WASHINGTON, D.C.- The earliest evidence we have of human religious practice is the burial of the dead in paleolithic tombs with clothing, tools, food and other grave-goods.
The obvious implication is a belief in life after death, and that the offerings of the family of the deceased could somehow help him or her in the afterlife. This concept is more fully developed in ancient Egypt, where some of the oldest surviving religious texts in the world are tomb inscriptions describing the ongoing prayers, offerings and rituals that should be perpetually performed by special "soul priests" on behalf of the deceased.
Greeks and Romans believed that the dead needed to be properly buried, and "fed" with sacrifices and grave offerings. In some tomb epitaphs, the dead "speak" to passersby, requesting them to remember them.
Chinese religion is also intimately connected to the veneration of ancestors, where incense and prayers are regularly offered before an ancestral tablet listing the names of the departed. Likewise, regular offerings must be given to propitiate the "hungry ghosts" ("egui").
In Hinduism, the ashes of the cremated dead are poured into the purifying waters of the Ganges to guarantee liberation or a blessed afterlife. The soul of the deceased is also symbolically bound or sealed to his dead ancestors by the "sapindikarana" ritual. Other ancestor offerings ("shraddha") are continued regularly thereafter.
Tibetan Buddhists engage in light offerings, mantras, sutra readings, prostrations, prayers and readings from the "Book of the Dead" in order to help departed souls achieve a blessed afterlife and rebirth.
Muslim funerals include the "salat al-janazah," calling upon God to forgive the dead and admit them into paradise. This includes an invocation that God might "wash him (the deceased) with water … and cleanse him of sin as a white garment is cleansed of dirt."
Some ancient Jews also practiced rituals of salvation for the dead, most notably in 2 Maccabees 12:42-45, where prayers and sacrifices are offered to atone for the sins of the deceased.
It is in Christianity, however, that rituals, prayers and blessings for the dead achieve their most fully developed form. These Christian beliefs are in part based on New Testament passages such as 1 Peter 3:18-20, 4:6, and 1 Corinthians 15.29. But the fundamental basis for Christian belief in salvation for the dead was that the atonement of Christ — itself a vicarious act, a form of "proxy" service — was temporally universal, presenting the opportunity for salvation to both those who lived before Jesus and those who would come after him. Thus, early Christian writings such as the "Gospel of Nicodemus" describe Jesus' descent into "hades" — the underworld where the dead dwell—to rescue the righteous dead and lead them to salvation (see J. Trumbower, "Rescue for the Dead"). This salvific descent, sometimes known as the "Descensus" or the "Harrowing of Hell," is commemorated in many Christian icons and church murals.
Both Roman Catholicism and Greek Orthodoxy have special prayers and masses for the benefit of the souls of the departed. Saint Mark of Ephesus (d. 1445) wrote that "we can do nothing better or greater for the dead than to pray for them, offering commemoration for them at the liturgy." Likewise, in Dante's "Purgatorio" dead souls continually beg Dante to ask their relatives say prayers and burn candles to help them progress through purgatory. Pope Gregory the Great is said to have similarly prayed for the soul of the pagan Roman emperor Trajan, who was posthumously baptized and permitted to enter heaven, where Dante encounters him in the "Paradiso."
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Among the most highly developed forms of Christian rites of salvation for the dead is found within The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Based on 1 Corinthians 15:29 and modern revelation, Mormons regularly baptize departed ancestors by proxy—the living acting in the name of the dead — and seal them into eternal family groups. Thus the eternal brotherhood of all humankind is ritually emphasized by ever-expanding links of past, present, and future families. Although such actions are occasionally controversial in some contemporary circles, Latter-day Saints believe that these rituals are acts of devotion and love for the souls of the departed.
The fundamental religious belief expressed in all these practices is that through faith, prayer and ritual the living can aid the dead, helping them to achieve a blessed afterlife. Even the common brief blessing when mentioning the name of the departed — "may he rest in peace" — is a prayer for the soul. These are nearly universal acts of love and commemoration, honoring and blessing departed friends and relatives, binding generations together.