The Church has prayed for the dead from the beginning of its existence as is witnessed by the earliest liturgical monuments. In the oldest accounts of the martyrs, there are references to the prayers offered for those who had been martyred, that they may be granted eternal rest. One of the most ancient prayers engraved in the catacombs of Rome is precisely the invocation: “Eternal rest grant unto them, O Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon them."
It is the tradition of the Armenian Church to pray a Funeral Service on the day of death, then the Hokehankist together with the Liturgy on a fortieth day after death and on the annual anniversary of death. The prayers are said on a fortieth day, from the example of the mourning in the Old Testament for the death of the Prophet Moses for forty days by the Israelites, and because of the Ascension of Our Lord on a fortieth day. The dead are commemorated on the annual anniversary of death because this day is their birth-day into Eternal Life, and on this day we especially feel the loss of a loved one.
We also pray for the dead on the day following each Daghavar, five great annual feasts (Christmas, Easter, Transfiguration(Vartavar), Assumption of Saint Mary, and Exaltation of the Holy Cross), which our Church designated as a memorial day for the departed (Merelotz in Armenian).
But what is exactly the purpose of our memorial services and why do we pray for the dead?
We remember and pray for the deceased because of God’s divine love for us, and our sacred love for one another.
St. Paul teaches, “Love never ends.” (1 Cor. 13:8) The Church understands well this precept, and therefore, continues to pray for the dead always. Since love never ends, our prayers never end; our communion with the departed never end; our union with them through Christ never ends.
Just as we love and respect our living brethren, so do we love and respect those who have departed this life. We express our love for our departed friends and relatives through prayer. Just as we pray for the living that the Grace of God may be upon them, so do we pray for the dead that they may become worthy of the presence of God.
At death, no man leaves the world to appear before God free of sin so that he does not need the mercy and Grace of God. We pray, therefore, for them who have died in Christ and place our trust in the love of God and the power of mutual love and forgiveness. We pray that God will forgive the sins of the faithful departed and that He will receive them into the company of Saints in the heavenly Kingdom.
The Holy Church is composed not only of the living, earthly members but also of the faithful departed, wich we call the "Victorious Church." All of us, living and dead, are members of one Church and are bound together by one Faith, by common love, and are unworthy sons and daughters of the merciful God.
Needless to say, our belief in the Resurrection comforts and consoles us in our loss. Job cheered himself with this reflection (Job 19:25); and it was the belief in the Resurrection which gave the early Christians such courage and calm in the great persecutions. "But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers, about those who are asleep, that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope. For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep" exhorts St Paul (1 Thess. 4: 13-14).
On of the prominent Catholicos of the Armenian Church, St. Nerses the Great (310-373), used to caution his flock against such excessive grief, lest the heathen should come to think that the Christians had no firm belief in the eternal life. The Council of Ashdishad, convened by St. Nerses in 352, prohibit the burial of the dead with heathen traditions; the tearing of clothes, roaring loudly. Hence they considered it unbecoming to wear mourning for those who were rejoicing before the throne of God.
Indeed, although death is the culmination of evil in our world, for Christians our faith in Jesus Christ transforms death. For one who is united to our Lord here on earth, death is no longer a fearful and tragic conclusion of one’s life. It is but an entranceway into a new beginning!
In his the gospel of John, in his farewell discourse, Jesus says: ““Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also.” (John 14:1-3)
As Christians, we can face death with hope, knowing that our loving, all merciful and compassionate Lord awaits us! Divine love is greater than death.