All Souls Day: How & Why We Pray For the Dead
November 2, is All Souls Day. What exactly is this Feast? Why do we celebrate it and what are we to do? This feast reminds us that as Christians we ought to approach death differently. In the words of Pope Benedict XVI, “It is very important that we Christians live a relationship of the truth of the faith with the deceased and that we view death and the afterlife in the light of Revelation.”
All Souls Day (as well as the whole month of November) is the day we commemorate all those who have died, but with the hope of eternal life. Specifically, it is a day that we pray that God’s promise is fulfilled.
Why Do We Pray for the Dead?
Why do we need to pray for the dead? The roots of this practice are rooted in the book of Second Maccabees. The book chronicles the actions of Judas Maccabees and his brothers as they fight for Jewish independence. At one point, Judas and his men prepare to bury some of their comrades. However, while preparing the bodies for burial, they discover the soldiers are wearing amulets to pagan idols.
Therefore, Judas “took up a collection among all his soldiers… which he sent to Jerusalem to provide for an expiatory sacrifice. In doing this he acted in a very excellent and noble way, in as much as he had the resurrection in mind; for if he were not expecting the fallen to rise again, it would have been superfluous and foolish to pray for the dead. But if he did this with a view to the splendid reward that awaits those who had gone to rest in godliness, it was a holy and pious thought. Thus he made atonement for the dead that they might be absolved from their sin.” (2 Maccabees 12:42-46)
Hence, the practice of praying for the dead dates back to ancient times and has benefits for both the dead and the one who prays. Not only does it atone for sins committed by the dead during their lifetime, but it is also a meritorious act with spiritual benefit for the one who prays.
A Second Reason We Pray for the Dead
This brings us to a second reason to pray for the dead. It brings the one who prays spiritual comfort and hope. It flows naturally from the Christian heart as an outflowing of love for the person lost. I can attest to this personally as my mother passed a little over a month ago. I can not describe the number of times my mind has turned toward prayer for her soul as a natural expression of concern which is no different than the care I felt during her final days.
Memories and thoughts for our deceased loved ones are a universal human experience. In praying for the dead, the Christian elevates these thoughts and memories with an act of service and perfects earthly love.
How to Pray for the Dead
I would like to offer four ways to assist you in praying for the dead both on All Souls Day and throughout the year.
#1 Visit a cemetery as a family. In the modern world, many of us are uncomfortable with death. Cemeteries are considered frightful. However, during the recent COVID shutdowns, our family began visiting a nearby cemetery to pray because our local church was closed to the public. The experience was quite transformative for our family. During each visit, we would walk slowly through the cemetery while praying the rosary. As I passed each tombstone, I read the name and contemplated the life and death of each person as I offered a particular prayer for each.
Not only did the cemetery provide a peaceful location for prayer, but it renewed our connection to the deceased. We allowed our children to run and play, but often would glance up to see them kneeling by a grave in prayer. We have continued the practice. Our children now refer to the souls as “Our souls” for whom God has granted us to pray. They also ask us to drive by the cemetery, even if it means going a few blocks out of the way.
#2 Say a brief prayer for the dead when you drive past a cemetery. In our family we prefer the prayer, “May the souls of the faithful departed, through the mercy of God, rest in peace.”
It is easy to remember and only takes a moment. My six-year-old daughter is the queen of this prayer. She never forgets to pray it when we pass the cemetery (even when the rest of us forget).
#3 Make a morning offering on behalf of deceased loved ones each day. The morning offering is a long-standing tradition in which one starts the day by offering all their “works, prayers, joys, and sufferings” of the day to God. I always include specific intentions with my morning offering. These specific intentions include prayers for deceased friends and family members.
#4 Most parishes have a book of the dead on All Souls Day. The book of the dead contains a list of the deceased who will be remembered and prayed for throughout the month of November. Write the names of deceased loved ones in this book. Then attend All Souls Day Mass and offer your Mass intention for those whose names you have written in the book. You can also offer your Sunday Mass intention all throughout November or even make it a point to attend daily Mass once a week this November to pray for the dead.