Where I live, remembering and honoring the dead is celebrated annually in May. Over Memorial Day weekend, families flock to cemeteries, flowers in hand, to decorate the graves of loved ones who have passed. In many cases out-of-town relatives come in for this ritual. It’s a pretty big deal.
The church remembers the dead at an entirely different time of year. In Protestant churches, on either November 1st or the first Sunday in November, we celebrate All Saints’ Day. In the churches I’ve served, we remember and name the members of the congregation who have died since All Saints’ Day the year before.
What prevents the Church’s practices on All Saints’ Day from turning into ancestor worship, and what makes those practices different from the practice of decorating graves?
First, the church always strives to lift up the good news that we are part of a people and not individuals unto ourselves. The liturgical acts of remembering each saint by ringing a bell, lighting a candle, or naming help us remember that the Christian life is not a solo endeavor, but one lived out in community—a community that extends and exists beyond our earthly bodies. We are part of the people of God in life and in death. Liturgical practices on All Saints’ Day give us a visual or audible reminder that more than one of us has died, and that those who have died are part of “all the company of heaven” (as the United Methodist Eucharistic liturgy proclaims). Decorating graves tends to focus on one person and who they have been, while the church’s celebration lifts up the whole communion of saints and who they will become in the redemption of all creation. “What we shall be has not yet been revealed, but we know that when he appears, we shall be like him.” (1 John 3:2, paraphrase)
This sense of the continuity of the people of God is further highlighted by a celebration of the sacraments on All Saints’ Sunday. If your church follows the tradition of baptizing on All Saints’ Day, as one of four days of baptism in the church (the other three being the Baptism of the Lord, Easter, and Pentecost) new saints are brought into the church temporal in conjunction with the celebration of the passing of saints into the church triumphant. Celebrating Eucharist on All Saints’ Day can highlight the aspect of the communion of the saints: that in the body of Christ we are in mystical union with all the faithful, across space and time. When we feast, we feast together in Christ, our head, who at the heavenly banquet after his final victory will serve us the “rich food and well-aged wines” that Isaiah tells us about.
And while a decoration of a grave may dwell on our loss, All Saints’ Day sharpens our focus on the resurrection. A death date on a gravestone may remind us of the day someone “left us.” The tradition of lifting up the death dates of historic Christian martyrs calls us to dwell not on loss and separation but hope and reunion. Jesus called Lazarus out from the grave, unbound and unfettered. Doing so, he removed Mary and Martha’s grief and foreshadowed something that we can all look forward to. God has “swallowed up death forever!” We will not remain in the grave, stinky and broken. We will be made whole and found forever with the Lamb and all the faithful departed. A Church which takes seriously its liturgical responsibility on All Saints’ Day provides a tremendous act of pastoral and congregational care to those who grieve. Let us offer something greater than putting flowers on a grave.