Celebrating departed loved ones at All Saints Day and All Souls Day events

By Larry Urish     11/2/2015

The colorful costumes have been put away, the local haunted house is once again just an empty warehouse, and the little monsters’ sweet trick-or-treat bounty has been either consumed or safely hidden for further enjoyment. That’s the secular side of the season, but late October and early November also bring prayerful reminders of mortality, loved ones and sainthood.

All Souls Day is a day of remembrance for friends and loved ones who have passed away. It falls on Nov. 2, one day after All Saints Day, when Catholics celebrate every saint, known and unknown, who has gone to heaven. And All Hallows Eve – better known as Halloween – takes place the night before All Saints Day.

Catholics believe that it’s essential to remember those who have died but who have not yet reached sainthood. Through prayer, almsgiving, the Mass and good works, the living honor and assist those who have died and who have not yet been cleansed of sin. These faithful departed remain in purgatory, the state in the afterlife where souls are purified before ascension into heaven.

“All Souls Day is a very important day when people come to the cemetery to celebrate those who have died,” says Mike Wesner, Director of Cemeteries for the Diocese of Orange. “We make sure we always remember them.”

The holiday evolved from the ancient pagan festival of the dead, which celebrated the belief that the souls of the departed would return for a meal with the family. Candles set in windows would guide the souls home, and another place was set at the table.

It was originally celebrated during the Easter season (it still is in the Eastern Catholic Churches). Seventh-century monks celebrated Mass on the day after Pentecost for their deceased community members. Some time between 998 and 1030, St. Odilo of Cluny decreed that it should be celebrated on Nov. 2, the day after All Saints Day, in all of the monasteries of his Benedictine congregation. Over the following two centuries, this change spread to the entire Church.

The official name of All Souls Day in the Roman Rite liturgy is The Commemoration of All the Faithful Departed. Another popular name is The Feast of All Souls. And Hispanic Catholics celebrate their departed loved ones with el Dia de los Muertos—the Day of the Dead.

“El Dia de los Muertos is a very colorful experience, with food, music, pictures of the departed – all of the things that honor our ancestors,” says Deacon Guillermo Torres, the Diocese of Orange’s Director of Hispanic Ministry. “And it’s a really important tradition.”

The practices associated with the holiday – traditionally in Mexico a three-day affair – include building private altars (called ofrendas) and honoring the departed with sugar skulls, marigolds, muertos (the bread of the dead), cardboard skeletons, colorful masks, incense, tissue paper decorations, fruit and nuts, and a host of other traditional foods and decorations. Visitors also leave possessions of the deceased at the graves. On Oct. 31, All Hallows Eve, kids traditionally make a children’s altar to invite angelitos (spirits of the dead children) to visit. Adult spirits return on Nov. 1, All Saints Day. The following day, families go to the cemetery to pay their respects and revel in the rich, colorful customs.

Today, particularly in American communities with a strong Hispanic influence, the celebrations of el Dia de los Muertos are encapsulated into one energetic day. Such an elaborate event took place at Holy Sepulcher, a Catholic cemetery in Orange, on Oct. 31.

“It always runs throughout the day – from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. – because it involves a lot of activity,” says Deacon Guillermo. “Every year, it entails the building of individual altars [15 to 20 in all], a procession from the entrance to the [main] altar, and a lot more.”

“Thousands of people show up to this event,” adds Wesner. “We always have to use Santiago Canyon College for overflow parking.”

Bishop Kevin Vann celebrated a special Mass at Holy Sepulcher that day at 2 p.m.

On All Souls Day, Nov. 2, Bishop Vann will also celebrate Mass at the same cemetery (7845 Santiago Canyon Road, Orange; (714) 532-6551) at 10 a.m. Other All Souls Day Masses will take place on the same day at 10 a.m. at two other cemeteries: Ascension (24754 Trabuco Road, Lake Forest; (949) 837-1331) and Good Shepherd (8301 Talbert Ave., Huntington Beach; (714)-847-8546).

These celebrations are always very popular – and for good reason.

“For us, death is not the end,” says Deacon Guillermo. “It’s the beginning of eternal life.”