November and remembering the dead

In some places the whole month of November, and not just All Souls day, is a time when people are keenly aware of remembering and praying for the dead.

I grew up with the practice of having a stack of envelopes on the altar during Mass—donation envelopes on which people wrote the names of the deceased for whom they wanted prayers. I never liked it. An uncluttered altar brings our attention to rest on the Eucharistic elements in their beauty and simplicity. A packet of envelopes, even if listing names of the dead, looks like a reminder of… well, money. The impulse to remember and pray for the dead is certainly understandable and laudable, but is this the best organization of our symbols?

Book of Names of the DeadLiturgy Training Publications at one point came out with a Book of the Names of the Dead—a handsome ledger, soberly illustrated, in which the faithful could write the names of people who have died and for whom they wished the prayers of the community. (I believe they were the first. There may be others. Does anyone know?) This seemed like a good idea—better than a stack of envelopes, anyway—but where is the book kept during November? In the narthex? By the baptismal font? With votive candles?

One parish I worked at had a very long white scroll hung on a pillar, on which the names of all the persons who had been buried from the parish during the preceding year were written in large, calligraphic letters. It had a particular focus in that it spoke to the recently bereaved. The bereavement committee wanted it to remain for the whole month of November. But once Advent began and the whole environment of the church changed for the new season… Shouldn’t the month of November give way to Advent? People disagreed about that.

Recently, I was touched to receive an invitation from St. John’s Abbey to fill out a small slip of paper with names of my own beloved dead. It was explained that these are put in a basket, and as the monks come into church, they each take one and pray for those souls during the service. This felt more personal, yet it was also a reminder of the communion of saints in that intercession extends beyond praying for the people we know personally. I liked this idea.

Cemetery visits during the month of November are another way that Catholics bring together prayer and remembrance, grief and hope. Numerous rituals surround such visits.

Surely there’s no single answer or best solution for every community or individual, even if there are some general principles to be observed, such as respect for the liturgical seasons and integrity in the use of symbols. There are probably many effective customs and practices, according to the local setting, culture, and sensibility. Your thoughts?


  1. Several years ago the parish bought a copy of the LTP publication you noted. It is in place by the font, along with the Paschal candle, which is lit during November whenever Mass or any liturgy is celebrated.
    On Nov. 2, we had a special evening “Mass of Remembering” followed by a dinner. We invited the families of those who had been buried from the parish, along with the parish families of those who had experienced a death during the year that was celebrated elsewhere, to come to the liturgy and be our guests for dinner. Parishioners were also invited to attend. During the liturgy, the names of these dead were inscribed in the book after the homily. The deacon than carried the book to the altar for the Eucharist.
    We also invite parishioners to bring pictures of those who they especially remember during November. These are hung on the walls of our worship space by the liturgy committee during the month, but are moved when the Advent begins. Our worship space is very plain and relatively new so the photos are an enhancement of the environment during November.
    The presider also names those who have died during the year–parishioners and relatives of parishioners–each Sunday in the Eucharistic Prayer. The whole month–pictures, Nov. 2, names on Sunday during the Eucharistic Prayer–seems to have a profound impact on our parishioners.
    Some years we’ve taken advantage of the opportunity to do a special educational session on the OCF.

  2. In my apartment living room there is a breakfront. In November, my wife and I clear the top of it and place the prayer cards from the funerals of our beloved deceased with their names or images showing. A votive candle is at the center with an image of the Risen One next to it. This year, we’ve added that beautiful prayer from the Benedictines of St. John to our shrine for the dead.

  3. At my parish we place the Book of the Names of the Dead on a table just below the altar. We send an envelope out in October on which people may write the names of loved ones who are not yet in the book. They are also given the opportunity to request Mass intentions. On one wall of the church we place placards bearing the name of everyone who died in the parish since last All Souls Day. On the walls in the baptistry, through which all people pass, we place the pictures of loved ones which people loan us for that purpose. All of the ways of remembering the dead are well received throughout the month of November.

  4. When I was at the Cathedral of the Sacred Heart in Winona the community had the tradition of listing the names of all those who had died since the founding of the Cathedral due to the merging of two parishes. They were placed on the walls of the church so we were literally surrounded by those who had gone before us. On Christ the King we would read the names of those who had died in the past year and incense them during a song by the choir. It was always a beautiful remembrance.
    In my present parish we place a Book of the Deceased near the Baptismal Font and invite people to write the names of their loved ones in it. This year we will also be reading the names of those who have died this year which will be followed by Nadia Boulanger’s Lux Aeterna (if we get it all put together). Some year I hope to do a vespers or Mass for those who have lost loved ones.

  5. Yes! We ordered one of those – it was produced by LTP back in the days when it enjoyed a pretty good reputation, and before Gabe Huck was unceremoniously ejected. We try not to patronize LTP in the post-Gabe era.

    Fr. John: I am sure the Boulanger would be beautful!

    Our Month of Remembrance sort of got shunted aside due to all the preparations for the Roman Missal and another major project. I hope we can return it next year.

  6. Our Book for the Names of the Dead didn’t get put out this year, someone forgot all about it. But we had a great evening celebraiton on Nov. 2.

