them to pray for us, too. Though that is a different issue!