Why are the dead called "asleep"?

Dear apologist,

A while ago I raised of whether the dead aren’t asleep and why we call them that (i.e. “asleep”) in various prayers.

I personally now believe firmly in the doctrine of purgatory, but that still leaves me without an explanation for the many references in the liturgy (not only the Eucharistic Prayer but also the prayers of the faithful and the intercessions that are part of Vespers) to the dead as “those who are asleep”.

One possible explanation offered by other posters was that the notion of sleep applies only to the bodies of the dead, not to their souls. I don’t think this is satisfactory, as this qualification isn’t stated anywhere (while it easily could be if that was what was intended: “those whose bodies have fallen asleep”). Furthermore it seems strange that as Christians we would refer to the dead with phraseology that applies only to their bodies (i.e. corpses) when praying for them, while surely it is the salvation of their souls that we care for.

I admit that the incongruency I see (perhaps mistakenly) between the liturgy and the church’s doctrine of purgatory has not stopped bothering me. If we care for the souls of the dead and believe they are in purgatory, why does our liturgy so often refer to the dead as “asleep” (and surprisingly, never as “those in purgatory”)? I emphasize: I am not questioning the doctrine of purgatory. I am asking how to reconcile the liturgy with the doctrine.

Could you please comment on this?

Thank you


You are correct that the phrase refers essentially to the idea that our bodies are “asleep.” It is an ancient and Biblical term to refer to death. It is merely a descriptive language of appearances rather than a statement of reality.

While the souls that accept God’s mercy and love are in heaven, they also await the resurrection. We are in some sense incomplete without our bodies. God created us to be a union of body and soul. That is why our funeral prayers and prayers for the dead don’t await only the hope of heaven but also the resurrection of the dead.

The Catechism quotes an ancient homily for Holy Saturday as referring to even Jesus as asleep between crucifixion and resurrection:

635 …Today a great silence reigns on earth, a great silence and a great stillness. A great silence because the King is asleep. The earth trembled and is still because God has fallen asleep in the flesh and he has raised up all who have slept ever since the world began. . .

Clearly Jesus was truly present in the world of the dead even though His body was on earth but because the Incarnation truly and really linked the divine nature to human nature even Jesus is spoken of as “asleep” before Easter Sunday.

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