If you happen to pass the Catholic Cemetery at Panama today, you may see many people cleaning and decorating their graves with flowers and candles. Many others will be doing the same with their graves at home.
Later in the evening, candles will be lit, prayers will be offered for the dead, and blessed, holy water sprinkled on the graves at Panama, and on other graves, where the relatives ask for this blessing.
This evening marks the vigil of All Souls’ Day, or the commemoration of all the faithful departed. It is celebrated on November 2, following All Saints Day today. The two celebrations are closely related.
On All Souls Day, and throughout the month of November, it is customary for Catholic Christians and many other Christian denominations to pray for the dead, asking for God’s mercy and forgiveness for any sins those who have died may have committed during their earthly life.
Thus cleansed from their sins and imperfections, the dead, like the saints, who have lived holy lives while on earth, may also enjoy “the beatific vision” of God.
Our prayers for the dead thus remind us that we are joined with the communion of saints, with whom we share in the hope of seeing God face to face in the resurrection from the dead.
Part of the Catholic Christian Creed states: “I believe in the Communion of Saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body and life everlasting.”
There are many references in Sacred Scripture regarding prayer for the dead in the hope of the resurrection, for example 2 Maccabees 12:44: “Therefore he (Judas Maccabee) made atonement for the dead, so that they might be delivered from their sin.”
Revelations 14:13 refers to those who have lived godly lives on earth: “And I heard a voice from heaven saying, Write this: Blessed are the dead who from now on, die in the Lord.’ ‘Yes,’ says the Spirit, ‘they will rest from their labours, for their deeds follow them’.”
Jesus died and was raised to new life by God, and Christians place their hope of resurrection in Him and his promise. “This is indeed the will of my Father, that all who see the Son and believe in him may have eternal life: and I will raise them up on the last day.” (John 6:40)
Praying for the dead on All Souls Day brings comfort to the living as we remember those whom we have loved and not forgotten and who have passed on.
This day also serves as a strong reminder of our own mortality. There will come a day when we too must die and leave this world.
Although all of us know that one day we shall die, this fact does not always register in our consciousness as we live from day to day. Sometimes it takes a sudden illness or an accident to remind us that life actually does not last forever here on earth.
I was 35 years old when I thought my life was about to end.
I happened to be driving along the motorway in Auckland when I misjudged the distance, and overtook a truck in front of me. I had an impending music exam and was dashing off to my last lesson.
Suddenly, I found my car spun around by the truck and, still in motion, we ended up face to face in what seemed likely then to be a head-on collision. Lucky for us, the traffic was light.
The truck driver swung his vehicle around, and just managed to avoid hitting me head-on.
Only the front side of my car was bashed, leaving me strapped to my seat.
However, during that liminal space before our vehicles hit one another, my whole life flashed in front of me.
My reactions were firstly of utter disbelief. “This cannot be happening to me. I am too young to die.”
My second reaction was actually one of excitement! “I am about to meet God,” I thought. “All my life I have looked forward to this moment and now it is happening.”
My third reaction was one of deep regret that I had not lived as well as I could, the years I had already been given.
I did not die nor was I hurt apart from suffering from shock. The truck driver, instead of being angry with me for endangering both our lives, came to check if I was all right. I have never forgotten his kindness.
From this experience I learnt an unforgettable lesson. We can die any time and it’s best to be prepared. Not everyone is blessed enough to get to 80 years let alone to 100.
So whenever I take my life for granted, I remember that these are bonus years for me, so I often reflect on how I am living the extra years I have been given.
Lines from Psalm 90 are among my favourites:
“The days of our life are 70 years, or perhaps 80, if we are strong;
even then their span is only toil and trouble; they are soon gone, and we fly away.
Make us know the shortness of our life, that we may gain wisdom of heart.” – Psalms 90:10,12
During All Souls Day and throughout November, therefore, let us pray for our beloved dead whom we remember with a love that remains in our hearts long after their departure from us.
May they be at peace with God. Let us also remember that our mortal, short life is a precious gift, to be filled with love for family, friends, all people, and for God, from whom we came and to whom we shall return.