The holy dead

Happy All Souls Day!

Growing up in a vaguely Catholic household in New England, this time of year had little significance for me beyond the fact that I had lots of leftover Halloween candy to scarf. When I was living in Raleigh, though, I eventually found my way to a predominantly Mexican parish, which set up a gigantic, beautifully decorated “altar” a couple of weeks before Halloween. There were pictures of deceased loved ones, candles, fruit and bread, little candy skulls, basically everything that would make a dyed-in-the-wool Puritan scream “idolatry” about papists.

Prayers for the dead are one of the great sticking points of the Reformation. Protestants don’t offer prayers for the dead, arguing that such efforts are bound to be wasted: after death, either a soul is in paradise, in which case that person doesn’t need your prayers, or they’re in hell, in which case your prayers will do them no good. Catholics and Orthodox Christians, though, following the example of St. Paul, do pray for the dead. At my old parish in Raleigh, we wrote the names of the dead on the cloth that covered the table, which struck me as a deeply reverential and tender gesture.

Moving back North makes me happy for many reasons, but this time of year I miss the altars, the candy skulls, the pan de muerto, the names of the dead written lovingly on a cloth folded away and prayed over. I miss my dead, and saying prayers for them is a custom I’m glad I’ve learned.

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7 Responses to The holy dead

  1. Dan says:

    All Saints’ and All Souls’ are two of the most genuinely affecting things about Catholic and Orthodox Christianity. Even Diarmaid MacCulloch, who grew up in a C of E rectory in East Anglia and still maintains Reformed Protestant sympathies, calls communion with the dead the “most striking, remarkable feature” of Western Christiantiy before the Reformation.

  2. ChrisB. says:

    I did some (very) brief research and I was surprised to find that none of my local parishes were celebrating All Souls Day. In addition to a significant number of latinos, this part of the shoreline also has a notable Brazilian population.

    I was really hoping for a Hot Dogma All Souls Day meet up!

  3. Jay Croft says:

    The problem with All Souls’ Day is that it’s the day after All Saints’ Day.

    Sort of going to a major league baseball game one day, and the next day to a Little League game.

    Few Episcopal churches pay much attention to All Souls’ Day, unless they are in the habit of daily Eucharists.

    Nevertheless–Happy All Souls’ Day to y’all!

    • ChrisB. says:


      There you Episcopals were enticing me with your beautiful middle ground between my original Catholicism and my current mainline Protestantism; oh and your supremely wonderful Book of Common Prayer. But then . . . then I find out you don’t do All Souls Day. Total bummer.

      When my wife asked me for the date this morning, I said, “November 2nd, All Souls Day.”

      She said, “What’s that?”

      “It’s a holiday to honor the dead, celebrated mostly by Catholics.”

      “We’re not Catholic.”

      “Today I am.”

      • Jay Croft says:

        True, the 1979 Prayer Book revision subsumed All Souls’ Day into All Saints’ Day.

        It’s probably because we don’t really pay much attention to who’s in the major leagues and who’s in the various classifications of the farm teams. In other words, “Your mileage may vary.”

        Here’s the BCP collect for All Saints’–

        Almighty God, you have knit together your elect in one communion and fellowship in the mystical body of your Son Christ our Lord: Give us grace so to follow your blessed saints in all virtuous and godly living, that we may come to those ineffable joys that you have prepared for those who truly love you; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who with you and the Holy Spirit lives and reigns, one God, in glorry everlasting. Amen.

  4. Bill from the old blog says:

    Well I’m an atheist and I give humble thanks to my ancestors every day of my life. I don’t have need of an organization full of myths to tell me what I should do with my thoughts.