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November 4, 2009
Honoring the dead
By Julie Filby
This week Catholics honored the deceased in back-to-back feast days: All Saints Day on Nov. 1 and All Souls Day on Nov. 2.
Every year on All Saints Day, a holy day of obligation, the faithful pay tribute to canonized saints of the Church and ask for their intercession. Saints are believed to be in full communion with God—in other words, they’re believed to already be in heaven based on “heroic virtue” and “fidelity to God’s grace” during their life on earth (“Catechism of the Catholic Church,” No. 828).
All Souls Day
On All Souls Day, Catholics pray for souls in purgatory—those who haven’t made it to heaven yet. While not a holy day of obligation, the faithful are encouraged to attend Mass to pray for loved ones, especially those who died in the last year.
The Church devotes the entire month of November to pray for souls in purgatory. Praying for the dead is a Christian obligation—a great act of charity believed to help souls enter into the fullness of heaven more quickly.
Each year to honor deceased friends and family members, students of St. Louis School in Louisville present a “Book of the Dead” to the parish during the offertory on the feast of All Souls.
According to Principal Karen Herlihy the book consists of a list, and drawings by students, of deceased loved ones. It remains in the church for the month of November for parishioners to add names of friends and family who have died.
“During prayer intentions at Mass, we pray for those in the book,” Herlihy said. “It’s a great tradition the school has passed on to the parish.”
Day of the Dead
El Dia de los Muertos, which translates to Day of the Dead, begins on All Saints Day and continues through All Souls Day. The holiday has its roots in Latin America and indigenous regions including Mexico, Guatemala, Peru, Bolivia and Ecuador.
Based on large-scale migration of Latin Americans both to and within the United States over the past 20 years, it has been celebrated increasingly across the country. A 2008 study estimated that 52 percent of Catholics in the Denver Archdiocese are Hispanic.
“It’s observed in every state—even non-Latinos are getting into it,” according to Regina Marchi, Ph.D., assistant professor of journalism and media studies at Rutgers University, who recently authored the book “Day of the Dead in the USA: the Migration and Transformation of a Cultural Phenomenon.”
While rituals vary by country and region, decorating and sprucing up gravesites to honor the dead is almost universal—weeding, cleaning, repainting, and bringing flowers and personal mementos. Other practices include attending Mass, constructing home altars, preparing special foods and beverages for the deceased (or eating specific foods prepared only at this time of year), participating in processions from the church to the cemetery, holding candlelight vigils, burning incense, and singing and dancing.
“While (Day of the Dead) corresponds with the dates of the Catholic All Saints and All Souls days—it’s not exactly the same,” Marchi said. “It’s a combination of Catholic and indigenous rituals.”
When missionaries converted native people of the Americas to Catholicism, they often maintained certain pre-Christian traditions to honor the dead such as creating altars laden with fruit, vegetables, flowers and incense—and mixed them with Catholic rituals including Mass, praying the rosary, novenas and lighting candles for the dead.
The popularity of these re-invented rituals among the Latino community in the United States has affected how Catholic churches in Latino communities observe All Saints Day and All Souls Day, with many churches in Latino areas encouraging parishioners to make altars for the deceased.
“This was never done previously since altar-making was considered pagan,” Marchi said. “It’s ‘folk Catholicism’—a way to more festively celebrate All Saints and All Souls days—a joyous time of ‘partying.’”
Photos of the departed and pictures of saints, Jesus or the Virgin Mary are often the center of family ofrendas (offerings), with crucifixes, angels and other Catholic iconography frequently surrounding the altar. It’s a time to not only remember the dead, but to actively communicate with them.
“Because the dead are felt to be particularly connected to the living this time of year, they’re often seen as heavenly allies who can offer hope and assistance with life’s tribulations,” Marchi said.
Fifth graders at Notre Dame Catholic School in Denver celebrated El Dia de los Muertos on Oct. 30 with a prayer service and potluck lunch. Students dressed in black and wearing masks they made art class, brought photos of deceased loved ones to display on an altar they made. Following lunch, they gathered to break a piñata.
Presentation of Our Lady School also celebrated the holiday. On Nov. 2 students displayed photos of deceased relatives at school then attended a presentation explaining the Day of the Dead, complete with photos from a celebration in Mexico. Pastor Father Edward Poehlmann then led the group in prayer before they sampled “bread of the dead” or pan de muerto.