The triplet of “death holidays”—Halloween, All Saints Day and All Souls Day — have just passed, and it got me to thinking. I asked myself what is it that makes this time of year so focused on death. Perhaps it’s the shortening of the daylight hours as we approach the longest nights, reminding us of our own “end of days.”
Of the three, All Souls Day, Nov. 2, is the one that is often misunderstood, yet it’s been around in the Catholic tradition since 997 A.D. and is first mentioned in the Old Testament in 2 Maccabees 12:46:
It is therefore a holy and wholesome thought to pray for the dead that they may be loosed from sins. From my understanding, All Souls Day relates to a purely Catholic belief: Purgatory, that place of repentance for sins committed while alive. I admit I am not a theologian, so I won’t attempt to explain the spiritual meaning for faithful believers.
For modern day Catholics, a visit to the cemetery has morphed into the bringing of flowers for the graves of loved ones, along with prayer. While there, it’s a good opportunity to check on the conditions of the tombs, noting the need for painting or repair.
I recall my late father telling of his Protestant family’s annual fall picnics. They’d bring fried chicken, weed cutters, rakes and hoes to clean up the area under the tall pines in rural Central Louisiana.
As children my cousins and I would walk to the nearby St. John the Evangelist Cemetery with our grandmother and aunts carrying fresh white mums to be placed at her mother and father’s tombs. Almost every row of headstones and above-ground tombs held familiar names and related memories for them to pass on to us youngsters.
“This was my mama, Ophelia. You never met a better mother,” she’d whisper, with a tear rolling down her cheek.
Because of these visits, decades later when I’m at the cemetery, it’s easy to find these tombs and remember others.
“That’s Aunt Noon. She made the best bread pudding.” And we’d stop and say a prayer.
So, it’s not just about flowers, although to see a Catholic cemetery in early November on a sunny afternoon under a bright blue sky, is to see a swath of golden yellow and deep red flowers and foliage along with pure white mums nearby. It lifts the soul and reminds us once again of the power of the Creator.
We stop and take a moment in silent prayer while placing a hand on a cold granite headstone in an effort to “touch” a loved one once again.
Each of these gestures reminds us of our own mortality. Taking time from our busy lives to think about the departed, bringing flowers, examining their final resting places, and saying a prayer are really about remembrance.
We’re hoping that some years down the line, someone will pause for a second by our own resting place and perhaps say to a youngster standing nearby, “That’s my grandma. She made the best pecan pies!”
JULAINE DEARE SCHEXNAYDER is retired after a varied career in teaching and public relations. Her email address is julaines14@gmail.