A very long time passed between the day we buried my father and the installation of a headstone on his grave, for a variety of reasons.
He’s buried in a small cemetery at a chapel in the rural area where I grew up. Visiting his unmarked grave in those in-between years involved different threads of grief. There was the expected sorrow of just plain missing this good man was there, and layered upon that was a feeling of frustration at how his unfinished resting place failed to honor him.
Did it hurt his feelings? Was he holding a heavenly grudge? Surely our earthly anxieties are transformed in the nearer presence of God. But for the living, there was a pull to right the things that could be righted. It mattered to me to express materially my care for my father, who loved his people well.
People across time and cultures have a desire to remember those whom we love, but see no longer. We know that in the early Christian church, there was a custom of praying for the souls of those who had died, and those roots go back to Judaism. Many of those traditions were concerned with and advocated for the eternal well-being of those who had died, but there is also the mystery of how we, the living, relate to the dead. Our idea of the communion of saints suggests we continue a connection.
In the northern hemisphere today, it’s just as the days begin to shorten that we have this pileup of observances that stem from this longing to connect with those on the other side of death: Halloween, All Saints’ Day, and the Commemoration All Faithful Departed/All Souls’ Day.
As I write, my fingertips are stained from a project to dye a piece of my daughter’s “green cheetah” Halloween costume; in our house, and for many, Halloween is essentially fall fun. Costumes, candy, and funny-spooky. The idea of All Hallows’ E’en as a time when the spirits of the dead roamed has faded in practice. The roaming is mostly high school kids out rolling houses with toilet paper.
For All Saints’ Day, the idea of the communion of saints is in the foreground as we celebrate the holy ones of God, who have gone before us. The great cloud of witnesses to God’s redeeming love in Christ. The well-known hymn “I sing a song of the saints of God” (you love it or you hate it; I can’t quit those fierce wild beasts!) points to the idea of saints as all who are baptized – not just the Big Fancy Heroes, but ordinary people: “…for the saints of God are just folk like me, and I mean to be one too.”
Some, though, need a direct remembrance of our particular beloveds—a time apart from saints in general, a recollection distinct from anniversaries and birthdays. The Commemoration of the Faithful Departed/All Souls’ Day makes room for such.
At our parish, we’ve begun to lean toward this with an Altar of Remembrance. People are invited to bring pictures and mementos of their loved one. At the close of the All Saints’ Day service, prayers are offered to thank God for our dearly departed, and ask God’s comfort for those who mourn.
How might you and your family use this day to remember those you love and miss?
If you live near enough, this is a good day to visit their resting place. Find a beautiful leaf or make a garland of late-season wildflowers to place on the grave. Walk in the columbarium or memorial garden or wherever ashes were scattered and talk aloud to your departed relative.
You may have the ashes of someone you love that you haven’t known what to do with. Would today be a good day to return them to the dirt, scatter them in a river?
If, like us, you live miles away from were family members are buried, ask a friend if they want company to visit their own family’s graves.
Maybe there’s not a departed loved one you or the children in your life were close to, or no known resting place. In that case, simply take a walk in a cemetery (often beautiful, peaceful places) and talk about death with your child. Tell stories of grandma, describe where she’s buried, or talk about how you’d like to be buried at the end of your life.
Life and death belong to the mystery of God’s creation. Both are able to draw us toward God and toward another. And as embodied, created people, we engage with created matter to reckon with that belonging. We cast dirt on graves. Eat bread and drink wine. Outward actions symbolize inward grace – love and trust that people can be commended to God’s care, and still remembered with our love.
O God, the Maker and Redeemer of all believers: Grant to the faithful departed the unsearchable benefits of the passion of your Son; that on the day of his appearing they may be manifested as your children; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and ever. Amen