Remembering loved ones on All Souls' Day

All Souls Day © Adrian Cheah

The feast of All Souls is a reminder to pray for the faithfully departed, to help them on their journey to heaven. Therefore we pray not just for those we know and love but also for the “neglected souls”. These are regarded as acts of charity.

Most religions compel (or at the very least, encourage) its 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, to visit their loved ones. Graves must be cleaned during this time and on the first day of Syawal, prayers are 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 from the Buddha Shakyamuni's time.

All Souls Day © Adrian Cheah

Catholics also remember their dearly departed on All Souls' Day and during this time, they pray for those souls 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, light candles and leave flowers behind. The following story describes a Penang Catholic family's visit ‒ my family's ‒ to the cemetery on All Souls' Day.

Usually a week before All Souls' Day, my sisters and I would made our way to the Western Road Cemetery where our grandparents and most of our granduncles, grandaunties, 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.

All Souls Day © Adrian Cheah

"Our grandparents over there, " Sandra, my late sister, used to announce, "and eight graves down is our Auntie Catherine".

In the early 1980s, my father had the tombstones of my uncle and auntie reconstructed to fit twenty urns for each of his children, when the time came. He also eventually did up the graves of my maternal grandparents. Coming from a family of eight brothers and sisters, my father in his wisdom knew that this would indeed be the most practical way of keeping everyone in the family together, even in death.

All Souls Day © Adrian Cheah

The trend appears to be catching on, as other graves found within the new section at Western Road, have also adopted the same space-saving concept.

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”. Candles are lit. Together we recite the rosary at each of the graves we visit, with a hope that our prayers would be heard, and hopefully answered.

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. Muslims are taught that our time on earth should be used to prepare for the greater journey ahead. In short, all religions and cultures 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' falls on 2 November every year and is a holy day for all Catholics. On this day, they remember the dead and offer prayers by attending Mass and visiting the gravesides.

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Written and photographed by Adrian Cheah
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Updated 30 October 2019