Comfort My People — Prayers for the dead

Archbishop Shelton J. Fabre

The month of November brings back for me a fond memory of my years in Louisiana. In my home state, All Saints Day and All Souls Day are marked by visiting cemeteries where the mortal remains of our loved ones rest. There are also celebrations in cemeteries in the Archdiocese of Louisville to mark All Saints Day and All Souls Day. 

Some people may not understand what we do by gathering in the cemeteries and praying for the dead, but we who have experienced the power of remembering, know the value of this experience, which we do in the name of the Lord Jesus. There are many theological and emotional levels to be experienced by what we do through our annual blessing of cemeteries and our prayers offered for the dead. Allow me to express some of the wonder and mystery of these many levels that I always see present in any cemetery blessing.

Chief among the many levels is the level of faith. On this primary level, our blessing of the cemetery is a response to the love of God offered in Jesus Christ, who seeks to enable us to handle our grief over the death of our loved ones by remembering the promise offered to our departed in baptism; this promise being that one day they will rise again, and death will be no more. On this basic level, we cling in faith to our hope in Jesus Christ that one day the dead will rise again. 

Some of those who rest now in our cemeteries are only recently deceased, and they occupy places in our cemetery that are still “new” at this time of year. One can experience in the family and friends gathered around these ”fresh resting places” the sting of death that is still harshly obvious in their tear-stained faces. One can know that the memories of their departed loved ones are rich and comforting, but their absence is still painful and numbing. In contrast to these new resting places, others have for a long time now been a part of the face of our cemeteries. 

Even though death’s sting may no longer be as harsh for families who gathered around these loved ones, the separation that death has brought about is nonetheless real and difficult. Our belief in the promises of Jesus Christ spoken to our loved ones in baptism fills us with hope, a hope that lives despite our struggle with death. The dead will rise again – this is our faith, and this is the faith of the Church.

Another level is a very human one. On this human level, our prayers for the blessing of a cemetery are also a time to remember our relational ties to those who live. It can be obvious as we gather with others for a cemetery blessing that so much of life is also at play. It is good to witness relatives and friends visiting and catching up with one another, sharing the joys and sorrows of life that seem to come about so quickly in our lives today. Meeting in the cemetery at this time of the year becomes one of those occasions we use to catch up on the lives of others whom we may not regularly see throughout the rest of the year.

Undoubtedly, there could indeed be many other levels, but the final level that I notice in the blessing of the cemetery is the level of history. There is a rich history hinted at and whispered about through the burial markers that dot the cemeteries and give general testimony to the lives of those who rest with them. Tapping into this history and again listening to the whispers spoken, it was good to witness those, acquainted in life with the dead, standing before some of the final resting places of the dead and explaining to others, especially to younger ones, the various family ties that make the living a part of the fabric and legacy of the lives of those who have died.

We know the power of what we do at least once a year in remembering the dead in this way, as well as in many other ways throughout the year. In all these ways, we place our hope in the Lord Jesus, and renew our ties to those who have died. “Eternal rest grant unto them, O Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon them. May they rest in peace. Amen.”

As we prepare to enter the month of November, I also extend to all of you a very blessed Thanksgiving. I pray that you and your families find this a time of grace and fellowship!

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