To remember and to honor

After completing Language School in my first year as a missionary, I was sent to the town of Shinyanga (Tanzania), and two days after arriving, I was called to preside over my first funeral. The rituals surrounding dying and death are among the sharpest recollections many missionaries share, as they sadly are part of the daily rhythm of our lives in other countries. But more importantly, as we witness and participate closely in these sad events, we are blessed to discover new ways of remembering and more importantly of honoring those who “have gone before us marked with the sign of peace.”

Especially in lands where death is experienced on a wider level caused by natural disasters, rampant disease, hunger and malnutrition, or a high level of poverty that militates against longevity or a minimal quality of life, missioners grow in their appreciation of the sanctity of life, but more importantly, of the reverence and respect shown for the deceased.

In this month of November, that begins with the dual celebrations of All Saints and All Souls, our Catholic traditions provide us with special ways of remembering and honoring our deceased relatives and friends.

In East Africa, we all gathered for funerals to not only pray for the deceased but also to surround the bereaved and support them with our prayers and material support as they grappled with the loss of a loved one. Tragedy was faced communally. The community assured that no child be left orphaned, and no widow be cast aside and forgotten. Following the customs of the area, we gathered on the seventh day and observed a final end to the mourning with prayers and a ritual meal.

Later in Russia I learned even more profound ways of remembering and honoring the dead, especially on All Souls’ Day.

We would gather at the parish on that cold November morning (almost always a day that had a heavy snowfall). Following a Mass where candles were lit in remembrance of deceased relatives and friends, we boarded rented buses and drove to one of the four large public cemeteries in our city (usually choosing the gravesite of the last parishioner to be buried before this date), and there, as a family of believers, we would pray for the deceased, and then leave the customary small plate of brown bread or biscuits at the grave. From under their large winter fur coats, parishioners would bring out small bags of sliced fruit, wrapped candies, and thermoses filled with steaming hot tea (and out of respect for the presence of the priest, the usual flasks of vodka stayed hidden away). Once prayers were completed, we passed around these small treats and ate them in memory of the person whose grave we honored that day. Finally we lit small vigil candles and left them as a sign and pledge of our own continued prayers for the deceased.
These rituals provided a way of comforting those bereaved as well as bringing the community together in a spirit of prayer to remember and honor those who preceded us in faith.

A few years ago, I had the privilege of meeting Susan Tassone, one of the leading proponents here in the U.S. for the devotion for the Poor Souls in Purgatory (see http://susantassone.com/ and especially her most recent book, “Praying with the Saints for the Holy Souls in Purgatory”). Her writings remind us that the Church has for centuries promoted ways to remember and honor the deceased through prayer and through Masses said for them.

The annual commemoration of All Souls’ Day provides us with a unique way of honoring our deceased, both in prayers and at Mass, but also in following customs from other lands: of making a special journey to the graves of our relatives and friends on that day or on the weekend before or after it, praying there at the grave, and leaving a vigil light or some other memorial. Or if the cemetery is too far away, we can observe a commemorative meal with a photo of the deceased in a prominent place nearby. We remember and honor our deceased by having Masses celebrated for them on their anniversary or on other times through the year. Some may consider having a 30-day Gregorian Mass said. A visit to our website (http://www.drvc.org/index.php?Itemid=773&option=com_virtuemart) can help you in this, and through this, we not only can remember and honor our deceased, but we can also offer more assistance directly to our missioners who will celebrate these Masses.