Bishop Arthur J. Serratelli
In Greece, Thessaloniki’s Museum of Byzantine Culture houses a small 4th century Christian tomb. The interior of its barrel-vaulted space is lavishly decorated. One fresco is of particular importance. It is the depiction of the family of the deceased presenting offerings at the grave. This scene accurately reflects the time when new converts to Christianity continued their former funeral practices as pagans.
In pagan Greece and Rome, after the dead person was buried, the family and friends would have a meal at the grave in honor of the dead person. On the anniversaries of the day of burial, on the deceased’s birthday and also during certain public feasts, they would repeat this commemorative meal. On each occasion, the living would set aside some food to nourish the deceased in the afterlife. They believed that the food they provided for the dead would help them in their journey in the afterlife.
As the first Christians made the transition from their pagan customs of burying the dead to a truly Christian way, they kept the funeral meal. However, the meal took on a much deeper meaning. The catacombs give ample evidence of this. A fresco of a banquet is found in the 3rd century Catacombs of Priscilla. In Rome’s 4th century Catacombs of Saints Marcellinus and Peter, there is a similar fresco. In fact, throughout the catacombs, the scene of five or seven diners sitting at a horseshoe-shaped table frequently appears in frescoes painted near the tombs. Even early Christian sarcophagi bear the same scene carved in stone.
Christians would celebrate a meal at the death of their loved ones. It reminded the bereaved that their beloved dead had been called to the rich banquet that God prepares for those who love him (cf. Is 25:6ff). The food depicted in the catacomb frescoes expressed the Christian faith. The fish cryptically represented Christ. (In Greek, the first letter of each word in the Greek phrase Jesus Christ God’s Son Savior spells out the word ‘fish’ in Greek.) The bread and wine, on the other hand, clearly symbolized the Eucharist.
Furthermore, the many catacomb frescoes of the miracle of Cana, the multiplication of the loaves and fishes and the banquet of the seven disciples by the Sea of Galilee after the Resurrection all have a Eucharistic motif. The presence of these frescoes in the catacombs attests to the practice of celebrating the Eucharist near the graves of the dead and praying for them. Christians were not celebrating a meal like the pagans who hoped to physically aid the dead in the afterlife. They were celebrating the Eucharist that spiritually nourishes the living and benefits the dead. With their prayers, they assisted the dead in purgatory on the way to the eschatological banquet.
Today, the very concept of a need for purification on the part of the dead before they come before the all-holy presence of God is practically lost. At many a funeral, the preacher relates all the good the person has done and, in the end, announces that the deceased is already in heaven. Because many people believe that everybody goes directly to heaven, no matter what their sins, family members often forget to pray for their deceased relatives and do not have Masses celebrated for the repose of their souls. Or worse yet, they deny the deceased the benefit of a funeral Mass.
Nonetheless, praying for the dead remains a staple of Catholic life. Vatican Council II affirmed this, saying, “This sacred council accepts loyally the venerable faith of our ancestors in the living communion which exists between us and our brothers who are in the glory of heaven or who are yet being purified after their death...” (Lumen Gentium, 51). Therefore, just as in life, we pray for each other and share each other’s burdens, so also we offer prayers and sacrifices to help the departed souls undergoing purification. And, there is no better prayer that can be offered than that of the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass.
Our faith teaches us that we are joined with all those who have gone before us in the Communion of Saints. It likewise instructs us that our prayers for the departed have value in God’s eyes. As St. John Chrysostom says, “If Job’s sons were purified by their father’s sacrifice, why would we doubt that our offerings for the dead bring them some consolation? Let us not hesitate to help those who have died and to offer our prayers for them” (St. John Chrysostom, Hom. in 1 Cor. 41:5).
Therefore, each day and, most especially in November, the month dedicated to the faithful departed, we should remember our beloved dead and pray for them. As St. Ambrose encourages us, “We have loved them during life; let us not abandon them in death, until we have conducted them by our prayers into the house of the Lord.” When we pray for the dead, we are putting our faith into action.