Remembering the Dead

The fast-approaching month of November is traditionally associated in the Catholic Church with remembrance of the dead. Bringing to mind deceased family and friends can be very painful, especially if the bereavement is relatively recent.

In liturgical celebrations, however, remembrance is not just about looking back to the past but also looking ahead to the future in trust and hope. Just as our loved one shared in Christ’s death in baptism, we believe that he or she will share in Christ’s resurrection and enjoy eternal life in God’s presence.

At a time when morale in the Church may be at a low for a number of reasons, the feast of All Saints on 1st November serves to remind us that, although we are a Church of sinners, we are also a Church of saints and rejoice “in the glory bestowed upon those exalted members of the Church through whom God gives us, in our frailty, both strength and good example.” (Preface of All Saints)

In the past, saints were often portrayed as exceptional human beings with whom “ordinary” people found it difficult to relate. Among the many saints canonised in the last few decades are to be found ordinary people who demonstrated exceptional goodness and holiness in a wide variety of circumstances. Their intercession and the “example of their holy way of life” assist us in our vocation to be “ever devoted to serving God and neighbour”. (Solemn Blessing of All Saints)

The tradition of recalling and interceding for the dead is a long-established practice in the Church. In earlier centuries, large tablets or “diptychs” were inscribed with the names of the dead who were to be remembered at the Mass, and the deacon would read out the names during the liturgy.

There is something poignant about writing down the names of our deceased loved ones and asking the community to remember them in prayer, and parishioners are often given the opportunity to do this during November. Parishes might also consider inviting families who have been bereaved in the past year to a Mass for the Dead during November to show the community’s ongoing support for those in grief.

The month of November is a good time for parish liturgy committees to review how funerals are celebrated in the parish. Areas to be considered would include: the support offered to the bereaved by the parish community, whether full use is made of the three aspects of a Catholic funeral (vigil, funeral liturgy and committal), the selection of readings and music, the choice and placement of symbols, whether eulogies rather than words of remembrance are included in the celebration, and the contribution made by parish liturgical ministers at a funeral.

Every celebration of Mass includes prayers for the dead. The feast of the Commemoration of All the Faithful Departed, or All Souls’ Day, gives special focus to the belief that we remain in communion with those who have gone before us “marked with the sign of faith”.

“We believe in the communion of all the faithful of Christ, those who are pilgrims on earth, the dead who are being purified, and the blessed in heaven, all together forming one Church; and we believe that in this communion, the merciful love of God and his saints is always attentive to our prayers.” (Catechism of the Catholic Church #962)

Elizabeth Harrington