Do the Dead Need Your Help?
“TO SERVE those now dead as if they were living,” says an old Chinese proverb, “is the highest achievement of true filial piety.” If the dead truly exist in another realm and can benefit from the services of those remaining on earth, it would be a loving thing to show concern for them.
Of course, many people simply go through the motions of observing ancient traditions, though not really being firm believers in continued existence after death. But others are convinced that the dead need their help.
Millions of persons throughout most of Asia and parts of Africa believe that they must pay homage to dead ancestors all their life. Before the ancestral tablets of their deceased relatives, they burn incense, pray, place flowers and even offer food. It is thought that such veneration will help the dead to enjoy a pleasant existence in the next life and prevent them from becoming hostile spirits.
Especially in connection with mourning and the funeral do the survivors put forth costly efforts to help the deceased. Consider the following traditional practices that were carried out in the Orient upon the death of a prominent governmental adviser:
Buddhist priests handled the rites. Firecrackers were set off to chase away evil spirits. Rice paper containing prayers was burned, in the belief that this would benefit the spirit of the dead man. Food, drink and tobacco were placed near the corpse so that the spirit could refresh itself whenever it chose to do so.
Thereafter the body was placed in a casket, which remained in a room of the funeral home for forty-nine days. For six days the eldest son mourned there. On the seventh day he returned home to sleep, bathe and change clothes. The cycle of six days of mourning and one day of rest was then repeated for the full course of the forty-nine days. Practically without any break in the entire period, firecrackers were set off, while flutes, drums and crashing cymbals resounded around the clock.
The forty-ninth day witnessed the impressive funeral march. Bands played. Along the route firecrackers strung on telephone poles, lampposts and trees were set off. Food, drink and tobacco were put on the altar tables, and paper containing prayers, as well as joss sticks, was burned in the little shrines set up all along the route. Attractive floats of paper, gold leaf and bamboo added to the colorfulness of the funeral march. Many of the mourners carried lanterns, the purpose of such lanterns being to light the way for the spirit of the dead man. At the graveside the beautiful floats, representing palaces, airplanes, ships, armies, servants and other things, were burned.
In the case of persons having lesser means and prominence, similar procedures are followed but on a much smaller scale. For example, fewer and less elaborate paper items are burned.
Belief in a purgatory is the underlying basis for such burning of paper items. After a person’s death, the spirit is believed to wander in purgatory for two years, but needing help to enter heaven. The offerings made in the form of paper items are designed to show that the dead man lived a good life and has everything needed to function in the next world. This being the case, many Chinese believe, his spirit should be freed from purgatory sooner.
How do you react to such elaborate and costly ceremonies? Would you share in similar practices? If so, why?
If you believe that the dead need your help, what positive evidence do you have that something conscious survives the death of the body? What makes you sure that the means used to help the dead are effective? How, for example, could one prove that lanterns light the way for a spirit, that firecrackers chase away evil spirits and that burned paper items can help the spirit of the deceased to enter celestial bliss? What basis is there for claiming that such things are effective means for helping the spirits of the dead?
While religious ceremonies to help the dead may be quite different in your area, could anyone prove to your satisfaction that what is done brings beneficial results?
It is worth while, too, to consider how much justice and fairness are found in these efforts to help the dead. Those having great wealth naturally can buy far more firecrackers, paper items or other things supposed to aid the dead. What, then, of the poor person? Though he might have lived a good life, he would be at a disadvantage if no one did anything after his death. Also, the poor person who buys things to aid the dead labors under a great financial burden, while the rich person is only slightly affected.
How do you feel about such obvious partiality? Would you be drawn to a god that would favor the rich over the poor without consideration for what they are as persons? The God of the Bible shows no such partiality. Of him, the Holy Scriptures say: “There is no partiality with God.”—Romans 2:11.
Now suppose a person realized that religious ceremonies in behalf of the dead were valueless, completely out of harmony with the will of the impartial God. Would it be reasonable for him to engage in them just for the sake of tradition and to avoid being different from his neighbors? Is it logical to support religious ceremonies that one considers to be a falsehood? Is it right to go along with something that favors the rich and puts a hardship on the poor?
CHRISTENDOM’S BELIEF IN PURGATORY
The belief that the dead need help to get out of purgatory is not limited to non-Christian religions. The New Catholic Encyclopedia states:
“The souls in purgatory can be helped by works of piety, such as prayer, indulgences, alms, fasting, and sacrifices. . . . While one cannot dictate that God apply the satisfactory value of his works to the poor souls, he may certainly hope that God will hear his petitions and help the members of the Church suffering.”
How strong a guarantee is offered that such efforts will bring benefit? The Encyclopedia continues:
“Because the application of these good works depends on one’s petition to God, there is no infallible assurance that one’s prayers help an individual soul in purgatory, or any one of them, here and now. But the mercy and love of God for the souls in purgatory, who are already so close to Him, surely prompt Him to speed their release from the period of purification when the faithful on earth direct their prayers to this purpose.”
