Remembering and Living with the Dead

Remembering and Living with the Dead

A Celtic Cross in a Graveyard with the Sun Shining on it

By the Rev. Dale Carr

As many are out celebrating Halloween this day with costumes and candy and parties. I wanted to take a moment to reflect on the significances of one of the historic traditions that make up the history of the three day cycle of All Hallows Eve, All Saints Day, and All Souls Day – also known as “Dia de los Muertos” (Day of the Dead). And that is the importance of remembering and reflecting on our ancestors, both the biological family ones and those who are our ancestors and examples in our faith and philosophy and civic life.

Having traveled and lived in many places in the Pacific, Europe, Latin America, I know that these three days of All Hallows Eve/All Saints Day/All Souls Day is the most common time of this ritual practice of remembering and Venerating ancestors and deceased loved ones, in most of the Roman Catholic/Anglican/Orthodox Christian parts of the world.

I feel blessed to have been raised in family that put great stock in the annual rituals of visiting graveyards, cleaning and decorating graves, and telling family history, stories and lore. My family does this over Memorial/Decoration Day weekend, which has become the a common day for the practice the US. The ritual acts were important to my family, but the more amazing thing was being able to hear and learn the stories of the lives of all the individuals whose graves we visited. From the great-great grandparents who came to Oregon on the wagon trains of 1849/51, to the great-grand mother who immigrated to US from Norway as an indentured 13 year old house girl, to the stories of the soldiers and sailors buried at the Veterans Cemetery, to those who died young in the 1918 Spanish flu epidemic, to stories of life in the depression, as well as the stories of the family ner’do’wells who lost their inheritance in a poker game or went to jail or drank too much. And then there was of course every middle-schooler’s perversely favorite story of great-great uncle Richard, who died as a 20 year-old, after being struck by lightning while sitting in the out-house. Somehow the stories made these ancestors come to life and connect them to me. And later in life I would be able to join in and share my own memories of beloved grandparents and aunts and uncles, who I had known and had passed on.

This week I was reflecting on the wide range of funeral and mourning rituals around the world as I watched and read media coverage as the relics and ashes of King Bhumibol Adulyadej were enshrined, ending Thailand’s year of mourning. As I have traveled over the years I have always felt honored and further enlightened, when I have be asked to join families in their remembrance rituals, often including visits to cemeteries or family shrines or sacred places. While witnessing and learning about each new ritual has been a growing experience, the biggest blessing I have found has usually been listening to the stories of their love ones and ancestors.

As a Chaplain and Priest who has officiated at hundreds of Funeral and Memorial Service and attended many more, as I walk with families and friends through grief, I have seen how healing the sharing of stories and celebration of life through “re-member-ing” the deceased can be. This is true whether those memories are part of a formal service or in the gathering of folks before and after. I have also learned that each time we gather to remember the newly deceased we inevitably remember the other people in our lives who have died, and mourn those losses as well. And there I see healing in the telling and remembering.

Whether it your tradition to celebrate these three days in remembrance of your loved ones and ancestors or not, I hope that each of you have times in your year and personal/family/cultural traditions where you take time to honor and reflect on the impact that those who have died have had, and continue to have, in shaping your lives and those of your family and the world around you.