On Easter Sunday a number of years ago four generations of my family were gathered around the dining room table when we got a phone call that a cousin had died earlier that day. It was sad news – she was a much-loved member of the family who lived many states away but had visited us several times in recent years. I had only begun to get to know her over the past few years, and now she had died of cancer.

I’ll never forget the sense of emptiness I had felt that day. It was not only for her loss – but because of how my family had received the news that afternoon. We were all saddened; we all loved and missed her. We were also all Catholic. But no one initiated family prayer for her at that Easter table. Although we had a few moments of somber mood and impromptu silence, and spent some time reminiscing about our favorite memories with her, no one suggested we take the time as a family to pray. I felt the need to do so, but didn’t know how to best begin. I left that afternoon feeling as if we had not only lost a dear family member, but had missed a great opportunity – a time of family prayer together to lift to Heaven the soul of our beloved cousin.

All Souls Day - Smallest Leaf

As a genealogist, I value death & burial dates, birth & baptism dates, and marriage dates as milestones that help to record and tell the story of the lives I research. As a Catholic, these times have special meaning to me as moments of sacramental and God-given grace. The Church has time-honored traditions that we would do well to understand and to incorporate into these moments of our lives – traditional prayers for a deceased relative, for example.

My family and I missed the opportunity around the Easter table that afternoon years ago to together lift our cousin’s soul to God on the day of her death, but I still remember her and pray for her today. In fact, as All Souls Day approaches, we Catholics are reminded to renew our prayers for all of our loved ones and others who have passed. The Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC) explains that most of those who have died in God’s grace still need purification before they are able to enter Heaven (refer to CCC 1030). Our prayers can help these holy souls.

A previous article I wrote for The Catholic Gene explained the importance of All Souls Day to me as a Catholic genealogist (see The Catholic Genealogist’s Feast Day: Lifting Your Family Tree to Heaven on All Souls Day). A recent commenter on that article asked me for more ideas to help introduce his family to the practice of praying for their ancestors. In response to his request as we approach this year’s Feast of All Souls, I’d like to delve a little more deeply into the Church’s traditional ways of prayer and remembrance on this special day for those who have died.

Attend an All Souls Day Mass

Priests have permission to say three Masses on All Souls Day. Take your family to one and pray for your deceased family members and others in need of God’s mercy. You can find the Scripture readings from the All Souls Day Mass here. If you can’t make it to Mass, meditating on the collect for that day is a beautiful way to focus your prayers.

Collect for the Mass of All Souls

Listen kindly to our prayers, O Lord,
And, as our faith in your Son,
raised from the dead, is deepened,
so may our hope of resurrection for your departed servants
also find new strength.
Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son,
who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever.

Make an All Souls Novena & Remember the Month of the Holy Souls

The month of November is considered the Month of the Holy Souls. In addition to the collect from the Mass mentioned above, there are some beautiful age-old prayers that can be used throughout this month. The very short Requiem Aeternam (Latin for “Eternal Rest”) is a brief prayer that is easy to pray together as a family for a deceased loved one after regular meal time or other daily prayers.

Requiem Aeternam

Eternal Rest grant unto them,
O Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon them.
May they rest in peace.

The De Profundis (Latin for “Out of the Depths”) is a penitential prayer straight out of the Biblical Book of Psalms – Psalm 130, to be exact. It has long been used in commemorations for those who have died.

De Profundis

Out of the depths I have cried to Thee, O Lord: Lord hear my voice. Let Thy ears be attentive to the voice of my supplication. If Thou, O Lord, wilt mark iniquities; Lord, who shall stand it? For with Thee there is merciful forgiveness: and by reason of Thy law, I have waited for Thee, O Lord. My soul hath relied on His word: my soul hath hoped in the Lord. From the morning-watch even until night, let Israel hope in the Lord. Because with the Lord there is mercy: and with Him plentiful redemption. And He shall redeem Israel from all his iniquities.

V. Eternal rest give unto them. O Lord.
R. And let perpetual light shine upon them.
V. From the gate of Hell.
R. Deliver their souls, O Lord.
V. May they rest in peace.
R. Amen.
V. Lord, hear my prayer.
R. And let my cry come unto Thee.
V. The Lord be with you.
R. And with Thy Spirit.

Let us pray: O God, the Creator and Redeemer of all the faithful, we beseech Thee to grant to the Souls of Thy servants the remission of their sins, so that by our prayers they may obtain pardon for which they long. O Lord, Who lives and reigns, world without end. Amen. May they rest in peace. Amen.

