Prayers for the Dead
Prayers for the dead have no command, promise, example or form to be found in Sacred Scripture, so…how did it come about that the practice of praying for the dead arose in the Church? Martin Chemnitz explains it well in Examination of the Council of Trent.
After the time of the apostles, human affection for the dead began little by little to bring prayers and offerings for the dead into the church. For since among the heathen a great part of religion served prayers and offerings for the dead, and most Christians had been converted from paganism, and thought that the Christian religion ought not to make men more inhumane, they retained the custom of praying for the dead, as also many other customs, bent slightly, as seemed good to them, in the direction of Christian piety.
But since they lacked testimonies and examples of Scripture, certain
apocryphal writings were, as I have said, disseminated, in order that
this might not seem to be altogether out of harmony with Christian
piety. Thus when the heathen on set days, and particularly at
anniversaries, prayed for their dead, they also brought meals to the
sepulchers from which they thought a certain amount of comfort would
derive to the dead; this also crept into the church, as Augustine
complains, Letter No. 64. Elsewhere indeed this was reformed in such a
way that, in memory of the dead, friends brought food and other
donations for use by the poor and by the clergy, as one gathers from
Origen, Bk. 3 on Job; those who brought these things were called
sportulantes (basket carriers), Cyprian, Bk. 1, Epistle 9. Later such
basket collections began to be made when they celebrated the Eucharist,
and they were called offerings.
Memorials for the departed and prayers for the dead were at first made
privately, by friends, as according to Tertullian a husband prays for
his deceased wife. Later, according to Origen, Bk. 3 on Job, priests
began to be invited to them. According to Dionysius prayer for the dead
is made in church, but without celebration of the Eucharist. Finally,
as all prayers of the church were customarily recited during the action
of the mysteries of the Eucharist, so also the commemoration and
commendation of the departed was transferred into this action. Thus, as
happens in the case of human tradition and in a custom which is an
adiaphoron, there were varied and dissimilar observances.
From all these things it is plain and manifest that prayer for the dead
is not an apostolic teaching, or a divine command, or an article of
faith, or a necessary dogma, but a human tradition, introduced by free
and varied custom, and finally firmly established by superstitious
observance. Therefore no authority can be gained from there for the
purgatorial fire of the papalists without canonical Scripture; much
less can expiations, propitiations, and satisfactions for the sins of
the departed through the works of the living be established from there
Martin Chemnitz and Fred Kramer, Examination of the Council of Trent, Translation of Examen Concilii Tridentini., electronic ed., 3:262 (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1999, c1971).