Day of the Dead

I love All Souls Day.

Well the truth is, I love everything about All Hallows Tide.  But of the entire celebration, All Souls Day is my favorite.  I love that All Souls Day is the culmination of the entire feast with All Hallows Eve and All Saints Day preceding it.  And for the record, I’m not a morbid, death obsessed soul either. 

A few years ago, I wrestled over my internal conflict of secular versus sacred celebration in a blog when it comes to Halloween and I gave a tid-bit of history on All Hallows Tide…

Halloween or All Hallows’ Eve is the night before All Saints Day (“Hallow” meaning “holy” or in this case, “saint”).  As Meredith Gould points out in The Catholic Home, “Although Halloween has been secularized since the nineteenth century, Catholics have a long history of observing evening vigil before the Feast of All Saints.”  All Hallows’ Eve marks the beginning of the triduum of All Hallows Tide, which is the time when the church remembers the dead…saints, martyrs, and all the faithfully departed.  Many of the traditions (trick-or-treating, included!) stem from ancient traditions, some rooted in Christianity, some rooted in paganism.  For an excellent read, refer to Mary Reed Newland’s The Year and Our Children or read an excerpt from her book by heading over to  The issue isn’t so much that Christianity and Halloween are in opposition to one anther, the issue is more one of education and understanding what the focus of All Hallows Eve should be and then making that connection for our children.

As you can see from that blog post, we really like to celebrate all three days of the triduum.  Then this year happened and our October was a busy month filled with extra-curricular commitments, our annual nature challenge and a family trip to Big Bend.  All of those events kind of crowded out our usual pagan preparations.

We did visit the pumpkin patch but of all the pumpkins we brought home, only one of those pumpkins ended up getting carved.  Our costumes were thrown together at the last minute and our normally huge pile of pagan Halloween books were mostly left unread.

For a moment when I woke up on October 31st, I was rather sad, thinking I had let the entire celebration pass us by.

But then I regained my vision. The celebration had not passed us by!  It was only just beginning.

I love All Hallows Tide because it’s a huge celebration of life.  Yep, life.  It’s often described as solemn as we are reminded of death and it’s been twisted into secular scariness with ghouls and skeletons and monsters, but that’s not what it’s about.  I maintain the idea that it’s really about life.  Because we remember and celebrate all of those who have passed before us…into new life.

See as a Christian, I can do that.  I can celebrate death because it’s the beginning of a promise.  The beginning of eternity.  I reflected on the beautiful mystery of death awhile back and I am still in love with the idea that sometimes my prayer here on Earth is a powerful thing for a soul who has been caught in Purgatory.

As a Catholic we believe that when we die many of us will spend time in Purgatory.  Purgatory is defined as a “purification, so as to achieve the holiness necessary to enter the joy of heaven,” which is experienced by those “who die in God’s grace and friendship, but still imperfectly purified” (CCC 1030). It notes that “this final purification of the elect . . . is entirely different from the punishment of the damned” (CCC 1031).

The idea of praying for the souls who haven’t made it to Heaven (because clearly those in Heaven do not need our humble prayers!) or haven’t been condemned to Hell (our prayers cannot save those that have been damned) comes from the 2nd Book of Maccabees 12:38-46.

Expiation for the Dead.  Judas rallied his army and went to the city of Adullam. As the seventh day was approaching, they purified themselves according to custom and kept the sabbath there. On the following day, since the task had now become urgent, Judas and his companions went to gather up the bodies of the fallen and bury them with their kindred in their ancestral tombs. But under the tunic of each of the dead they found amulets sacred to the idols of Jamnia, which the law forbids the Jews to wear. So it was clear to all that this was why these men had fallen. They all therefore praised the ways of the Lord, the just judge who brings to light the things that are hidden. Turning to supplication, they prayed that the sinful deed might be fully blotted out. The noble Judas exhorted the people to keep themselves free from sin, for they had seen with their own eyes what had happened because of the sin of those who had fallen.  He then took up a collection among all his soldiers, amounting to two thousand silver drachmas, which he sent to Jerusalem to provide for an expiatory sacrifice. In doing this he acted in a very excellent and noble way, inasmuch as he had the resurrection in mind;  for if he were not expecting the fallen to rise again, it would have been superfluous and foolish to pray for the dead.  But if he did this with a view to the splendid reward that awaits those who had gone to rest in godliness, it was a holy and pious thought. Thus he made atonement for the dead that they might be freed from this sin. (emphasis mine)