If you’d like to get a head start on All Souls Day intentions, consider praying a novena – nine days of prayer – beginning October 24 and ending on November 1, the eve of the feast. You may use whatever prayers you choose. The De Profundis is an important part of this traditional All Souls Novena. Another website offers the traditional All Souls Novena online here with links to each day’s prayers. Another option is to pray the Chaplet for the Dead on each of the nine days. If you’d like to keep your prayers very brief, you could pray this simple All Souls Novena which uses only one short prayer a day.

Other Devotions for Those Who Have Died

The Rosary has long been a traditional way of prayer for individuals and families. It is often prayed during a wake for the deceased, and would be a beautiful way to pray at home as a family for ancestors who have passed. This would be especially appropriate during October, the Month of the Holy Rosary, which precedes November and its focus as the Month of the Holy Souls. Learn how to pray the Rosary here. When praying for those who have died, you may substitute each Glory Be prayer for the Requiem Aeternam. In place of the concluding Hail Holy Queen prayer, pray the De Profundis (Psalm 130). If you would like ideas on how to pray the Rosary with small children, visit Haley Stewart’s Can You Pray the Rosary with Little Kids in the House?

All Souls Prayers & Pedigree Charts

The Divine Mercy Chaplet is another appropriate devotion (and my personal favorite). Its shorter length makes it even easier to complete with young children present, and the plea for God’s mercy seems most appropriate when interceding for the souls of deceased loved ones. According to one of the spiritual directors of St. Faustina, with whom this devotion originated, she herself used the chaplet to pray for the souls in Purgatory. Read more about St. Faustina’s devotion in Pillars of Fire in My Soul: The Spirituality of St. Faustina by Robert Stackpole. Learn how to pray the Divine Mercy Chaplet here.

You can find additional prayers for the dead and dying online here.

One more prayerful “action item” (according to Fr. Zuhlsdorf): learn about and make a plan to obtain indulgences on All Souls Day and the first week of November for those who have died. Read more about All Souls indulgences here.

Get Creative & Include the Children

As you honor the memory of your deceased family members and try to hasten their entrance into God’s full grace of Heaven through prayer, use a bit of creativity. This is particularly important if you are planning activities for your extended family. Even more so if children will be joining you.

Some traditional (and a few brand new) ways to celebrate include:

  • Print out that family tree pedigree chart and display it prominently during the month of November along with as many ancestral family photographs as you can
  • Make a Purgatory Box and include names and types of people for whom you intend to pray
  • Make a family All Souls prayer candle
  • Make and share Soul Cakes for All Souls Day (an English tradition)
  • Share food, clothing and toys with the needy (or perhaps make a donation to a charitable cause in a loved ones’ name)
  • Practice setting up a table for Extreme Unction (also known as Last Rites)
  • Make a visit to a cemetery and clean and/or decorate the graves of relatives

If you have young children and are wondering how they might take all this focus on death and dying, I encourage you to visit Kendra’s Catholic All Year blog and read these two posts: At The End, Charlotte Dies: A Reflection On Death For All Souls Day and Little Kids And Death: How Taking My Kids To A Traditional Funeral Didn’t Freak Them Out. Conclusion: getting introduced to the reality of death and our Christian hope for eternal life early on in our years is not a bad idea.

All Souls Day Family Photos

I hope that I’ve given you some new ideas and a bit of inspiration for celebrating All Souls Day within your family. As I’ve grown in my Catholic faith and have said goodbye to more extended family members over the years, my appreciation for this beautiful feast day has grown.

Florence Berger, in her 1949 book Cooking for Christ: The Liturgical Year in the Kitchen, has a beautiful way of describing the purpose of this day:

…our charity and love go out to those who, though dead, still stand and watch at Heaven’s gate before they can taste of the Lord’s feast. We turn from our gaiety [of All Saints Day the previous day] to the sombre thought that we, too, may one day be waiting at the closed lattice because we are not yet perfect. We leave our friends to visit the loneliest spot on earth: the cemeteries of the dead.

I like the traditional Lithuanian way of addressing deceased loved ones on All Souls Day:

Dear souls of the dead,
you are still remembered by my family;
you are most worthy of our perpetual remembrance,
especially you, my grandparents, my parents,
also our relatives, children,
and everyone whom death
took away from our home.
I invite you to this annual feast.
We pray that this feast be agreeable to you,
just like the memory of you is to us.

I think it is quite appropriate that the Catholic focus on the Month of the Holy Souls (November) comes immediately after Family History Month (October) in the United States. I hope you’ll take this coming month to share with your family the new discoveries you may have made about your ancestors as you join together to lift their souls in prayer as a family.