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.

Dying Can Be a Pickle

Binkley Hallow Graveyard, Hamilton (Ont) . Photo by @erskinec
Binkley Hallow 1854 Graveyard, Hamilton (Ont) . Photo by @erskinec

This week the Globe and Mail noted that Oct 21st was the anniversary of the death of Lord Nelson at the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805. Before the American Civil War embalming was rarely done and funerals had to be performed very quickly.

In the case of Lord Nelson, he died on a ship far from home and in a warm climate, what to do? There is a folktale that says they packed Lord Nelson and shipped him back to England in a keg of rum.

Unlike Lord Nelson, the challenge for some farm families was what do you do when it is the middle of winter and the ground is frozen solid?

I don’t have any local Hamilton stories, but according to one 19th century tale, when someone died in the winter, the body would be tied to a cooling board and hang in the barn until the spring thaw.

A cooling board is a panel of wood, like a wooden door, that was used to place the dead until the coffin was completed. Given the small size of 19th century homes and communities, sick beds would be needed for visitors staying over for the funeral.

Odds and Ends – The Dead Shaping Our Urban Landscapes

Hermitage Ghost Walk 2014
Hermitage Ghost Walk 2014

Odds and Ends – an artist’s notebook

Oct 19th – The month of the dead is fast approaching; and before that Halloween. So, who says the dead can’t have something to say about urban landscapes. Until end of November, I am going to focus cemetery landscapes.

Halloween has deep roots in Celtic history and lore. The end of October marked the end of the harvest season and the ancient Celts would take stock of supplies and prepare for winter. It was also a time when boundaries between the worlds of the living and the dead overlapped and the deceased would come back to life and sometimes cause troubles by making people sick or damaging crops.

All Soul Day is held on Nov 2nd and marks a time to pray for those who have died with grace but still must atoned for all their sins. There is the belief that if you pray for the dead then their time in purgatory may be shorten. While the day is set aside for prays, essentially the whole month is a time for remembering the dead.

Over the next 6 weeks, I am going to look at how 19th century concerns with death and the dead, shaped one of the major feature of our urban landscape – cemeteries.

Hopefully, everyone will find this journey an enjoyable one.