By Sam Keyes
In the Catholic imagination, All Souls’ Day (November 2) is more prominent than All Saints’ Day (November 1). All Saints is usually a holy day of obligation — this year it falls on a Monday, so the obligation is abrogated — and a solemnity, the “highest” form of liturgical observation in the modern Roman Rite. All Souls, or the Commemoration of All Faithful Departed, is unique in that it is not technically a “feast” or a “solemnity” or even a “memorial,” but its own thing: a day appointed specifically for remembering the dead. It ranks, in fact, like a solemnity, and even replaces the observance of a Sunday in ordinary time if it falls on that day.
But, beyond the technical status of the day, my point is that for most people All Souls is just more significant. Why? Because we all know about death. All Saints is an abstraction. True, we might wonder if some people we know have “made it,” so to speak, and are definitely in heaven. But we don’t actually know who all the saints are, which is the whole point of the festival.
We know who the dead are. They are our friends and neighbors and family. They are the names we see in the obituary page every day (if we get the paper), or the numbers we see flash on the screen about the latest COVID deaths. Death is unavoidable and always present, and I suspect that many of us are more aware of this presence than we have been any time in recent history.
So, as far as popular religion goes, it doesn’t get much better than All Souls. There are, of course, unique cultural traditions associated with it, such as the Mexican Día de los Muertos (which, as the lovely film Coco shows, can be completely separated from its connection with Christianity). But even in Anglicanism, and perhaps in other “liturgical” Protestant communions, All Souls brings out a certain Catholic instinct for remembering the dead. Even when this results in a problematic conflation with All Saints (reading the parish necrology on All Saints rather than All Souls!), the instinct is hard to avoid. As C.S. Lewis puts it in his Letters to Malcolm, praying for the dead is the most natural thing in the world for human beings to do. Even if one rejects wholesale the concept of purgatory, it takes a certain amount of rigidity and ideological anti-traditionalism to insist on the absolute impossibility or infelicity of remembering our beloved dead in prayer.
If we are at all concerned about the “culture of death,” the trend that, as first labeled so by Pope John Paul II, treats human beings as mere commodities — whether to be discarded like aborted infants or sold and used by the sex industry or “educated” in a kind of freedom that treats the body as irrelevant to the life of the soul — we have to take death seriously. One aspect of the culture of death has become, ironically, a kind of death-denialism best exemplified by the refusal to have funerals or requiems so that we can instead have a “celebration of life.” A true celebration of life has to mean confronting death and recognizing it for what it is. Celebrations of life are rarely, pace a certain modern pastoral trend, focused on the resurrection, because to be raised from the dead you have to die. To merely celebrate a life is to act as if that life is over, that the only meaningful part of it is what remains in our memory. By contrast, to mourn with the prayers of the Church, to enter the darkness of a traditional requiem, means to move tearfully into the joy that awaits us.
If I die, please don’t “celebrate my life.” Pray for me. Preferably by hiring a good choir to sing Duarte Lobo’s requiem for six voices, the most exquisite setting of the Church’s prayers that I know.