Cornerstone: All Souls’ Day

by Peter Klapes


In the Catholic Church—as well as the Eastern Orthodox and Anglican churches—All Souls’ Day commemorates the dead. Celebrated on the November 2 in the Catholic Church, it is said that the holy day was established by Saint Odilo of Cluny, in 989, at his abbey. The custom of the commemoration of the dead, it is said, began to spread within the Cluniac Order, and was adopted at many monasteries in France and around Western Europe. In his Life of Saint Odilo, Saint Peter Damiani recounts a story of the foundation of All Souls’ Day:


A pilgrim returning from the Holy Land was cast by a storm on a desolate island where dwelt a hermit. From him he learned that amid the rocks was a chasm communicating with purgatory, from which rose perpetually the groans of tortured souls, the hermit asserting that he had also heard the demons complaining of the efficacy of the prayers of the faithful, and especially of the monks of Cluny, in rescuing their victims. On returning home the pilgrim hastened to inform the abbot of Cluny, who forthwith set apart the 2nd of November as a day of intercession on the part of his community for all the souls in purgatory” (Encyclopedia Britannica, “All Souls’ Day”).


Nonetheless, the celebration—in the Catholic Church—seems to address the Catholic understanding of the soul’s attunement after death. That is, in Catholicism, the soul of the dead can go to three places: heaven (the resting place of the soul of the person who has reached a sort of theosis and communion with God), hell (where the soul of one who dies in mortal sin remains), and purgatory (where the soul of the person with lesser [venial] sin goes). Catholics believe that through the prayers of the faithful on Earth, the souls of those in purgatory can be cleansed, and can thus proceed to heaven. In fact, All Souls’ Day immediately follows All Saints’ Day, celebrated on the first of November, in commemoration of the departed who have attained the beatific vision, surpassing the purgatorial state.


In Eastern-Rite Catholicism and in the Eastern Orthodox churches, there are several All Souls’ Days—Soul Saturdays—during the year, celebrated on the second Saturday before Great Lent, the second, third, and fourth Saturdays of Great Lent, the Saturday before Pentecost, and on the Saturday before the Feast of Saint Demetrius, on the October 26.


In Mexican culture, All Souls’ Day—also known as Día de los muertos, or Day of the Dead—is celebrated starting on the October 31, and ends on the November 2. However, it is interesting to note that prior to 16th-century Spanish colonization, the holiday took place in the summer, but its days of celebration were changed to coincide with the Western tradition of Allhallowtide, or the Hallowmas season—the triduum of Halloween, All Saints’ Day, and All Souls’ Day. On the Day of the Dead, the family of the departed visits the graves of their loved ones, and furnishes them with sugar skulls, marigolds, and the favorite foods or beverages of the departed.


This year, All Souls’ Day will be celebrated on Wednesday, November 2. Harvard’s Peabody Museum has a Day of the Dead exhibit, which portrays well the both Aztec and Christian roots of the important holiday—it is worth the trek!

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