“I Look for the Resurrection of the Dead, and the Life of the Age to Come.”
From the book Da obnovitsya Russkaya zemlya [“Let the Russian Land Be Renewed”]
Sretensky Monastery Press, 2006.
How inconsolable and limitless would our sorrows be when those dear to us are dying, had the Lord not granted us eternal life. Our life would be meaningless if it ended in death. What good then would come from kindness, from good deeds? How right would those be who say “let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die” (1 Corinthians 15:32)? But man was created for eternal life, and by His Resurrection, Christ opened the Gates of Heaven, eternal bliss, for those who believe in Him and live righteously. Our earthly life is preparation for the future one, and our death ends that preparation. “And as it is appointed unto men once to die, but after this the judgment” (Hebrews 9:27).
Then man leaves behind all his earthly cares, his body decays in order to rise once again in the Universal Resurrection. But his soul continues to live and does not cease to exist for even a moment. Many appearances to the living by the dead have given us partial knowledge of what happens with the soul when it departs from the body. When the bodily eyes cease to see, then the soul’s spiritual eyes are opened. Often it happens to the dying even before the end: seeing everyone around them and even speaking to them, they see what others do not.
Leaving the body, the soul finds itself among other spirits, both good and evil. It usually strives towards those who are closer in spirit, and if the soul is influenced by some of them during earthly life, then it remains dependent upon them when it leaves the body--no matter how unpleasant they turn out to be.
Over the course of two days, the soul enjoys relative freedom, able to visit places on earth, its homeland, those it holds dear, and on the third day heads for different realms. The soul then passes through an army of evil spirits hindering its way and accusing it of various sins, sins they themselves had tempted it with. According to some revelations, there are twenty such obstacles, so-called mytarstva [tribulations], and at each one of them, one or another form of sin is tried: passing through one, the soul comes upon another, and only by successfully passing through all of them can the soul continue on its path and not be cast immediately into Gehenna. How horrible those demons and their tribulations are is shown by the fact that the Mother of God Herself, when told by Archangel Gabriel about Her impending end, prayed Her Son to spare Her from those demons, and, fulfilling Her prayer, the Lord Jesus Christ Himself appeared in the skies to receive the soul of His Most-Pure Mother and take Her to heaven.
The third day can be horrifying for the soul of the reposed, and for this reason it is in special need of prayers. Having successfully passed through the tribulations and worshiping God, the soul, over the course of thirty-seven days, visits the Heavenly Abodes and the depths of Hell, not knowing its final destination, and only on the fortieth day will its place be revealed until the resurrection of the dead.
Some souls are in a state of sensing eternal joy and bliss, and others, in fear of eternal sufferings, which will follow after the Dread Judgment. Until then, the state of one’s soul can experience changes, especially stemming from prayers for them during the Bloodless Sacrifice (commemoration during Liturgy), and other prayers.
The importance of commemorating souls during Liturgy is shown by the following event: Before the opening of the relics of St Theodosius of Chernigov (1896), the priest who performed the changing of the vestments, having become exhausted, fell asleep as he sat near the relics. In his sleep, he saw the saint standing before him, saying “I thank you for laboring for me. I ask you now, that when you celebrate Liturgy, commemorate my parents,” and he named them (Priest Nikita and Maria). “But how is it that you, a saint, are asking me for prayers, when you yourself stand before the Heavenly Throne and distribute Divine mercies to people who pray to you?” asked the priest. “Yes, that is so,” replied St Theodosius, “but commemoration at Liturgy is more powerful than my prayers.”
That is why the dead are in need of pannikhidas, and prayers at home, and good deeds performed in their memory: charity, donations to church, but most importantly commemoration at Divine Liturgy. There have been many visions of the dead, and other occurrences, which confirm how helpful the commemoration of the dead is. Many people who died with repentance but had insufficient time make confession during life, have been thus released from suffering and granted peace. Prayers for the dead are always lifted up in church, even on the day of the Descent of the Holy Spirit, when the Kneeling Prayers read during vespers contain a special prayer “for those imprisoned in Hades.”
Each of us, wishing to express our love for the dead and to grant them real help, can best do this by praying for them, in particular through commemoration during Liturgy, when the portions cut out of the prosphoras for the living and the dead are immersed in the Blood of the Lord with the words: “Wash away, Lord, by Your holy Blood, the sins of all those commemorated, through the intercessions of the Theotokos and all Your saints.”
They are ever in need of this, especially during the forty days when the soul of the departed proceeds on the path to the Eternal Abodes. The body feels nothing then, does not see the gathered loved ones, does not smell the fragrant flowers, does not hear the eulogies. But the soul senses the prayers being lifted for it, thankful to those who make them and feels spiritually close to them.
Relatives and dear ones of the departed! Do what is necessary for them, and what is within your power! Do not spend money on external decorations of the coffin and grave, but help those in need in memory of your late loved one, help the church where your prayers are lifted. You will thereby show mercy to the reposed, you will tend to their soul. This very same path lies ahead for each one of us; how will we desire then that we be prayerfully remembered! Let us be merciful to the departed.
As soon as death comes, immediately call or contact the priest to have him read “Prayers for the Repose of the Soul,” which are read over all Orthodox Christians immediately after their death. Try if you can that the funeral service be held in a church and that before that service, the Psalter be read over the body. The funeral need not be opulent, but it must be complete, without abridgment; think then not of yourselves and your own comforts, but about the dead, to whom you are saying farewell forever.
If a church happens to have several bodies in it at the same time, do not reject the idea of having a joint funeral for them all. It is better to conduct this service for two or more people at the same time, for the prayer will be more fervent by the loved ones of each. If one funeral is done after the other, strength may wane, the service may be shortened, when in fact every word of the service is like water for one suffering thirst. You absolutely must see to it that a sorokoust is arranged, that is, daily commemoration during Divine Liturgy for forty days. Usually, in churches that hold daily services, those people over whom funeral services were performed are commemorated for at least forty days. If a funeral is held in a church where there are no daily services, the reposed’s relatives should make arrangements for a sorokoust at a church where daily Liturgies are celebrated. It is good to send such requests to one of the monasteries in Jerusalem, where there are constant prayers at the holy sites. The sorokoust should begin right after death occurs, when the soul is in particular need of prayerful intercession, and so commemoration should begin in the closest church that holds daily services.
Let us tend to those who depart for the other world before we tend to our own needs, so that we do everything we can, remembering the words “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy” (Matthew 5:7).
St John (Maximovich)
From his book “May the Russian Land Be Renewed”