Thus no genuine assurance is given that the things done in behalf of those believed to be in purgatory really accomplish something. And there is no basis for giving such assurance, for the Bible does not do so. It does not even contain the word “purgatory.” The New Catholic Encyclopedia acknowledges: “In the final analysis, the Catholic doctrine on purgatory is based on tradition, not Sacred Scripture.”—Vol. 11, p. 1034.
Granted, tradition is not necessarily bad. But this particular tradition is out of harmony with God’s Word. The Scriptures do not teach that the “soul” survives the death of the body. Obviously, then, it cannot be subjected to a period of purification in purgatory. Hence, the words of Jesus Christ to the Jewish religious leaders could rightly be directed to those teaching the purgatory doctrine: “You have made the word of God invalid because of your tradition. You hypocrites, Isaiah aptly prophesied about you, when he said, ‘This people honors me with their lips, yet their heart is far removed from me. It is in vain that they keep worshiping me, because they teach commands of men as doctrines.’”—Matthew 15:6-9.
Consider also the means for helping those in purgatory, in the light of what is taught in the Holy Scriptures. As noted in the New Catholic Encyclopedia, prayer is one of the works of piety that supposedly can help the souls in purgatory. Concerning such prayers, the booklet Assist the Souls in Purgatory (published by the Benedictine Convent of Perpetual Adoration) says:
“A short but fervent prayer is often of greater benefit to the poor souls than a prolonged form of devotion which is wanting in attention. Innumerable are the short ejaculatory prayers to which the Church has granted indulgences, all of which are applicable to the poor souls. . . . How easily we can multiply these little fiery darts of prayer during the day as we go from task to task, and even while our hands are busy with some occupation! . . . How many souls could we not relieve or release from purgatory if frequently during the day we offered this short indulgenced prayer of the Church for the departed: ‘Eternal rest give unto them, O Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon them. May they rest in peace. Amen.’ (Ind[ulgence] of 300 days each time. ‘Manual of Indulgences,’ 582.) If we repeat with fervent devotion the holy names of ‘Jesus, Mary, Joseph’ an indulgence of seven years may be gained each time.”
Does it not seem strange to you that the repetition of three names would be eight times as effective as a considerably longer, twenty-word prayer? Is repetition of a prayer over and over again what God approves? Concerning this, Jesus Christ said: “When praying, do not say the same things over and over again, just as the people of the nations do, for they imagine they will get a hearing for their use of many words. So, do not make yourselves like them.”—Matthew 6:7, 8.
Rather than your saying memorized phrases over and over again, the Bible encourages heartfelt expressions in prayer.
Not to be overlooked is the role that money has had in relation to the purgatory doctrine. Of course, it might be argued that interest in gaining money for the church is not the reason for that teaching. But this does not change the fact that the religious organizations adhering to the purgatory doctrine are pleased to receive material offerings. No one is ever censured by the church for trying to buy his or someone else’s way out of purgatory. No one is ever advised by the church that it would be better for him to use his limited material assets for necessities of life. For centuries rich and poor alike have been filling the coffers of religious organizations in the hope of reducing the time they or their loved ones are in purgatory. Observes author Corliss Lamont, in his book The Illusion of Immortality:
“The religious ceremonies connected with the departed have meant untold wealth for the Church. Particularly has this been true in the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox faiths where much stress is laid upon masses, prayers and other good offices on behalf of the dead, the dying and all those in any way concerned over their future state.
“Since the early Middle Ages the Catholic Church has obtained, through the granting of indulgences alone, huge sums from rich and poor alike. These indulgences, given in return for money payments, almsgiving or other kinds of offerings, provide that one’s own soul or the soul of a deceased relative or friend be spared all or part of its destined punishment in purgatory. . . . In Russia the Orthodox Church accumulated enormous wealth through similar intercessions on behalf of the dead. Besides the steady income from workers and peasants anxious to mitigate divine retribution, many members of the nobility and upper class endowed monasteries and churches on condition that daily prayers be said for their departed souls.”
If it were true that such material offerings did benefit the dead, this would mean that God is interested in money. But he does not need anyone’s money or material possessions. Speaking through the inspired psalmist, God declares: “I will not take out of your house a bull, out of your pens he-goats. For to me belongs every wild animal of the forest, the beasts upon a thousand mountains. I well know every winged creature of the mountains, and the animal throngs of the open field are with me. If I were hungry, I would not say it to you; for to me the productive land and its fullness belong.”—Psalm 50:9-12.
Really, all the riches in the world cannot help a dead man. Money and material possessions cannot even save him from dying. As the Bible says: “Those who are trusting in their means of maintenance, and who keep boasting about the abundance of their riches, not one of them can by any means redeem even a brother, nor give to God a ransom for him; (and the redemption price of their soul is so precious that it has ceased to time indefinite) that he should still live forever and not see the pit.”—Psalm 49:6-9.
There can be no question that efforts to help the dead are unscriptural. The teaching that the dead can be aided by the living has only put a heavy burden on people. Knowledge of God’s Word, however, frees one from this false idea. This can provide for us real incentive to do our best while our family members are still alive to make them feel that they are needed, loved and appreciated. After their death it is too late for anyone to make up for neglected acts of kindness and consideration.
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Taoist rites, said to release a soul from purgatory
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Catholic rites, said to aid souls in purgatory