This coming Friday is All Souls’ Day. It’s a holy day in the Catholic Church — a day when practicing Catholics commemorate the faithfully departed by praying for all the souls in purgatory.
The Anglican Church, the Eastern Orthodox Church and other denominations of Christianity recognise All Souls’ Day while Mexico’s Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) was moved to coincide with it.
All Souls’ Day can be a controversial subject. Some would argue that it originated from the Celtic tradition of Samhain. Our forefathers believed that the veil between this world and the afterlife was at its thinnest point at this time of year, which is why they gathered to honour the dead.
Others would argue that North Americans have culturally appropriated Día de los Muertos and turned it into ‘Mexican Halloween’.
The exact origins of All Souls’ Day — and the increasing commercialisation of Day of the Dead — are worthy topics of debate, but what if we didn’t get bogged down in detail and instead looked at this day of remembrance in a broader context?
What if we just recognised it as a day when millions of people around the world remember those that they have loved and lost? (International Death Day doesn’t have quite the same ring to it, after all…)
We all remember the dead in our own way. We bring flowers to the grave on special occasions or we mark the anniversary of their death with memorial dinners and masses.
We feel closer to our loved ones afterwards but, for the most part, our experience of loss is still highly individualised.
All Souls’ Day, on the other hand, is a collective experience. We acknowledge our personal loss just as we acknowledge that we’re not alone in our pain.
Anyone who has taken part in the Darkness into Light walk or put a photograph up in the Temple at Burning Man will know that we don’t necessarily have to pray for souls in purgatory to experience the power of collective remembrance.
These experiences can be profound, irrespective of religious belief. They can be so profound, in fact, that I sometimes wonder if our public grieving for dead celebrities suggests a deeper longing for community during the grieving process.
Of course, the very idea of a grieving process can shift our focus towards our own personal journey through bereavement.
Rather than looking at it as a collective experience — it comes for us all after all — we think of it as a pilgrimage that we must walk alone.
The five stages of grief introduced by psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross is partly responsible for the individualisation of grief but it’s important to note that it was only meant to be a framework.
As she said herself, “They are tools to help us frame and identify what we may be feeling. But they are not stops on some linear timeline in grief”.
When we think of grief as a linear timeline — as many of us do — we tend to internalise the experience. When we experience grief in a community setting, however, we externalise our loss in the company of people who know exactly how we’re feeling.
Collective remembrance is poignant but it can be incredibly empowering too. It helps us adjust to the impermanence of life just as it motivates us to live our best life.
Pema Chödrön puts it best in When Things Fall Apart: “Death and hopelessness provide proper motivation — proper motivation for living an insightful, compassionate life,” she writes. “But most of the time, warding off death is our biggest motivation.
“We’re always trying to deny that it’s a natural occurrence that things change, that the sand is slipping through our fingers.”
Thích Nhat Hanh digs deeper in No Death, No Fear. “Some people do not even want to look at a person when the person is alive, but when the person dies they write eloquent obituaries and make offerings of flowers,” he writes.
“At that point the person has died and cannot really enjoy the fragrance of the flowers anymore.
If we really understood and remembered that life was impermanent, we would do everything we could to make the other person happy right here and right now.”
The so-called ‘death positive’ movement is trying to get people to face up to the inevitability of death and, in many ways, they are succeeding. However, we ought to remember that facing up to death means showing up for life.
We should also remember that there’s a day on the calendar set aside for this very celebration — and we don’t need to be religious to take part in it.
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