Yesterday, as I sat in a pew of an old Lutheran church nestled among recently harvested rolling fields, I hummed along as my friend sat at the organ and played For All the Saints. I reflected back a week to our All Souls service. In the days leading up to All Souls Day, Richard and I toted five pots of marigolds to church. In the spring, small seedlings had been planted in hopes of warding off nibbling critters while anchoring the corners of our garden; they provided brilliant color throughout the summer; and then, with frost warnings forecasted, these hardy plants were transplanted into pots and moved under grow-lights to thwart the season’s chill just so the bright blossoms could render one last service scattered among a hundred clear glass votive lights on our Altar of All Souls – a visible symbol of remembrance to honor our ancestors.
I believe it says a lot about who we are as individuals, as a church community, as a society, in how we honor our dead. In our ever more hectic, every day world with corporate-driven practices that define grief in HR policy and relegate just three days for sorrow before it is back to business as usual, there is a lot to learn from studying the traditions of other cultures.
In the Romany graveyards of Eastern Europe, nestled next to gold domed, centuries-old churches and scattered among the headstones of family plots there are often elaborate gazebos built with permanent tables and benches that provide regular gathering places. When family and friends come together they bring their tastiest culinary treats, a portion to be enjoyed among the living and a portion left for the spirits. Flowing with the libations are the shared memories which braid together the stories of the departed and the lives of the next generation.
In her poem, Into Every Conversation, Carrie Newcomer writes:
Into every conversation, At least those that matter, I carry my stories like a book Tucked under my arm or secured deep in my heart. A forward written by the ancestors, Side notes and commentary in the margins, Written by mentors, tormentors, and friends.
Not that we should walk lock-step in the beliefs of our ancestors because that would render us unable to see injustice and work for change; unable to recognize inequity and dream of the possibility of a different world. Rather, in remembering those who have come before us, we need to build on our heritage bringing together the good news and those parts in need of transformation.
Last Sunday, we lit candles for those whose memories live in our hearts. At a time when the old tales speak of “the thin veil between worlds” – of All Hallows Eve and All Souls Day – it was good that we gathered and remembered. It was good that we spoke aloud the names of those who have died. And, having been heard by family and friends and even strangers we acknowledged those individuals. In the words of the poet we continued to “carry our stories like a book tucked under our arms or secured deep in our hearts.”