We Americans celebrate a day called Halloween, and with it ghosts, goblins, witches, cobwebs, tombstones, skeletons, evil spirits, restless souls, the macabre generally, and all such things, because it is All Hallows (=Holy Ones) Eve. In the Christian liturgical calendar, it is the evening before two days, November 1 and 2, for remembering two superlarge groups of the deceased who go unnamed in the Christian calendar: November 1 is “All Saints’ Day” where the deceased being celebrated are the uncanonized saints. (This number is one million people – just counting martyrs, just in a single century. See Robert Royal, The Catholic Martyrs of the Twentieth Century: A Comprehensive World History (2006)).
November 2 is the “Commemoration of All Faithful Departed,” commonly known as “All Souls’ Day.” These two groups, together with the faithful now living, constitute the “Communion of Saints.”
Below is the atrium of the ancient Basilica of San Ambrosia (St. Ambrose) in Milan, Italy, showing some tombstones and altars.
Many people no longer believe in hell (or, if they believe it exists, whether anyone other than Hitler and Stalin populate it). Many believe that their friends or relatives are all in heaven. The Christian teaching, however, is that we simply don’t know if the friends and relatives are in are in heaven, purgatory or in hell. (I recognize that some Christian denominations don’t believe in purgatory, so there is no reason, they say, to pray for the dead.)
A friend wrote me that, although she has attended funerals and gravesite commemorations for family and friends, she never visits cemeteries, by herself or with her children. This is so on Memorial Day or an anniversaries of deaths, or on any other occasion. Why? First, she says she prefers that she and her children remember the deceased as living. (By similar reasoning, a friend of mine rejected his dying wife’s request to see their four children, ages about 6 to 12, in the hospital . . . because he didn’t want them to see her that way.) Second, she says they can be prayed for at any place she and the children are.
Of course, we all prefer to remember our friends and relatives as living, and the good times. And of course we can pray for them at all times and anywhere. So, why do I still recommend visiting cemeteries? My short answer is: They can be moments of grace. Let me try to articulate this.
Catholic spirituality uses a phrase “occasion of sin,” highly recommending that people avoid such occasions so they won’t be tempted to sin. The converse is to place oneself in “occasions of grace” or “occasions of virtue,” that is, situations and circumstances where you’ll be “tempted” to commit virtue, to grow in virtue. So, for example, it is better to spend time with friends who will encourage you to lead a holy life rather than so-called friends who will encourage you to live a life of sin.
A cemetery can be an occasion of grace because it encourages a visitor to meditate on what Catholic spirituality calls “the four last things”: death, judgment, heaven, hell. Yes, you can meditate on the four last things wherever you are. Yet a cemetery, more than any place, calls the four last things to mind. Also, the cemetery is almost always a place of silence, we could say dead silence, which profound meditation requires. With respect to silence, you can read anything about the Cistercian way of life since that religious Order used to take a vow of silence. And you can see Cardinal Robert Sarah’s The Power of Silence: Against the Dictatorship of Noise (2017). The cardinal is from Guinea and is Prefect of the Congregation of Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments.
A word about death. It is salutary to think about death. It concentrates the mind. Death is a part of life. We should not avoid, and we should not encourage our children to avoid, occasions and circumstances that may prompt thoughts of death. The Church has a list of seven “corporal works of mercy” and seven “spiritual works of mercy” engendered by the words of Jesus in Matthew 25:31-26. Two of them deal with the deceased. The corporal work of mercy is to “bury the dead.” The “spiritual work of mercy” is to “pray for the living and the dead.”
A word about judgment. We are indoctrinated by our culture to think of Jesus/God as a deity of mercy Who never judges. You can’t believe the Bible is the Word of God, and read the Bible, and accept this notion. For a few examples, consider these:
• Jesus: “Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Instead, fear the one who can destroy both soul and body in hell.” (Matt. 10:28)
• Jesus: “You also must be prepared, for at an hour you do not expect, the Son of Man will come.” (Luke 12:40)
• Jesus: “At the judgment, the queen of the south [the Queen of Sheba] will rise with the men of this generation and she will condemn them, because she came from the ends of the earth to hear the wisdom of Solomon, and there is something greater than Solomon here.” (Luke 11:31)
• “[S]ome people who were present there told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with the blood of their sacrifices. He said to them in reply, ‘Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were greater sinners than all other Galileans? By no means! But I tell you, if you do not repent, you will all perish as they did! Or those eighteen people who were killed when the tower at Siloam fell on them—do you think they were more guilty than everyone else who lived in Jerusalem? By no means! But I tell you, if you do not repent, you will all perish as they did!’” (Luke 13:1-5)
The Catholic Church offers to the faithful indulgences on All Souls’ Day. One can be obtained by visiting a church and praying for the dead. The other can be obtained by visiting a cemetery on any, and every day, November 1 [not a typo] through November 8. Handbook of Indulgences, Norms & Grants Nos 13, 16 (3d ed. 1986). Many churches used to have places of burial either within them or on their grounds. My Catholic parish church is adjacent to a small cemetery for a Methodist missionary and his family and the cathedral near my place of work is the burial site of several archbishops.
This year’s Veterans’ Day, November 11, marks the 100th anniversary of the armistice that ended World War I. It would be an especially good time to visit a cemetery and pray for the deceased of that war and all their family members – their grandparents, their parents, their siblings, their spouses, their children, their grandchildren, their nieces and nephews.
October 29th marks the eighth anniversary of my father’s death.
V. Eternal rest grant unto them, O Lord.
R. And let the perpetual light shine upon them.
And may the souls of all the faithful departed, through the mercy of God, rest in peace.
Spero News columnist James Thunder is an attorney who practices in the Washington DC metropolitian area.