Saint Volodymyr le Grand b
Ukrainian Orthodoxy
Orthodoxie ukrainienne

Prayers for the Deceased


Ukrainian Orthodox and Ukrainian Catholic church services include prayers, memorial and graveside services for the deceased. What are the scriptural basis for such services?

Russell Sawchyn


Dr. Alexander Roman

There are two ways of referring to the scriptural basis for praying for the dead.  One is direct quotes and the other is by way of reflection on scripture in this connection.

A direct scriptural reference is the second book of Maccabees, which is canonical in the Orthodox, Oriental Orthodox and Roman Catholic Churches, 12:40-46. 

When Judas Maccabeus and his men came to take away for burial the bodies of their brothers who had been killed in the battle against Gorgias, they noticed that they had, under their coats, some pagan donaries connected with the idols of Jamnia – things that believers in the one God were forbidden to have. Judas and his men then began to pray to God so that the sin their brothers had committed would be forgiven them in the next life.  Judas sent money to Jerusalem for sacrifice to be offered for the dead.  “It is a holy and wholesome thought to pray for the dead that they may be loosed from sins.” 

With respect to the Protestant rejection of this book as canonical, we should also consider that one of the stated reasons why the Protestant reformers rejected this book in the 16th century as being uncanonical was precisely because of its clear teaching on prayer for the dead .. . .  In addition, Martin Luther rejected several New Testament books as “deuterocanonical” such as the Epistle of James because it directly contradicted his teaching on salvation by faith alone (indeed the only place where “faith alone” is noted in the bible is in the Epistle of James where it is mentioned so as to reject it – which is why Luther called it “an epistle of straw”).   Tobias, another book rejected by Protestantism, also mentions how alms can assist people even in the next life (Tobias 4: 7-12).

As we know from the New Testament, those who are enlivened by faith in Christ as members of His Body that is the Church are not destroyed by death but live in Christ in the next life as they and we await Christ’s joyful Second Coming when He will give us His final judgment when our souls and bodies will be united and reunited.  The Communion of the Saints which is the Church is a true Communion.  If we may assist others in this life with our prayers, may we not assist them after death when they continue to live in Christ? 

Certainly the Church from the very beginning has always thought so and prayed for the dead and continues to do so at the Liturgy, and many other times.  We also know that nothing impure or sinful can enter into full Communion with God and Christ in the next life.  Does that mean that there can only be hell for souls who have not “sinned unto death” with heavy, unrepented sins?  Not at all – and how could a merciful God ever allow this?  We pray that people in this life may grow closer to God and we pray that souls in the next may come closer to God and that their sins may be loosed.  And those souls that we pray for can also pray for us – the Church is a true Communion of love and prayer!  Finally, the Church’s own practice of praying for those who have reposed in the Lord comes from her own Communion with the Holy Spirit that leads and guides her in all things as the Body of Christ that she is.  Scripture and Tradition, which together expresses the Word of God, comes from within the Church’s heart as it announces that same Word, which is OLGS Jesus Christ, to the world for its salvation and Theosis. 

The Questioner's Response:

Thank you ever so much for a most interesting reply. This question of praying for the dead has been of some concern to me for quite some time. First, I have never heard a sermon in our church on this topic; second,I have difficulty pin-pointing scriptural references in the Bible, and third, the Internet makes reference to the topic but mostly from a Protestant point of view--why pray for the dead if they are already in God's hands.

On a more local level, in the area where I live only we Ukrainians cherish this tradition, all others (Seventh Day Adventists, Baptists, Pentecostals, Lutherans) as much as scoff at this practice.Your reply satisfies my anxiety. I have also requested our parish priest to give me some inroads into this tradition. I know that he will do so, but having such a large rural parish district entails unique and unusual demands on his services.I am anxiously awaiting for his reply, and thanks again for your promptness. 

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