For anyone who has taken part in Dia de los Muertos, it’s immediately evident that this tradition rooted in Mexican culture is one of celebration, not mourning.
The atmosphere at a recent celebration at Our Lady Queen of Peace Parish cemetery was festive, with food, music and crafts under a pavilion. Parishioners sat in lawn chairs and talked around fire pits among the rows of graves as the sun set. They placed blessed candles and flowers at the tombstones of their loved ones, sharing happy memories — and some shedding a few tears.
This was the first year that Erendira Garcia, and her husband, Andy Ganey, invited the entire House Springs parish to participate in Dia de los Muertos at the cemetery in Byrnesville. Garcia, a native of Mexico City, said it was an opportunity to share with others that the tradition is a way to recall the happy memories of our deceased loved ones, and most important — to pray for their souls.
The month of November, which is marked with the feasts of All Saints Nov. 1 and All Souls Nov. 2, traditionally is a time in which we are called to pray for the souls of the faithful departed. Praying for the dead quite simply is fundamental to our faith as Catholics.
The tradition of praying for the dead traces back to Sacred Scripture. “Therefore, (Judas Maccabeus) made atonement for the dead, that they might be delivered from their sin” (2 Maccabees 12:46). The Church teaches that praying for the dead is intrinsically connected to the three states of the Church: the Church Militant, or the saints on earth; the Church Suffering, or the saints in purgatory; and the Church Triumphant, known as the saints in heaven. In addition to prayers, it is recommended that the we participate in almsgiving, indulgences and works of penance on behalf of the deceased.
Because we don’t know exactly who has made it to heaven after death (with the exception of those who have been beatified or canonized), it’s important that Catholics pray for everyone who has died, that they might be soon united with God in His Kingdom.
The Church teaches that purgatory is a time of purification for those who “die in God’s grace and friendship.” According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, “after death (the faithful) undergo purification, so as to achieve the holiness necessary to enter the joy of heaven” (1030-32). This is why we have prayers for the souls in purgatory — because quite simply, they cannot pray for themselves.
Visiting a cemetery is one specific way in which we can carry out the spiritual work of mercy to pray for the dead. A Catholic cemetery in particular is a consecrated ground, an extension of our worship in church where we can pray for the deceased that they may be united with God in heaven.
Praying for the deceased also is a reminder of our own mortality. One day, we all will die, and this life on earth is but a transition. Our lives will change, but they will not end. We will have eternal life with God if we remain united with Him in faith.
And that’s nothing to mourn — if anything, it’s something to celebrate.