Remembering loved ones on All Souls' Day
The feast of All Souls' Day is a reminder for us to offer up prayers for the departed, to help them on their journey to heaven. We pray not just for those we know and love but also for “neglected souls”. This is regarded as an act of charity.
Most religions compel (or at the very least, encourage) their followers to pray for the departed. Different faiths prescribe different rituals for remembering the dead. For example, Muslims believe that the departed are “freed” from their entombment once a year on Ramadhan, enabling them to visit members of their living relatives. On the first day of Syawal, graves must be cleaned and prayers performed at the gravesite. Buddhists, on the other hand, perform the annual Ullambana to console ancestors and other spirits. This tradition of remembering the departed has been handed down through generations dating back to the time of Buddha Shakyamuni. One major event in the Chinese calendar, observed by Chinese communities all over the world is Cheng Beng. This day of honouring would be observed as a time of obeisance, remembrance and veneration for departed ancestors and immediate family members.
Catholics also remember their dearly departed especially on All Souls' Day. During this special time of remembrance, they pray for these souls (especially those believed to be in purgatory) so that they may be hurried along the path to heaven. Be that as it may, Catholics still bear in mind that according to St. Matthew, not all sins can be forgiven. Thus it is said that, "and whosoever shall speak a word against the Son of man, it shall be forgiven him: but he that shall speak against the Holy Ghost, it shall not be forgiven him, neither in this world nor in the world to come." – 12:32.
When visiting the graves of loved ones, Catholics often spruce up the graves, place flowers and light candles as they offer up prayers.
Usually a week before All Souls' Day, my family and I would make our way to the Western Road cemetery where our grandparents and most of our granduncles, grandaunts, uncles, aunties and relatives have been buried. Having visited the cemetery without fail every year, we find ourselves retracing our footsteps on very familiar ground.
"Our grandparents are over there, " Sandra, my late sister, used to announce, "and eight graves down is our Auntie Catherine".
In the early 1980s, my late father reconstructed various parts of the family gravesite to fit numerous urns. Having a family of eight children, my father (who also had five siblings) knew in his wisdom that this would indeed be the most practical way of keeping everyone in the family together, even in death.
The trend appeared to have caught on, as other graves found within the new section at the Western Road cemetery have adopted the same space-saving concept.
As we light some candles, together as a family we would recite the rosary at each of the graves we visit in the hope that our prayers would be heard and answered. Perhaps it is the metaphysical ambience of being surrounded by so many dead that we always keep our senses attuned to the smallest sign of any ''presence”. Sometimes, we could almost feel that they are there with us in spirit.
When observing All Souls' Day, Catholics are actually re-enacting the actions of a biblical character called Judas Maccabeus. He believed that by praying for a band of pagan soldiers he had just buried, they would be delivered from their sins and allowed to enter the gates of heaven.
It is good that people of all ages and from all walks of life be reminded that life does not go on forever. A dying candle on a tombstone soberly reminds us of our brief moment in a material world. Like a song that starts, thrills and fades away, we too will live, laugh and cry for a while before we embark on another journey.
The ancient Aztecs believed that life is a dream and when you die, you wake up to reality. Major religions preach that our time on earth should be used to prepare for the greater journey ahead. In short, most religions and cultures across the globe teach us that the material world is only temporal and any attempt to cling to it is an exercise in futility.
The feast of All Souls' Day falls on 2 November every year and is a holy day for all Catholics. On this day, requiem masses are commonly held in churches. The priests who celebrate these masses wear vestments of the following colour – black (for mourning), violet (symbolising penance), or white (symbolising the hope of resurrection).
Written and photographed by Adrian Cheah
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Updated 18 October 2021