Prayer of Absolution over the Deceased

During the funeral service, while performing the last rights for a deceased Christian, the priest reads the prayer of absolution written in the distinct certificate that he brings with him.  Then he overshadows the deceased with the sign of the cross and places the certificate in his hands. What is this church document and what is its purpose? Can a priest forgive the sins of an already dead person? Let’s try to find the answers in this article. 

Assigning Penance

In the tradition of the ancient church, in contrast to modern pastoral practice, the custom of using various church penances was quite widespread. Penance was constituted in a considerably long period of excommunication from participating in the Sacrament of the Holy Eucharist, which essentially meant excommunication from the church itself, since being a part of the “small flock” is expressed first of all in the joint communion of the Holy Gifts. Depending on the severity of the sin committed, excommunication could last up to 20-25 years, for example, in the case of adultery, murder, etc. Christians who had sinned had to “prove” their correction in practice and become “more virtuous” in order to be admitted into the community of the faithful.

Needless to say, in the modern conditions of a secularized society, the church is governed by pastoral oeconomy (Greek: οἰκονομία, oikonomia) and does not apply the letter of disciplinary norms, so as not to inflict severe pastoral harm, forever losing an already infirm church-goer desiring, however, to be in communion with Christ. It is generally worth noting that penitential discipline still remains in the church, having assumed, however, a rather “therapeutic” character, expressed through spiritual exercises, prayer readings, attending services, keeping the fast and other godly deeds. A parishioner who has been to confession, assuming his proper preparation, is admitted to the Sacrament of the Eucharist. However, in ancient times, as already mentioned, the bishop or priest had to make sure that the sinful affliction was overcome and the penance was “performed”. Only after that, the cleric read over the repentant son of the church a prayer of permission, sacramentally absolving a person’s sins, and also removing the church prohibitions. 

Now that we have outlined this practice, we can move on to the prayer of absolution, whose meaning, in the particular cases when it is read over the deceased, is not entirely clear.  The purpose of this prayer appears to have changed from the original abolition of excommunication to one that can be figuratively described as “preventive and prophylactic”, i. e. for the forgiveness of the forgotten sins.

The Prayer of Absolution

There is an opinion among believers that the letter of absolution, read by the priest over the deceased, is an analogue of the priestly forgiveness during the Sacrament of Confession. This however is not entirely true. In this prayer the priest asks God to forgive all sins and sinful thoughts “binding” the believer, but of which the believer has repented with contrition. As you can see, the prayer intercedes for the forgiveness of repentant sins only, not all sins in general, let alone unrepentant. The second part of the prayer is directly related to the church penance, or, more precisely to the existing church rule (canon 32 of the Holy Apostles), according to which all penances or church prohibitions are removed from a person who is nearing his death, so that the final spiritual instruction could be given to him in the form of Communion. If the person survived, then the penance took effect again. 

Usually, only the bishop could remove penance, but the presbyter could also do it for the dying. For this purpose, he was given a letter from the bishop, which he read over the excommunicated Christian’s death bed in order to freely impart on him the Holy Mysteries (Writings of the Kiev Theological Academy, 1876). In the event of death, the rolled letter was placed into the hand of the deceased, bearing evidence that he had been forgiven and that he could be prayed for during the proskomedia . There are many historical examples that testify to the antiquity of this church tradition. One of the earliest such testimonies is the story by the biographer of St Gregory the Great (+ 604), mentioning the latter writing a prayer of absolution from church anathema to be read over the grave of a monk who died in excommunication from the Sacraments. Similar prayers were also read in the East; for example, Emperor Constantine VII Flavius Porphyrogenitus (905-959) once beseeched the hierarchs to read a prayer of absolution over his father who died in excommunication (his father Leo VI the Wise was in his 4th marriage, forbidden by the church).  The custom of putting the letter in the hand of the deceased appeared in Russia in the 11th century. 

The prayer in it, albeit in a slightly different form, has its roots in hoary antiquity. The prototype of this prayer (not mentioning however penance or prohibitions) is found in the Syrian version of St James liturgy and is contained in its intercessory part, after the transubstantiation of the Holy Gifts. The current form of the prayer may have been composed in the 13th century by Herman, Bishop of Amathus in Cyprus. This prayer is not read over deceased children under the age of seven, in which case it is replaced by a particular prayer from the infant funeral service.

To this end, we see that the prayer of absolution (popularly called the “travel” prayer) was originally read to remove church prohibitions and excommunications. However, at the present time, its emphasis is shifted to the forgiveness of sins forgotten through weakness, as well as the final priestly absolution of all free and involuntary sins, possibly committed by a Christian, with only the caveat that these sins are not unrepentant. 

About the author

Reader John Nichiporuk,
Master of Theology specializing in Biblical Studies; a member of The Catalog of Good Deeds team

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