So there’s Judas with his army of soldiers and they go out to collect the dead who have fallen so they can bury them.  And they realize that those soldiers who had died were wearing amulets taken from pagan temples.  And so Judas asks his soldiers to pray for the souls of the dead and he takes up a collection for a sacrifice.  And the statement is made, “for if he were not expecting the fallen to rise again, it would have been superfluous and foolish to pray for the dead.”  And then it is said that Judas made atonement for the dead that they might be freed from this sin. “Freed from this sin”?  But they’re dead…surely they’ve already been judged and are either on their way to Heaven or Hell.  Unless, of course, there’s a third option.

Jesus himself refers to the idea that something beyond this life exists (aside from the obvious Heaven and Hell) when He says in Matthew 12:32, “And whoever speaks a word against the Son of Man will be forgiven; but whoever speaks against the holy Spirit will not be forgiven, either in this age or in the age to come.” (emphasis mine)  “Either in this age or in the age to come?”  If a man is seeking forgiveness, he wouldn’t be doing it in Heaven (as those who enter the gate must be purified) and clearly he wouldn’t be seeking forgiveness in Hell as he’s condemned for all eternity and he’s beyond saving.  So where is “this age to come” that Jesus refers to?  There must be a third option…some type of Purgatory.  (If you’re still unconvinced about Purgatory, read this or this or this.)

So the question now becomes, how do the souls get released from Purgatory?   As Catholics we are taught that the souls in Purgatory cannot pray for themselves.  They rely on our prayers.  Our prayers here on Earth have the power to expedite the time souls spend in Purgatory.  If that’s true, that’s powerful.  And if it’s not true, well then there’s no harm done if I spend every day of my life here on Earth praying for the souls of the deceased.  I have faith, though.  Faith that my prayers do help those souls.  Faith that someday when I’m stewing in Purgatory, undergoing a major purification process, someone here will remember me and pray for my soul to be released.  At least I hope someone remembers me.

And that is why I love All Souls Day.  It’s a day to celebrate all the souls who are departed.  To pray for them.  To recall each and every one of our loved ones who have passed before us and to spend time in prayer for their souls.  To attend Mass, the highest form of prayer, in remembrance of their souls.  To visit the grave sites and to pray for so many of them by name.  To believe that my prayer might just be what releases that precious soul into the beautiful, purified Heaven.  I like that thought.

This year we celebrated All Hallows Eve with pagan traditions.  We dressed up, trick-or-treated and even tested out the idea that a Halloween fairy exists (according to my kids she does…they left out most of their candy for the fairy and in return, the fairy visited and left them each one toy).

Then we celebrated All Saints Day with a Litany of the Saints and stories about some of our favorite saints.  We basked in the glorious thought that we have an entire army of friends already in Heaven praying for our souls and our Heaven bound journeys.  And as a part of our rich Catholic faith, we attend Mass on All Saints Day as it is considered a holy day of obligation…that’s how much importance the Church places on those folks who have made it to Heaven…we are “obligated” to attend Mass in their honor.  (Personally, I love envisioning that entire army of saints in Heaven ready to pray on my behalf if I BUT ASK.)

And then All Souls Day arrived.  We visited the cemetery and prayed for as many souls as we could.  Then, inspired by our recent visit to Terlingua (a West Texas town that is big on celebrating All Hallows Tide as a Day of the Dead celebration), we embraced our close proximity to the Mexican and Latin American influence and celebrated the day with some Day of the Dead traditions…face painting, decorating skulls, and making an ofrenda (an altar).  We made a “cemetery dessert” and ate empanadas for dinner.  And all the while, we prayed.  For the souls of the dearly departed…the saints, the sinners and those in-between.

Eternal rest grant unto them, O Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon them. May the souls of the faithful departed, through the mercy of God, rest in peace. Amen.







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