In our last post, we spoke about the importance of thoughts related to remembrance of death and the relation of those thoughts to repentance. For any thought to have strength to effect a change deep within the soul, it needs to be incarnate in daily life and find expression in human behavior. For the Christian, the remembrance of death is also the remembrance of eternal life; and that remembrance becomes strong only by contact with death and with true life. Saint John Maximovitch, who reposed in 1966, often visited the sick in hospitals. He speaks about the comfort of faith in the time of death and the value that the believer receives in supporting those at death’s door: “Limitless and without consolation would have been our sorrow for close ones who are dying, if the Lord had not given us eternal life. Our life would be pointless if it ended with death. What benefit would there then be from virtue and good deeds? Then they would be correct who say: “Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die!”
But man was created for immortality, and by His resurrection Christ opened the gates of the Heavenly Kingdom, of eternal blessedness for those who have believed in Him and have lived righteously. Our earthly life is a preparation for the future life, and this preparation ends with our death. “It is appointed unto man once to die, but after this the judgment” (Heb 9:27). Then a man leaves all his earthly cares; the body disintegrates, in order to rise anew at the General Resurrection. Often this spiritual vision begins in the dying even before death, and while still seeing those around them and even speaking with them, they see what others do not see.”
In other posts, we have spoken about the importance of the Jesus Prayer as a powerful thought that can illumine our spiritual darkness. Another important, laudable and all too often neglected aspect of Christian life today is prayer for those who have reposed. The focus on others heals us of our selfishness and the focus on those who have departed reminds us of eternity and brings a blessed simplicity to our approach to life. Saint John reminded his flock that it is extremely important and beneficial for the reposed if immediately after death the faithful offer fervent prayers for their souls and have them commemorated in the liturgy. “How important commemoration at the Liturgy is may be seen in the following occurrence: Before the uncovering of the relics of Saint Theodosius of Chernigov, the priest-monk (the renowned Starets Alexis of Goloseyevsky Hermitage, of the Kiev-Caves Lavra, who died in 1916) who was conducting the re-vesting of the relics, becoming weary while sitting by the relics, dozed off and saw before him the Saint, who told him: “I thank you for laboring with me. I beg you also, when you will serve the Liturgy, to commemorate my parents” — and he gave their names (Priest Nikita and Maria). ‘How can you, O Saint, ask my prayers, when you yourself stand at the heavenly Throne and grant to people God’s mercy?’ the priest-monk asked. ‘Yes, that is true,’ replied St. Theodosius, ‘but the offering at the Liturgy is more powerful than my prayer.’” There are recorded many wondrous appearances of the dead who provide details about their lives that only they would know, such as the names of Saint Theodosius’s parents. Skeptics may scoff, but something deep in the heart confirms that these appearances are truer than life itself. Many who died in repentance, but who were unable to manifest this while they were alive, have revealed that the prayers of the faithful have taken them from a place of darkness and suffering to a place of light and repose.
By extension, panikhidas (i.e., Trisagion Prayers for the Dead) and prayer at home for those who have fallen asleep in the Lord are beneficial to them, as are good deeds done in their memory, such as alms or contributions to the church. In the Church, prayers are ever offered for the repose of the dead, and on the day of the Descent of the Holy Spirit, in the kneeling prayers at vespers, there is even a special petition “for those in hell.”
Every one of us who desires to manifest his love for the departed and give them real help, can do this best of all through prayer for them, and particularly by commemorating them at the Liturgy, when the particles which are cut out for the living and the dead are immersed in the Blood of the Lord with the words: “Wash away, O Lord, the sins of those here commemorated by Thy Precious Blood and by the prayers of Thy saints.”
We can do nothing better or greater for the dead than to pray for them, offering commemoration for them at the Liturgy. Of this they are always in need, and especially during those forty days when the soul of the deceased is proceeding on its path to the eternal habitations. The body feels nothing then: it does not see its close ones who have assembled, does not smell the fragrance of the flowers, does not hear the funeral orations. But the soul senses the prayers offered for it and is grateful to those who make them and is spiritually close to them.
So, relatives and close ones of those who have died, do for them what is needful and within your power. Use your money not for outward adornment of the coffin and the grave in which the body is placed, but in order to help those souls in need, in memory of your close ones who have died, for churches, where prayers for them are offered. Show mercy to the departed by continuing to take care of their souls. The path that they have now taken lies before you. And when we have departed, how we shall then wish that we would be remembered in prayer! Let us therefore be ourselves merciful to the dead.”
Saint John reminds us all that the remembrance of God through the remembrance of death should necessarily compel us to offer prayers for the dead. Prior to death, if at all possible, pray with the person preparing for death. Psalms may be read, invocations to the Saints may be offered, and holy icons should be in close proximity to the one dying. There is a special canon for the soul leaving the body that should be read as the final moments approach. Once death has occurred, call a priest so that he may read the appointed prayers to be said over all who have reposed. Saint John also reminds us of the importance of the forty days memorial. “Try, if it be possible, to have the funeral in Church and to have the Psalter read over the deceased until the funeral.
Most definitely arrange at once for the serving of the forty-day memorial, that is, daily commemoration at the Liturgy for the course of forty days. (NOTE: If the funeral is in a church where there are no daily services, the relatives should take care to order the forty-day memorial wherever there are daily services.) It is likewise good to send contributions for commemoration to monasteries, as well as to Jerusalem, where there is constant prayer at the holy places.
Let us take care for those who have departed into the other world before us, in order to do for them all that we can, remembering that “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy.”