  7. We have a Book of the Dead that is placed on a book stand in front of the ambo and is available through the month of Nov until Advent. The names of people buried from the church during the preceding year are inscribed in calligraphy before Nov. and people are invited to write their own names of people in, also indicating their relationship. This has been done for a number of years, and I think it’s simple and meaningful. More recently we’ve begun singing a litany of saints as the response during prayers of the faithful, which also seems fitting. My husband and I made our annual cemetery visits yesterday afternoon on a beautiful autumn day.

  8. For many years, one of our parishioners writes the names of all who were buried from the Church from the previous October 31st in calligraphy on a large scroll that is hung in Our Lady’s side chapel of the Church which also contains the baptismal font and Paschal candle. A podium in front of it has the “Book of the Dead” from LTP for people to add additional names. Both are placed in the Church in time for November 2 and remain there through Christ the King Sunday. In addition, all the names on the scroll are chanted as a prelude to our evening Mass of All Souls which is an EF Requiem singing Faure’s Requiem. However, the following Sunday, all the names were again chanted as a prelude to each Sunday’s Mass with everyone kneeling. It’s quite effective and moving.

  9. Fr. Allan – wonderful ideas and experiences. Wish our parish did even a little of this. What a way to “sing the memories” versus sing at the memories.

    We do highlight and sign a book that stays in the narthex but this is a minimal step compared to what you all do. Do you also work with your school on this and include them in some way?

    1. We haven’t actively engaged our school–it only goes to 6th grade, but of course they are present each week for the school Mass and reference is made of the scroll and they are invited to add any names they wish to the book of the dead. The scroll and chanting of the names did allow for me in my homily this past Sunday as our Scriptures become a bit more apocalyptic for the end of the Liturgical year to observe that when I see the scroll for the first time after it is placed in the church that I have two reactions, of being alarmed and relieved. I’m alarmed at how many funerals we’ve had over the past year and pray that we’ve had an equal number of baptisms and I’m relieved that my name is not on the scroll–but who knows who will be on it next year sitting in the church now. That’s a bit sobering to say the least.

  10. I was also very touched by the practice at St. John’s Abbey. I rushed to send my little slip of paper with the names of people I love who have died. Having been at St. John’s this summer, I feel a deep solidarity with the monks as I pray.
    We can learn from them!

  11. In my parish we have a substantial shrine to the dead set up from All Souls Day until Christ the King, including a large bound book with the year’s deceased written in calligraphy plus a ceremonial binder with pages where people can write in names. On All Souls Day, we invited all of the families of the deceased to a Mass of Remembrance where we solemnly read the names and lit a votive candle for each. Reception followed, good attendance, people really appreciate the gathering.

    Several years ago I designed a graveside prayer card that we make available at the all souls shrine. The front of the card has a graveside blessing prayer from the Book of Household Blessings & Prayers, and the back of the card has the text of Revelations 21: 1-5. I’ve used this card in three parishes to encourage the practice of visiting cemeteries, it has been well-received.

  12. At my previous parish, people signed a Book of the Dead situated on a lectern near the sanctuary by the font and Easter candle; there were donation envelopes for memorials discreetly placed nearby.

    Before the closing song, the presider would hold the Book up while we sang a short ref. and verse, such as Fly Like a Bird, I Know That My Redeemer Lives (Soper), and Browning’s We Remember (which was slightly adapted). No names were read aloud, though, like most parishes, the names of the deceased were either on the cover of the bulletin or included as a bulletin insert on the Sunday preceeding Nov. 1.

    We did not do this for Advent 1, which usually occurs in Nov. That seems appropriate to me. New season and readings, new focus.

    My mother died this year in June, 2 months after a cancer diagnosis. In my current home parish (I work at another one), a remembrance of the dead on Oct. 29 and 30 at all masses, done after the homily, consisted of reciting groups of names of people buried from the parish, and family members of staff and a few others, between singing the new Lux Eterna refrain in the 2012 Breaking Bread, which has an easy echo part.

    The family member(s) would come forward as the name was called, receive a tea light candle and light it from a volunteer’s taper that had been lit off the Easter candle. Then parishioners who had lost a loved one that wasn’t on the recited list came forward to do the same, and another song was sung.

    All tea lights were placed on a large mirror set on a pedestal in front of the altar. A beautiful sight, and very touching. I felt honored to be able to remember my mother and cry along with others still grieving their loved ones.

    In previous years, the parish had a ladder with shelving to hold photos of the deceased; the tea light was placed by the photo. That worked well when there weren’t so many funerals (except people would forget to reclaim the photo sometimes).

  13. In the parish I ministered in in the San Fernando Valley in the 1990s, we would hang long golden ribbons down one side wall of the church during the month of November, and pin cards to them with the names of all who had died in the parish during the previous twelve months. Every single one of those names would be read out during the Eucharistic Prayer at a special Mass towards the end of November to remember all these people.

    At the conclusion of the Mass, all those present would be invited to take home the card bearing the name (beautiful calligraphy) of their deceased relative. In some ways that was the most moving part of the whole ceremony — the point when they went and took the card (assistants would unpin it from the ribbon). It was a tangible memento of the fact that the whole church had prayed for their loved one. Only a few cards were left each year — those whose relatives could not be present at the special Mass.

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