How to Pray the Ancient and Powerful Office of the Dead

“Let us not hesitate to help those who have died and to offer our prayers for them.” —St. John Chrysostom

Alsace, Bas-Rhin, Église protestante de Notre Seigneur Jésus-Christ de Bischheim
Alsace, Bas-Rhin, Église protestante de Notre Seigneur Jésus-Christ de Bischheim (photo: Public Domain)

At first glance, the above title (“the Office for the Dead”) sounds like some soul-crushing nine-to-five, suburban “office park” job where your very life is slowly sapped away from you. However, what we refer to in the Office for (or, if you prefer, of) the Dead” is the Liturgy of the Hours that is set aside for that explicit purpose: to pray for the dead.

It has been remarked in these pages that we should not forget the dead, and that is very much true, especially as November is the month of All Saints and All Souls.

However, what sets the Office for the Dead apart from many other good and pious practices and devotions — the apogee being a Mass said in remembrance of the faithful departed — is that it is a liturgy that one can practice alone at any time (barring the day being a Sunday or a Solemnity).

In a perfect world the Divine Office is said in common, and even better, in choir. However, the world is, of course, far from perfect, and getting a quorum together at a given time to recite the Holy Offices is no small feat — though I did belong to one parish in the Diocese of Paterson where Vespers were said every Monday night, and about 10 souls, including priests and religious sisters, along with the laity, regularly showed up.

But the beauty of the Liturgy of the Hours in general and the Office for the Dead in particular is that it may be recited alone — and at the same time this “individual” prayer is united to the prayer of the Church: hence the term “liturgy.”

While the Second Vatican Council did some damage to the Divine Office — gutting it of the office of Prime completely and totally rearranging both the longest “hour” (Matins, or Vigils) and the shortest hour (Compline, or Night Prayer) — to its credit it did give this beautiful, enduring, and timeless liturgy to an entirely new group of pray-ers: the laity, that is, the greatest number of people who make up our Catholic Church.

Yes, of course, the Little Office of the Blessed Virgin Mary had been available to sodalities and confraternities of laypeople for centuries and, in truth, there was no prohibition against an everyday Catholic saying any of the eight Liturgical Hours (assuming, of course, that person had the Breviary and an exceptional knowledge not only of Latin, but of the inscrutable rubrics that govern the prayers) — yet with the post-1967 Liturgy of the Hours (not the most mellifluous renaming) the Office of the Dead suddenly became the province of every Christian who cares to pray for those who have gone before us.

This is, of course, one of the things that makes our faith so unique: we pray for the dead, that they may be released from Purgatory and behold the Beatific Vision, and we believe that they, in turn, pray for us in this valley of tears.

So whenever someone I know (or knew) dies, I try to immediately say the Office for The Dead (or at least “the Office Of Readings” part of it which corresponds, roughly, with what was once Matins/Vigils). But as mentioned above, since we spend most of November in remembrance of the faithful departed, why not set aside a day, or even several days, to pray Officium Defunctorum (to use its now-back-in-force Latin title)?

For the beginner, you can find the Office of the Dead in the back pages of the one-volume Christian Prayer (Catholic Book Publishing Company), as well as the single-volume Benedictine Daily Prayer: A Short Breviary: Revised Edition (Liturgical Press — though the “inclusive language” is a bit off-putting). The Office of the Dead is also included in every one of the four volumes of the definitive the Liturgy of the Hours (also from Catholic Book Publishing) , the three-volume Breviarium Romanum/Roman Breviary (in English and Latin, according to the 1962 rubrics and published by Baronius Press), and in Latin only in the two-volume Breviarium Romanum (Nova & Vetera Verlag).

Don’t have any of the above books and you are not about to shell out $50 for the least expensive of them? No worries. You can rig your own “Liturgy of the Dead” using just your Bible and the following:

  1. Begin with “O Lord Open My Lips / And my mouth will declare your praise” while making a small cross on your lips.
  2. Turn to Psalm 95 in your psalter or Bible. (You can also use Psalms 100, 24 or 67).
  3. After each strophe in this psalm repeat the antiphon “Come, let us worship the Lord, all things live for Him.”
  4. At the end of the psalm recite the “Glory Be”
  5. Repeat the antiphon again.
  6. The Hymn is next. Any suitable dirge will do.
  7. Next, read Psalms 40 and 42 (Psalm 40 is broken in two: the first seven stanzas, then the next seven), using the Antiphons at the beginning and end of each: “From the Earth You Formed Me, With Flesh You Clothed Me: Lord, My Redeemer, raise me up again at the Last Day” and “Lord, may it please you to rescue me; look upon me and help me.” “My soul is thirsting for the Living God: when Shall I see Him, Face to Face?” At the end of each of the three add the Glory Be.
  8. Next say, “Lord, countless are your Mercies / Give Me life according to your Word.”
  9. A Reading from 1 Corinthians 15: 12-24 follows, or 1 Corinthians 15: 35-57 or 2 Corinthians 4: 16—5: 10
  10. Since a patristic reading follows—and chances are you don’t have St. Augustine’s Sermo 172; 1-3 PL 38, 936-7, you can substitute the Gospel of John 12:23-26.
  11. The final prayer follows: “Let Us Pray: Lord, hear our prayers. By raising your Son from the dead, you have given us faith. Strengthen our hope that [NAME] , our brother (Sister) will share in His resurrection. We ask this in through Our Lord Jesus Christ, Your Son, Who lives and reigns with You in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, Forever and ever. Amen.” And conclude with: “Let us praise the Lord. And give Him Thanks. Amen.”

If this entire office takes more than 23 minutes, I’d be amazed.

My hope is that this truncated version of the Office of the Dead will lead some to pray for our beloved departed, but also introduce you to the beauty of the Divine Office, truly one of the treasures of our Faith tradition — as is praying for the dead.