Why Have a Ritual Service 40 Days After Death?
In the Philippines, it is a tradition to offer memorial services on the 9th and 40th day of a family member’s death. From where did this tradition come? Most Filipino Catholics believe that the souls of the dead still wander in this natural world for 40 days before going to their final or transitory supernatural realm.
But if you ask evangelicals why they do this 40th day service, they usually don’t know, or mention some nebulous reason like Jesus spent 40 days on earth after his resurrection before ascending into heaven. Many Filipinos even fear that if they don’t perform this service on the 40th day after death, the soul will continue to wander and even haunt them.
Let’s look at four different views about this 40th day memorial service or prayers.
First, the Roman Catholic view. According to “40 Days After Death” in the Catholic Bulletin,
Particular Judgment occurs at death. The soul goes to heaven, hell or purgatory. If heaven or hell, there is no chance of leaving either, before or after 40 days since death. Purgatory is not necessarily 40 days for everyone or anyone. It may be hours, days, weeks, years, centuries, or millennia depending on the individual person and the attachment to sin and temporal punishment due to sin they accumulated during life. We do not say the soul wanders the earth for 39 or 40 days. The soul is judged and goes directly to heaven, hell or purgatory. They do not haunt houses, or walk the earth as ghosts.
So official Catholic doctrine rejects this 40th day belief.
Second, the Russian Orthodox view. In the Russian Orthodox tradition, memorial prayers are said on the 1st, 3rd, 9th, 40th days, and on every anniversary of of a family member’s death. In “Life After Death” by the St. Nicholas Russian Orthodox Church is a description of the stranger-than-fiction world of the soul of the departed in its first 40 days:
For the course of two days the soul enjoys relative freedom and can visit places on earth which were dear to it, but on the third day it moves into other spheres. At this time (the third day), it passes through legions of evil spirits which obstruct its path and accuse it of various sins [“toll-houses”], to which they themselves had tempted it…
Then, having successfully passed through the toll-houses and bowed down before God, the soul for the course of 37 more days visits the heavenly habitations and the abysses of hell, not knowing yet where it will remain, and only on the fortieth day is its place appointed until the resurrection of the dead.
Third, the Greek Orthodox view. According to St. George Greek Orthodox Church’s “Funerals,” the wandering of the souls that the Russian Orthodox teach is absent:
Remembering the deceased in prayer to God is an important expression of love and faith. Trisagion services [extremely abbreviated memorial services] can be done at the time of death, the third day (in honor of the Holy Trinity and Christ’s three day burial), the ninth day (in honor of the orders of angels), the fortieth day (in honor of Christ’s 40 days on earth after His Resurrection), three months, six months, nine months, one year, or any time the family feels the need.
Fourth, the Protestant view. This is the only biblical view because it is the crystal-clear biblical teaching about life after death:
But as it is, he has appeared once for all at the end of the ages to put away sin by the sacrifice of himself. And just as it is appointed for man to die once, and after that comes judgment (Hebrews 9:26-27).
Do not marvel at this, for an hour is coming when all who are in the tombs will hear his voice and come out, those who have done good to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil to the resurrection of judgment (John 5:28-29).
So the Filipino tradition of 40th day memorial services is completely based on tradition without any Biblical basis whatsoever, or worse, on pagan superstitions. It’s heaven or hell at the moment of death, and there are no second chances.
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