Why Do We Pray for the Dead?
Today’s readings bring up a subject we would rather avoid: death. Still,
we in the Catholic Church we are realists. We grieve over the death of a loved
one, but we also recognize that death is a transition from this life to the next life.
We pray for the dead at funerals and special Masses and particularly on All Souls
and throughout the month of November.
We believe in life after death. We believe that an all knowing and all loving
God will shepherd His loved ones into union with Him. We believe in heaven, the
place of God’s unending love, we believe in hell, the place devoid of God’s love,
we believe in purgatory, the place of preparation for God’s love.
Let’s focus on our belief in purgatory. There’s an old story of a really
mean guy who died. At his funeral. the preacher asked if anyone could say
a few good words on his behalf. No one would get up until finally, Fred walked
to the lectern and simply said, “He weren’t half as bad as his brother.” People
may not be in hell because there may be some openness in their lives to God’s
grace. However, that doesn’t mean that they are in heaven. Many times when
people die, their family and friends will say, “He or she is with God now,” no
matter what the person was like or what the circumstances of his or her death.
Well, I don’t want people to say that about me when I die. I want people to pray
me, not assume that I don’t need prayers.
But why? Why pray for the dead? The best way to understand this is
to consider Dante’s second book of the Divine Comedy, the Purgatorio. After
making it through his tour of hell (the famous Inferno), Dante comes upon a
mountain where souls were being prepared for heaven. They weren’t ready
for heaven yet and were actually holding themselves back. They knew that
they were not yet capable of accepting the fire of God’s love into their lives.
They were still suffering the wounds of their sins. Yes, their sins had been
forgiven, but the results of their sins had left their mark. So the souls on Mt
Purgatory were holding themselves back. But it was now too late for them to
find healing for themselves. Their lives on earth were over. It was too late for
them to find healing through their own works of charity, fasting and prayer, but
it was not too late for them to be healed. They were being healed by the prayers
of the people still on earth. This was Dante’s explanation on why we pray for the
It’s a good analogy of this mystery.
The greatest prayer that we can offer for the dead is the prayer of Christ
on the Cross, the sacrifice of the Mass. That is why we have funeral Masses.
It is sad that often a person passes away who never missed Mass, but whose
relatives decide that they don’t want to be bothered with going to Church for a
funeral. A few prayers at the funeral home or grave are infinitely inferior to the
prayers of Jesus Christ on the Cross, the Sacrifice of the Mass. People have a
right to a funeral Mass. Don’t let others deny you this right. If you opt for
cremation, you still have a right to a funeral and, under the new rules, a funeral
Mass can be celebrated with the cremains present. But on another level, purely emotional and psychological, people need to say good-bye and spend some time
with the deceased, commending him or her to the Lord. There is a deep emptiness when only the cremains are present. There is something tremendously healing
about being before the body of your loved one, and commending him or her to
the Lord with your family and friends. You might want to consider that before
you just decide to eliminate the traditional wake, funeral Mass and internment.
might not want the wake part, but your loved ones might need it.
A priest of our diocese was asked, “Do you believe in purgatory?” He
answered, “Not only do I believe in purgatory, I’m counting on it.” Our lives are
fragile. A hurricane comes and ten thousand of us die without any warning.
Even when we have an idea that our lives are coming to an end due to a devastating illness like cancer, we always die sooner than we expect and sooner than we
During our lives we approach the Lord seeking the healing for the results
of our sins. When our lives on earth have ended we depend on the prayers of
those still living here to continue to ask God to heal the results of sin in our lives.
The priest who said, “I don’t just believe in purgatory, I am counting on it,” is
healing from the community for the effects of his own sins.
This is the month of All Souls. We have done a disservice to our dead by canonizing them all, by deciding that no matter what their lives may have been
like, they must they must be in heaven right now. It is a disservice because the
faithful departed need our prayers. They need us to offer the sacrifice of Jesus
on the Cross for them--to have Masses said for them. They need us to pray the
rosary asking Mary to speak to her son for our loved ones. They need us to
the memory of their goodness alive and before the Lord.
The Books of Maccabees tell us that it is a good thing to pray for the dead. During the Month of November, we pray for our loved ones that they might be
healed of the effects of sin in their lives and be admitted into the eternal love
And so we pray in beautifully poetic language: Eternal Rest grant unto
them, O Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon them. May their souls and
souls of all the faithful departed, through the mercy of God, rest in peace.