Spruced-up Graves

“We give back to You who first gave them to us: our faithful dead, whose beauty and truth are even now in our hearts.” That line from Rufus Ellis resonated as the wife and I, like thousands of other families, spruced up the graves of our kin for All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day rites this coming weekend.

We check the empty niche above. That will be our resting place, sooner rather than later, our creaking knees caution. We also jot down a reminder: Etch a line on our headstone from the ancient Nicene Creed: “We believe in the communion of saints.”

Death has been compared to a train in one of the spirituals sung by African-American churches in the south, reports the Jesuit weekly America. This train makes only one-way trips. Earlier, it called for my father, my mother, my two younger brothers. Now, it’s whistling at the station—for me. Know that is not the end. It only signals the approach of the Resurrection.

“All Souls’ Day is—what’s the word now?” the wife said at a dinner some years back.

“Bifurcated?” we replied. Yes, she replies, adding: “In Sweden and California, our grandchildren will trick-or-treat in Halloween wear.” Before our traveling days came to an end, we would pad along behind them in their Palo Alto neighborhood. “Here, kids bring flowers for family graves.”

“It is a good and wholesome thought to pray for the dead,” declares the Book of Maccabees. And 2,500 years before Easter’s empty tomb, an ailing Job wrote: “Oh, that my words were engraved in rock forever. I know that my Redeemer lives. And in the end, He will stand forth upon the earth. And after my skin shall have been destroyed, yet in my flesh I shall see God.”

By the year 998 AD, the Benedictine abbot Odilo of Cluny picked Nov. 2 for remembrance. The living can help the departed, the doctrine went, by asceticism’s trio of prayer, sacrifice and alms. It is the communion of saints in daily life. The practice spread to other countries.

That truth stands beyond those cemeteries turned into two-day cities zapped by karaokes, traffic jams; or beyond the squatters living in crammed cemeteries. “Death tweaks my ears and says: ‘Live. I am coming’,” the late US Supreme Court justice Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote.

In the Philippines, “Todos los Santos” or “All Saints” is marked on Nov. 1, a Saturday this year. Locals sometimes dub it “Undas.” The day after is “Araw ng mga Patay” or All Souls’ Day. People flock to Mass and most visit the graves of family members.

In Portugal, Spain and Mexico, offerings or “ofrendas” are made on this day. In Austria, Belgium, France, Hungary, Italy, Luxembourg, Malta, Portugal, Spain and American cities such as New Orleans, people take flowers to the graves of dead relatives.

That tradition resembles those in Poland, the Czech Republic, Sweden, Finland, Slovenia, Slovakia, Lithuania, Croatia, Austria, Romania, Moldova, Hungary and in the Catholic parts of Germany.

In the calendar of the Anglican Church and in many Lutheran churches, such as the Church of Sweden, the rites consist of a general commemoration of the dead. In the Swedish calendar, the observance takes place on the Saturday between Oct. 31 and Nov. 6.

In many Lutheran churches, it is moved to the first Sunday of November. It is also celebrated by other Protestants of the English tradition, such as the United Church of Canada, the Methodist churches, and the Wesleyan Church.

In some United Methodist churches and congregations, a candle is lit by the acolyte as each person’s name is called out by the clergy. Prayers and responsive readings may accompany the event. Often the names of those who have died in the past year are affixed to a memorial plaque.

Death doesn’t take away the sting of losing a loved one, notes Oblate priest Fr. Ron Rolheiser. “Nothing takes that away because nothing is meant to. Death is meant to indelibly scar our hearts because love is meant to wound us in that way. As the pastor-hero Dietrich Bonhoeffer puts it: ‘Nothing can make up for the absence of someone we love. It is nonsense to say that God fills the gap. God doesn’t fill it. But on the contrary, God keeps it empty and so helps us keep alive our former communion with each other, even at the cost of pain. The dearer and richer our memories, the more difficult the separation. But gratitude changes the pangs of memory into a tranquil joy. The beauties of the past are borne, not as a thorn in the flesh, but as a precious gift in themselves.”

“Lift us up, that we may see further, as one by one, You gather scattered families, from the distractions, strife and weariness of time, to the peace of eternity,” the ancient prayer goes. “Death is only a horizon, and a horizon is the limit of our sight. We thank you for the labor and joys of these mortal years. We thank you for the deep sense of mystery that lies beyond our mortal dust.”

Liturgy spotlights this reality: “For unto your faithful, O Lord, life is changed, not taken away,” says the Eucharist’s preface. The theme resonates wherever religious or laymen read the Liturgy of the Hours.

Few now hear the ancient Gregorian chant: “Dies Irae” (Day of Wrath). “Tuba mirum spargen sonum / Per sepulchra regionum / Coget omnes ante thronum.” My Latin 101 translates that to: “Trumpets blare through sepulchers, calling all to appear before the judgment throne.”

Whether in the dim catacombs off Rome’s Appian Way, or in our garishly lighted cemeteries, All Souls’ Day 2014 speaks to us again in Nobel Laureate Rabindranath Tagore’s line: “Death is not the extinguishing of life. It is putting out the lamp because dawn has come.”

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