All Souls — Gathered as the Living, Remembering the Dead

An old friend of mine, living in Germany, described to me over the phone what had just happened in the village we had lived in together for some years:  Folks gathered in the cemetery.  Families had decorated the graves of their loved ones and ancestors, with flowers, mementos, and candles. The priest and acolytes processed to the cemetery from the parish church, accompanied by trumpets.  At the cemetery, all the graves were blessed.  As evening fell, the candles began to shine forth brightly. They illumined the cemetery through the night.

I have witnessed this scene many times, and I know what it means for my friend.  Her mother is buried in this cemetery, so is her husband; so is her daughter who took her own life as a young woman.  My friend knows that she herself does not have much longer to live, and that this will be her final resting place on earth. It is a good place.  At the entrance to the cemetery is a gate with a plaque that reads: “Death is entrance to life.”

On this All Souls Day, I miss those comforting places that are shared (rather than private) where the veil between the living and the dead is so very thin; where we can remember together our beloved dead; and face – in community, prayer, song, and blessing – our own finitude.

I know of course that all across North America, this indeed is how the day of the dead is celebrated in Hispanic communities, and richly so.  But why are there so many other communities that seem impoverished when it comes to remembering the beloved dead?


  1. I would suggest that our mobility is one issue. My parents and other relatives are buried on the other side of the continent. My husband’s side of the family, is, for the most part, buried in a small rural cemetery 6 hours north of Edmonton. Given the climate in these parts (some areas of the province had 15 cm of snow yesterday), they used to have their annual gathering at the cemetery (cemetery clean-up, picnic, telling stories, remembering) in summer. When I met my husband, I was fascinated to hear of such gatherings because I was not familiar with them. I came to appreciate being able to shovel dirt into the grave. When my mother died five years ago, I insisted that we were going to fill her grave, too. The funeral director checked with me at least 4 or 5 times to make sure that I really wanted to do that, and then we were only allowed to fill it partially; cemetery staff had to finish the job once we had left the graveside. Only once do I remember participating in a procession from church to cemetery, in a small community in Quebec; it was very moving, and a very different experience from driving across town to the cemetery. For the most part, churches with their adjoining cemeteries have given way to cemeteries that are often miles from the church where the funeral is celebrated. Sometimes getting there takes as much time as the funeral liturgy itself. This reality moves these comforting reminders of our own finitude very far away. The intimate “communion” possible in the village setting you describe is rendered invisible in this context.
    In many parishes here, the annual “Mass of Remembrance” held sometime in November, and the Book of Remembrance in which we can write the names of our beloved dead, is about the closest thing that we have to a ritual of remembering.

  2. Burial rites across the world vary considerably as we know. Last year I was in Flores, Indonesia, with our colleague Dr Bernadus Ujan svd. We attended the funeral of his friend. She spent the two days after death in the front room of her family home, with her family and friends keeping vigil (giving a whole new meaning to the burning of incense). On the day of the funeral we gathered just outside the house and in view of the body where we celebrated the funeral Mass. The body was then taken to the other side of the yard for the burial, where all assisted to shovel the dirt. This gave me a whole new insight into ‘burying the dead’.
    In my own country Aboriginal Australians still take on average 90 days from the time of death where they begin to engage in a series of funeral rites until the final Christian funeral and burial. The immediate family of mourners spend this time in sorry camp. The lengthy period ensures that everyone knows of the death, and is able to travel to the place of burial if they wish.
    Perhaps a learning for those of us who seem to need a ‘quick fix’ in all things including death …

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.