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Catholic Cemeteries: Celebrations for the Dead


As we approach November, a month traditionally devoted to remembering our deceased loved ones, we look at how we might live with more awareness of death’s reality and the impact this acceptance could have on the quality of our lives. From the beginning of recorded history, people have responded to death in various and creative ways, some in order to avoid it, but mostly to find ways to relate to it. Death is a great mystery; ritual, play, music and art help us deal with it. One custom that has spread world-wide is the Day of the Dead.

El Día de los Muertos celebrates the cycle of both life and death. It comes to us from Mexico, but other Latin American cultures celebrate this integration of culture and Christianity. It commemorates the feasts of All Saints and All Souls in early November. Remembrances for the dead include attendance at Mass and the making of special altars that display personal items, photos, flowers, masks, candles, gifts, and skulls – a very colorful presentation! Special foods are made and placed on the altars or brought to the graves. Today, this observance, with all of its ritual, has spread to Europe and other parts of the world.

In the Philippines, Nov. 1 and 2 are considered very important holidays –after Christmas and Holy Week. Tombs are cleaned or repainted, candles are lit, and flowers are offered. Entire families camp in cemeteries, and sometimes spend a night or two near their relatives’ tombs. Card games, eating, drinking, singing and dancing are common activities in the cemetery.

Asian cultures also set aside time for honoring their dead. Traditions include visiting graves, bringing food and drink, as well as offering prayers of remembrance for the departed. The Bon Festival comes from Japan and takes place three days in August. It has existed for more than 500 years. It has evolved into a time for family reunions and visits to clean the ancestors’ graves. It often includes a dance festival. Similar customs are found in Korea. The Chinese Qingming Festival usually occurs around April 5 of the Gregorian calendar. It is one of three yearly festivals that devote time for honoring the departed and the spirits from the other world.

In many African cultures, it is traditional to ask for protection from the ancestors three times a year. Like other cultures, visits, leaving food and gifts at the graves are part of the ritual. One occasion for this practice occurs just before the beginning of hunting season. In our modern cemeteries, customs of remembering the dead are visible on a daily basis. Seasonal decorations, birthday balloons and letters are found decorating the stones and markers. The relationship with death’s reality is woven into daily living.

Throughout the centuries in Europe, as early as 1425, there are illustrated sermon texts depicting the death figure leading a row of dancing skeletal figures – a pope, mayors, children, queens and laborers – to the grave. Later, “death appeared not as the destroyer, but as the messenger of God summoning all to the world beyond the grave.” Drama and music continued to express the allegory and eventually, in 1874, resulted in one of the most highly performed compositions by Camile Saint-Saëns: “La Danse Macabre” (translated as “no matter one’s station in life, the dance of death unites all.”) Celebrations and customs are still found throughout Europe today on the feasts of All Saints and All Souls. In contrast to serious and solemn processions, the mood is quite humorous and fanciful. This is not unlike the second half of a New Orleans Jazz funeral when the music becomes energetic and uplifting.

Calvary Cemetery will host the 8th annual Dia de los Muertos Celebration on Saturday, Oct. 28, from 11 a.m.-4 p.m. All Souls Day Masses at both Calvary and Gate of Heaven will take place on Thursday, Nov. 2 at 11 a.m.

Planning a Christian Funeral

This workshop will assist you in making choices about your funeral or that of a loved one. Come learn about our Church’s rituals – Vigil, Funeral Mass, and Committal – each have distinct purposes in the journey toward healing and wholeness. Learn about the services and options offered at our Catholic Cemeteries. Free.

Presenter: Father Christopher Bennett
November 7, 7 p.m. – 8:30 p.m.
Saint Albert the Great Church
1095 Channing Ave, Palo Alto, CA
November 18, 10 a.m. – 11:30 a.m.
Our Lady of the Rosary Church
3233 Cowper St, Palo Alto, CA

For more information, contact (650) 428-3730 x508 or cemeteryinfo@dsj.org.