Praying for the Dead – All Souls Day

Hamilton Cemetery, Hamilton (Ont). Photo by @erskinec
Hamilton Cemetery, Hamilton (Ont). Photo by @erskinec

Praying for the dead – All Souls Day

Nov 2nd – Today is All Souls Day. The practice dates back to the early Middle Ages when people wanted to know what happen to their love ones between time they died and arriving in heaven.

While there were several different versions of how one reaches heaven, it was clear by the early Middle Ages that there would be a gap between dying and arriving at the pearly gates.

This is where the notion of purgatory enters the picture. Purgatory was the place where you cleanse your sins earned during your lifetime. Everyone spent some time here, but those who had lived a good life would move onto heaven more quickly.

Again, people wanted to know if there was anything they could do to shorten their departed love ones time in purgatory and the answer was you could pray for their souls.

Of course, the more prays you offered, the shorter their time in purgatory.

This created an incentive for the rich to have people pray full-time for their love ones. Within a few years, a whole industry developed around this practice and would eventually lead to the Protestant Reformation in the 16th century.

In the meantime, poor people began to ask how could they save departed love ones from the torture of purgatory. They spent all their time working in the fields and didn’t have the money to hire people to pray for their departed love ones.

As a result, the Church set aside one day in the year when everyone prayed for all the departed souls. Thus, helping to shorten everyone’s time purgatory.

While the practice of praying for all souls developed in several different regions of Europe, the practice really became popular after 1100.

There is also a connection between ghosts, Halloween, and purgatory.

In the Middle Ages, there two type of ghosts: demons and souls of the departed.

Ghosts Souls might appear to the living to ask for prayer to end their suffering in purgatory. Other dead souls might appear to urge the living to confess their sins before it was too late.

Medieval ghosts were paler and sadder versions of their former living selves. They often appeared in tattered grey rags.

In some traditions, All Souls Day, was the time when the dead souls might return home. This tradition builds on the Celtic belief of the in-between times that All Hallows marked.

Finally, some people avoid getting married in November because of the associations with death and it being considered an unlucky month.

So, that is a lay person’s version of the history of All Souls Day.

Published by Chris Erskine

Inspired by architecture and landscapes, my art explores our relationship to place, memory and identity. As a mid career artist, my art practice includes: painting, murals, short films, and sound art.

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