In Western Christianity, All Souls’ Day, also known as the Commemoration of All Faithful Departed, is observed principally in the Catholic Church, although some churches of Anglican Communion and the Old Catholic Churches also celebrate it; the observance is the third day of Hallowmas and annually occurs on November 2. The Eastern Orthodox Church observes several All Souls’ Days during the year. The Roman Catholic celebration is associated with the doctrine that the souls of the faithful who at death have not been cleansed from the temporal punishment due to venial sins and from attachment to mortal sins cannot immediately attain the beatific vision in heaven, and that they may be helped to do so by prayer and by the sacrifice of the Mass. In other words, when they died, they had not yet attained full sanctification and moral perfection, a requirement for entrance into Heaven. This sanctification is carried out posthumously in Purgatory.
The official name of the celebration in the Roman Rite liturgy of the Roman Catholic Church is “The Commemoration of All the Faithful Departed.” Another popular name in English is Feast of All Souls. In some other languages the celebration, not necessarily on the same date, is known as Day of the Dead.
The Western celebration of All Souls’ Day is on 2 November and follows All Saints’ Day. In the ordinary form of the Roman Rite, if 2 November falls on a Sunday, the Mass is of All Souls, but the Liturgy of the Hours is that of the Sunday, though Lauds and Vespers for the Dead in which the people participate may be said. In the extraordinary form of the Roman Rite and in the Anglican Communion, All Souls Day is instead transferred, whenever 2 November falls on a Sunday, to the next day, 3 November.
The Eastern Orthodox Church dedicates several days throughout the year to the dead, mostly on Saturdays, because of Jesus’ resting in the Holy Sepulchre on that day. In the Methodist Church, saints refer to all Christians and therefore, on All Saint’s Day, the Church Universal, as well as the deceased members of a local congregation are honoured and remembered.
Eastern-Rite Catholics and the Eastern Orthodox Churches
Among Eastern Orthodox and Eastern Catholic Christians, there are several All Souls’ Days during the year. Most of these fall on Saturday, since Jesus lay in the Tomb on Holy Saturday. These are referred to as Soul Saturdays. They occur on the following occasions:
The Saturday of Meatfare Week (the second Saturday before Great Lent)—the day before the Sunday of the Last Judgement
The second Saturday of Great Lent
The third Saturday of Great Lent
The fourth Saturday of Great Lent
Radonitsa (Monday or Tuesday after Thomas Sunday)
The Saturday before Pentecost
Demetrius Saturday (the Saturday before the feast of Saint Demetrius of Thessaloniki—26 October) (In all of the Orthodox Church there is a commemoration of the dead on the Saturday before the feast of Saint Michael the Archangel—8 November, instead of the Demetrius Soul Saturday)
(In the Serbian Orthodox Church there is also a commemoration of the dead on the Saturday closest to the Conception of St. John the Baptist—23 September)
The feast of All Saints achieved great prominence in the ninth century, in the reign of the Byzantine Emperor, Leo VI “the Wise” (886–911). His wife, Empress Theophano—commemorated on 16 December—lived a devout life. After her death in 893, her husband built a church, intending to dedicate it to her. When he was forbidden to do so, he decided to dedicate it to “All Saints,” so that if his wife were in fact one of the righteous, she would also be honored whenever the feast was celebrated.
According to tradition, it was Leo who expanded the feast from a commemoration of All Martyrs to a general commemoration of All Saints, whether martyrs or not.
In the late spring, the Sunday following Pentecost Sunday (50 days after Easter) is set aside as a commemoration of all locally venerated saints, such as “All Saints of America,” “All Saints of Mount Athos,” etc. The third Sunday after Pentecost may be observed for even more localized saints, such as “All Saints of St. Petersburg,” or for saints of a particular type, such as New Martyrs of the Turkish Yoke. This Sunday marks the close of the Paschal season. To the normal Sunday services are added special scriptural readings and hymns to all the saints (known and unknown) from the Pentecostarion.
In addition to the Sundays mentioned above, Saturdays throughout the year are days for general commemoration of all saints, and special hymns to all saints are chanted from the Octoechos, unless some greater feast or saint’s commemoration occurs.
Protestantism and Roman Catholic Church
At the Reformation the celebration of All Souls’ Day was fused with All Saints’ Day in the Church of England, though it was renewed individually in certain churches in connection with the Catholic Revival of the 19th century. The observance was restored with the publication of the 1980 Alternative Service Book, and it features in Common Worship as a Lesser Festival called “Commemoration of the Faithful Departed (All Souls’ Day).”
Among continental Protestants its tradition has been more tenaciously maintained. Even Luther’s influence was not sufficient to abolish its celebration in Saxony during his lifetime; and, though its ecclesiastical sanction soon lapsed even in the Lutheran Church, its memory survives strongly in popular custom. Just as it is the custom of French people, of all ranks and creeds, to decorate the graves of their dead on the jour des morts, so German, Polish and Hungarian people stream to the graveyards once a year with offerings of flowers and special grave lights.
Among Czech people the custom of visiting and tidying graves of relatives on the day is quite common even among atheists. In North America, however, most Protestant acknowledgment of the holiday is generally secular, celebrated in the form of Halloween festivities.
In 1816, Prussia introduced a new date for the remembrance of the Dead among its Lutheran citizens: Totensonntag, the last Sunday before Advent. This custom was later also adopted by the non-Prussian Lutherans in Germany, but it has not spread much beyond the Protestant areas of Germany.
Origins, Practices and Purposes
Some believe that the origins of All Souls’ Day in European folklore and folk belief are related to customs of ancestor veneration practised worldwide, through events such as the Chinese Ghost Festival, the Japanese Bon Festival, or the Mexican Day of the Dead. The Roman custom was that of the Lemuria. However, a review of the sources show that most of the specific European traditions are medieval in origin (post 1000 AD and reflect the “dogmatic” invention of the purgatory. Thus chiming for the dead souls was believed to comfort them in hell, while the sharing of soul cakes with the poor helped to buy the dead a bit respite in the flames. In the same way lighting candles was meant to kindle a light for the dead souls languishing in the darkness. Out of this grew the traditions of souling and the baking of special types of bread or cakes.
In Tirol, cakes are left for them on the table and the room kept warm for their comfort. In Brittany, people flock to the cemeteries at nightfall to kneel, bareheaded, at the graves of their loved ones, and to anoint the hollow of the tombstone with holy water or to pour libations of milk on it. At bedtime, the supper is left on the table for the souls.
In Bolivia, many people believe that the dead eat the food that is left out for them. In Brazil people attend a Mass or visit the cemetery taking flowers to decorate their relatives’ grave, but no food is involved.
In Malta many people make pilgrimages to graveyards, not just to visit the graves of their dead relatives, but to experience the special day in all its significance. Visits are not restricted to this day alone. During the month of November, Malta’s cemeteries are frequented by families of the departed. Mass is also said throughout the month, with certain Catholic parishes organising special events at cemetery chapels.