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Asking the clergy: Why do we pray for the dead?

People of many faiths pray for deceased family members and friends -- remembering them in their prayers at home, at houses of worship and at their final resting places. This week's clergy discuss why such prayers offer benefits not only for the departed, but also for surviving loved ones.

The Rev. Laurel E. Scott, PhD, pastor, The United Methodist Church of Port Washington:

We pray for the departed because they live on, in essence, in eternity, and in our memories. The goal of prayer is to achieve peace of mind, acceptance. Prayer does not change God, because God is unchangeable. Prayer does not change others because each one of us is responsible for working out our own salvation. Prayer changes our understanding of persons and situations. Paul writes to the church at Philippi that they should "be anxious for nothing but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God and the peace of God, which surpasses human understanding, will keep your hearts and minds in the knowledge of Christ Jesus." (Philippians 4:6-7) In this dimension of existence we express life through our bodies and personalities. In our pure form, we are individualized expressions of God (made in God's image and likeness). However, through individual choice, we express that purity in different degrees because sin contaminates our purity, and limits our expression of spirit. When we pray for the departed, we are praying that our understanding of, and relationship with, the individualized expression of spirit we knew as a particular person (parent, child, spouse, friend), be reconciled within the same spirit. This is so that any sins are forgiven and reconciliation accomplished between God, ourselves, and that person, thus accomplishing the "peace that surpasses human understanding."

Pipalmani Sigdel, priest, Asamai Hindu Temple, Hicksville:

Hindus have a strong and cultivated belief in reincarnation. And we have integrated death and dying into our daily existence. Our Hindu prayers for the dying and dead are therefore often also prayers for the living. Both aspects get easily blended into one large mosaic of Hindu life. When we are dying, we strive to be in the highest possible state of consciousness. We concentrate on the top of the head and think clear and beautiful thoughts. Reciting mantras or Hindu prayers helps us to stay conscious. Death is the fulfillment of this life and a chance for a better reincarnation, a chance to learn new karmic lessons and to move closer to moksha (liberation). Reincarnation essentially means to be born again. The body is like a set of clothes that the soul removes before putting on new clothing. As a person puts on new garments, giving up old ones, similarly, the soul accepts new material bodies, giving up the old and useless ones. We can be born as a human, an animal, an insect or even a plant. What form the next incarnation takes depends on karma, and one can move up or down the hierarchy. Hindus pray for the dead because death is not the end. It is only one stage of life. After death, the soul takes a journey for mokdha, (heaven, or the next life). At that time, prayer is helpful. We pray for the person's soul, that they rest in peace, and their soul will merge with the God soul.

The Rev. Roy Tvrdik, The Shrine of Our Lady of the Island, Manorville:

Your journey is not finished with your life on earth, so we want to pray for God's mercy, even on those who have died. It goes back to the teaching of purgatory, which the Roman Catholic Church defines as a purification period during which the soul of those who die in God's grace achieves the holiness necessary to enter the joy of heaven. In the Old Testament Book of Maccabees there is a story about Judah Maccabee, a priest who commanded Judean resistance to Greek forces. He was wondering how he could have lost a battle, and he discovered that some of his soldiers had been wearing pagan amulets. So they made a collection to offer a sacrifice in the Temple in Jerusalem. The idea here is that even after your soul leaves your body, you still stand before the judgment seat of God. The consequences of our sin continue on, even after we receive God's mercy personally. What we do with these prayers for the dead is to claim Christ's abundant mercy to clean up the damage of our sin. What happens in purgatory is that you do see the consequences of your sin -- that is what it means to be in purgatory. You see clearly. We pray for their full redemption, and we ask Christ to wipe the consequences of sin away. Praying for the dead also benefits the living, because God loves to see that you care and you love your faithful, departed relative or friend. At Mass, we also pray for the poor souls in purgatory who have nobody to pray for them.

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