In the upcoming days there will be commemorations and celebrations in memory of the dead. Beginning Oct. 31 through Nov. 2, those of Mexican descent will gather in homes and in cemeteries to remember their deceased loved ones in Day of the Dead celebrations. The last day of this celebration, Nov. 2, is the Catholic commemoration of All Souls Day.
In the Philippines, the natives have a unique way of remembering their dead on Nov. 1 and 2 every year.
The Mexican Days of the Dead, or Dios de los Muertos, are family celebrations and welcome the return of the departed for a yearly family visit. Legend says that on Nov. 1, deceased children and infants (little angels) arrive and adults come on Nov. 2. The spirits are honored with gifts, music and prayer. Families visit graves to clean and decorate them with marigolds (which symbolize death). Gatherings at gravesides often become family reunions. Altars to the dead are erected in homes with photos of the deceased, food, drink, music, flowers and even fireworks part of the celebration. The observance celebrates the living memory of the dead and reminds families that the deceased are still bonded to their families until they meet again in the joy of heaven.
All Souls Day, which is celebrated by the Catholic Church on Nov. 2, also has a long history.
The church has always taught us that the Communion of Saints includes those faithful who have died. We are spiritually connected to the faithful departed, and from the very earliest days, Christianity has honored the memory of the dead.
We pray for the dead so that they can be forgiven their sins and attain the joy of heaven. Our prayer for the dead not only helps them, but also makes their intercession for us, the living, effective. In other words, our relationships transcend death itself.
The very early church in Rome celebrated Mass in the catacombs where the dead were laid to rest. Churches and cemeteries are designated as sacred places. As early as the ninth century, it was a custom for monasteries to set aside a day to pray for the dead. An abbot of the Benedictine monastery of Cluny was the first to establish Nov. 2 as a day for commemoration of the departed.
With the death and carnage of World War I in mind, Pope Benedict XV extended All Souls Day to the whole church in 1915. On All Souls Day, the faithful are asked to pray for the poor souls, those souls who have no one on earth to pray for them. We also pray in a special way for our deceased relatives, friends and benefactors and ask God to help them on their final journey to heaven. At this time of the year, it is a custom for many families to visit the graves of their deceased loved ones to place flowers, spruce up the gravesites and pray.
In the Philippines, people travel back home to their native provinces or cities on Nov. 1 and 2 since these days are non-working holidays. The memorial parks where the dead are laid to rest are crowded with visitors. Families and friends camp out overnight, usually staying up and sharing memories or stories while enjoying some packed foods. The supposedly gloomy atmosphere transforms into a warming sight as families gather together while thousands of candles light up the night and the fresh scent of flowers floats in the air.
The Catholic Church embraces all the dimensions of praying for and remembering the dead, whether in the traditional prayers for the deceased on All Souls Day or in the customs of Mexico and the Philippines.
The past enters the present, and the living and dead are spiritually united in a special way. Individual families and the household of faith gather around altars and places where the deceased have been laid to rest to affirm everlasting life in the face of death and joy in time of sorrow. “Life is changed not ended.”
Mark Christian is executive director of Catholic Cemeteries of the Diocese of Wilmington.