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A woman visits a cemetery in Czech artist Jakub Schikaneder’s 1888 painting “All Souls Day”

If there is one day that is the holiday for Catholics who are genealogists, it is All Souls Day. This is the day that our efforts to seek out the stories of the lives of our ancestors intersects directly with our Catholic faith and our responsibility to care for the souls of others. Masses for the dead are known to have been said as far back as the 5th century, but the memorial feast dedicated to All Souls originated in the 11th century and is focused on praying for all those who have left this world in the friendship of God.

We do not want you to be unaware, brothers, about those who have fallen asleep, so that you may not grieve like the rest, who have no hope. For if we believe that Jesus died and rose, so too will God, through Jesus, bring with him those who have fallen asleep. (1 Thessalonians 4:13)

Today is the day of all days to freshly print out our family tree, display as many photographs of our ancestors as we can, and send our prayers up to God for all of those who have gone before us – those who departed from us recently and those that lived generations ago.

All Saints Day (November 1), All Souls Day (November 2) and the entire month of November have also traditionally been a time for Catholics to visit family cemeteries. In fact, in many Catholic countries you can find cemeteries decorated elaborately on the days and evenings of All Saints and All Souls with flowers and candles lit “to illuminate the way of the departed souls to Heaven”.

The grave of my great-great-grandparents and their family members in Legrad, Croatia’s Catholic Cemetery decorated with flowers and candles

Whether or not you are able to visit a family cemetery today or have time to put together a display of your ancestral photos, this is the day that every Catholic should try to attend Mass and offer it for the repose of the souls of their family members as well as others who have left this life in need of our prayers. Although not a holy day of obligation like All Saints Day, the feast of All Souls is an important one. I like how the All Souls Day page on the Catholic Culture website describes it:

The Church, after rejoicing yesterday with those of her children who have entered the glory of Heaven, today prays for all those who, in the purifying suffering of purgatory await the day when they will be joined to the company of saints…The celebration of Mass, the sacrifice of Calvary continued on our altars, has ever been for the Church the principal means of fulfilling towards the dead the great commandment of charity.

“Le jour des morts (The Day of the Dead)” by French artist William Bouguereau, 1859

Today is indeed the Catholic genealogist’s feast day. It is the day when our research into the history of our family comes full circle with our reason for living as Catholics: to lift our souls and those of our loved ones to Heaven.

Here are a few ways that you can help to renew the memory of your ancestors and assist your family in praying for your ancestors’ reception into Heaven with the saints on this All Souls Day:

    • Attend Mass. Priests have permission to say three Masses on All Souls Day. Attend at least one and pray for your family members and others in need of God’s mercy.
    • Visit a cemetery. Your local cemetery may not have a beautiful candlelight procession on the evening of All Souls Day, but making a visit to the grave(s) of your loved ones or another cemetery within your reach is a traditional and valuable way to celebrate this special feast. If you’re interested, look online to see if your local cemetery has something special planned. (Like the All Souls Event at Vancouver’s Mountain View Cemetery which features “music, warming fires and fragrant teas comfort[ing] the living, public shrines remember[ing] the dead”, and a Celebration Hall where you can “find space and materials to craft your own personal memorials”. Sounds like my kind of event!)
    • Do a little research and say a few extra prayers. Indulgences have gotten a bad rap in the history books, but they are alive and well in the Catholic Church. This Year of Faith 2012-2013 is a good time to refresh your understanding of this special avenue of God’s grace. Making the effort to say a few extra prayers while attending Mass or visiting a cemetery on All Souls Day in addition to making the sacrament of reconciliation is a special way to remember those who have need of your prayers.
    • Print out that family tree. If you’re like me, my family tree gets additions regularly but I don’t often take the time to print out the latest version to share with the rest of my family. All Souls Day is a great time to print a fresh copy of your research, post it on the wall or put it in a book, and share it with family as you pray together for those who have passed before.
    • Bring out the photographs. Set up a display in your home of photographs of deceased loved ones to refresh your family’s memory of those that have passed. If you haven’t done so, start or finish the ancestral family photo wall project you’ve been wanting to do for so long.
    • Make or visit an online memorial. If you are like me, most of your family members are buried far away. Online memorials give us a chance to “visit” the graves of our family members without traveling. I have set up  a number of family memorials on Find A Grave and have appreciated the connections I have made through the site with locals who have taken photos of my ancestors’ gravesites. Make a visit to the site to see if memorials have been created for your ancestors. If not, take the time to set up memorial pages and upload photos of them and their gravemarkers, or request a local volunteer to take a photo for you.

It is therefore a holy and wholesome thought to pray for the dead that they may be loosed from their sins. (2 Maccabees 12:43-44)

It is a sobering experience to contemplate the feast of All Souls, no matter how elaborately or simply you commemorate it. As Catholic genealogists we are no strangers to death certificates and cemeteries, yet the prayers and focus of All Souls Day makes it hard to ignore our own personal mortality.

French artist Jules Bastien Lepage’s 1882 painting “All Souls Day” depicts a man and two children carrying wreaths for the decoration of graves at a cemetery

The Handbook of Christian Feasts of Customs by Fr. Francis Weiser shares an Austrian All Souls custom:

In Austria the holy souls are said to wander through the forests on All Souls Day, sighing and praying for their release but unable to reach the living by external means that would indicate their presence. For this reason, the children are told to pray aloud while going through the open spaces to church and cemetery, so the poor souls will have the great consolation of seeing that their invisible presence is known and their pitiful cries for help are understood and answered.

If there is any truth to this Austrian legend, I hope that our “wandering ancestors” will look into our homes this All Souls Day and see a sign that we remember them and include them within the prayers of our family.

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