PRAYER FOR THE DEAD: A custom which, springing from natural and laudable affection, is found among very diverse peoples. It has a connection, in thought at least and often in fact, with that variety of sacrifice called vicarious, in which intercession is believed to be potential for the release of another from the consequences of that other's misdeeds. Its existence among the Jews in the second century before Christ is proved by II. Macc. xii. 43-45, in which passage it is stated that not only prayer but sacrifice for the dead was offered by Judas, and the manner of statement shows that the deed was not unusual and was reckoned praiseworthy. But no Old-Testament passage can be quoted in favor of the custom.
There can be little question that from Judaism the practise passed over to the Christian Church. Attempts have been made to justify the custom by reference to the teaching of Jesus in such passages as Matt. xii. 32, but such inferences are regarded as strained. A more secure scriptural basis is afforded by the famous passage I Pet. iii.19-20, cf. iv. 6, which is, however, sometimes brought into a forced connection with Zach. ix. 11. Combined with the vogue given by Jewish custom and the affection and hope which reached beyond the grave, this passage gave sanction to the practise in the early Christian Church. Tertullian is the earliest Christian writer who makes reference to prayers for the dead as customary (De exhortatione castitatis, xi.; De anima, lviii.; De monogamia, x.; De corona, iii.; Eng. transls. in ANF, vols. iii.-iv.). Similar testimony is given by Arnobius (Adv. gentes, iv. 36), Cyprian (Ep. i. of Oxford ed., lxv. in ANF, v. 367), Cyril of Jerusalem (Mystagogikai catecheseis, v. § 7), Augustine ("City of God," xxi. 13; De cura pro mortuis, i. and iv.), Chrysostom (Commentary on Phil., hom. 3), Dionysius the Areopagite (Hierarchia ecclesiastica, last chap.), and Apostolic Constitutions, VIII., ii. 12, iv. 41 (where the liturgical form is given). By some of these Fathers the custom was regarded as of apostolic institution. That the practise was strengthened by the idea of the solidarity of the Church as including the living and the dead is not unlikely, and a lingering influence of the classical Hades (q.v.) as a sort of middle state may have had its influence. The general practise of the early Church is further evinced by mortuary inscriptions. In view of all this it is not surprising that the prayer for the dead entered the liturgies, appearing in those of St.. Mark, St. James, the Nestorian, Ambrosian, and Gregorian, and the Gallican. The development of the doctrine of Purgatory (q.v.), which in order of time followed the custom, fixed more firmly, if possible, the custom, and there developed in the West the Office (or Mass) for the Dead and the Missa de sanctis, the former at least as early as the sixth century. The offering of these prayers was from the earliest times particularly connected with the Eucharist. At the Reformation the practise fell into disrepute among Protestants, largely on the initiative of Calvin, and practically the entire Protestant Church rejects the custom. The Book of Common Prayer retains traces of the practise, which has not been expressly prohibited in the Anglican Church, and is indeed followed in certain parts.
GEO. W. GILMORE.