All Saints’ Day gets so much hype, but my favorite day is All Souls’ Day on November 2nd. Maybe it is because it is doubtful that I will ever make the saint status, but I’m sure I will be an “All Souls'” participant!
Seriously, working with different cultures over the years, I have come to appreciate the customs of those cultures and the meaning behind their celebrations. Invariably the celebrations are times of remembering the good they did, and not only being grateful for their life but also encouraged to do good with our own life.
The Hispanics celebrate in each home La Dia del Muerte, meaning “The Day of the Dead.” Each family has a table, an altar decorated with a vibrant colored cloth and or paper cutouts. Miniature skeletons and heads of skeletons, cooking pots, or various colorful foods made with decorated sugar candies or clay also adorns the table. One would also find a picture of the deceased and some items important to the person – a particular food or drink or symbol of their work or a hobby. These home altars would help make the person present to the family once more.
The Vietnamese have Masses said at the cemetery if possible on this day, and the family would assemble around the gravesite at the cemetery. In the evening the family would return to the cemetery, outline the plot with lit candles, have a picnic meal, and recall stories of the person. The time would end with prayers.
At Sacred Heart we, too, have a beautiful tradition. At the time for Vespers or a little earlier, we gather and process to the cemetery singing psalms that remind us of God’s faithfulness to us, our longing for the Lord, and one of my favorites, Ps. 115. When we are all gathered at the cemetery, we have a scripture reading. The prioress then blesses each grave with holy water as the names of the deceased Sisters, Oblates, and others buried in our cemetery are called out. After each name is read aloud, all respond, “Pray for us.” As the Magnificat is sung, the cemetery is incensed, reminding us of our prayers rising to heaven for all these souls and the ones we hold in our hearts that are not buried here.
The beautiful words of the Magnificat echo throughout as we sing, “My being proclaims the great glory of God, to you my redeemer my heart sings in laud.” And in a stanza later we proclaim, “Magnificent things in my life you have done, and holy your name, O Compassionate One!”
We end our service in the cemetery the Marian hymn “Ultima in Mortis Hora,” or simply “The Ultima“– a prayer for a happy death.
At our life’s last moment fleeting,
Thine own Son for us entreating,
May we, Christ with thee embrace,
Virgin Mother, grant this grace.
No matter which feast you enjoy the most, my prayer is that it will be a means to reminisce about those who have gone before you, whether relative, friend or a favorite saint of old. And may those memories encourage you to live a life pleasing to God and meaningful to others.
By Sister Veronica Ryan, OSB