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.