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?
Liturgy 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?