Updated: Nov 1, 2020
By Maureen Kalbus
Sheltering at home amid emerging golden and russet colors, I realize that we are drifting towards the end of October, even as our clocks fall back, and happening upon November and All Saints’ Day. Our church in San Anselmo remembers all who died this year, as their names are read and a chime sounds.
“For all the saints who from their labors rest,
Who Thee by faith before the world confessed.
Thy name, O Jesus, be forever blest.
O blest communion, fellowship divine!
We feebly struggle, they in glory shine;
Yet all are one in Thee, for all are Thine.
We hold in our hearts all who are no longer with us in person, yet they are not distant or absent. They are with us, keeping us company every moment of our lives. John O’Donohue believes that “In their new, transfigured presence, their compassion, understanding and love take a divine depth, enabling them to become secret angels, guiding and sheltering the unfolding of our destiny.” Even years after losing a loved one from our lives, a scent, a piece of music, an item, will stop us in our tracks, stirring a memory, provoking us to catch our breath, and tangibly reach out. Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote a powerful passage, about being faithful to the vacancy of loss:
“Nothing can fill the gap
When we are away from those we love and it would be
Wrong to find anything
Since leaving the gap unfulfilled preserves the bond between us.
It is nonsense to say that God fills the gap.
He does not fill it but keeps it empty, so that our communion
With another may be kept alive even at the cost of pain.”
All Saints’ Day in the Christian Church commemorates the saints of the church. Its origin cannot be traced with certainty, as it has been observed on various days in different places. However, references go back to the fourth/seventh centuries and to Pope Gregory 111, who dedicated a chapel in St. Peter’s, Rome, in honor of all saints. Cultures that celebrate the Day of the Dead, do so as a form of joyful reverence. The celebrations acknowledge the importance of death as a part of the unending, unchanging circle of life. In the Philippines, “Undas”, pays respect to the departed. There is evidence that the Aztecs celebrated traditions over three thousand years ago, and they lasted a full month. The Native American holiday reflects their own spiritual beliefs about nature and the ever present closeness of the spirit world. I appreciated learning about this when recently reading Barbara Kingsolver’s “Animal Dreams.” Spaniards visit tombstones to honor the memory of deceased relatives. When Spaniards arrived in Mexico, these ancient customs were combined with Christian beliefs. In rural areas, people made a trail of flower petals from their homes to where they have placed a special altar for the dead. A traditional altar includes seven elements: a picture of the deceased; the person’s favorite food/drink; traditional Bread of the Dead; little skull shaped candies; arrangements of special flowers [marigolds]; candles and incense; colorful tissue paper cut in various designs. After the dead have departed, the food and drink may be shared with neighbors and friends, as they share memories of loved ones. In San Rafael, a string of altars has sprouted up across Downtown, as part of San Rafael’s annual Dia de los Muertos celebration, and will be on display until November 2nd. There are also online festivities. [dayofthedeadsr.org]
Growing up in Northern Ireland, I was aware of my family’s respect for dead relatives. Apparently my Dad was taken to Carnmoney Cemetery each Sunday as a boy, to pay respects at family gravesides. My Mum assiduously visited grave yards, particularly on anniversaries and holidays. Once I could drive, armed with flowers, I ferried her. Most of our time was spent in Roselawn Cemetery in the Castlereagh Hills above Belfast. It is an immense expanse, over curving drumlins, around lakes, and bursting with trees and carefully maintained rose beds. My maternal grandparents were among the first to be buried there, and then, over the years, aunts, uncles, and my parents joined them. Their locations are spread over the acres. One summer evening years ago, when daylight was stretching towards ten o’clock, Mum and I arrived to distribute flowering plants among the graves. When our mission was completed, we drove to the front gates, only to realize they were closed! Optimistically, I got out of the car to push them open, but found they were locked. Initially, I didn’t want to blast my horn. We assumed someone would be checking the grounds, and would discover us. No sign of anyone. Eventually, I tentatively pressed my horn. No one appeared. “Well,” said my Mum pragmatically, ”it will be a quiet night, and sure, we know a lot of people!” As darkness began dropping like a shroud, a graveyard worker appeared out of nowhere, and gave us our freedom. Whenever I am back in Belfast, I visit Mum and Dad’s grave frequently, taking flowers and plants, and linger for a wee chat. However, I make sure I’m leaving well before sunset!!
Believing in visiting graves, keeping them colorful and in good shape, it is ironical that I, a few years ago, defaced my grandparents’ white marble headstone! Having been in place almost fifty years, it was weathered to the extent it was covered in a grey hue. On my pilgrimage home, I had decided that I would clean it, restoring it to its original brilliance. My brother gave me a canister from his garage, that he said would “Do the trick.” Once in Roselawn, and armed with the canister, a brush and rubber gloves, I eagerly marched to the grave. One of my failings is that I don’t read labels or instructions. My second mistake was not trying the liquid on a small portion at the back of the headstone. Instead, I blithely sprayed the headstone from top to bottom. Instantly, foam enshrouded the marble,. I ran back to the car to get something with which to wipe off the foam. Clutching Kleenex, I returned and stood transfixed: the entire headstone was the color of mustard! I froze, and thought, “If my Mother were here, she would kill me!” Down on my knees, I rubbed ineffectively, and eventually, dejectedly, left. After apologetically confessing to my brother and cousins who shared the same grandparents, I contacted a firm of Monumental Sculptors, who advised me to try anything containing bleach. Having scoured shelves in a hardware store, I purchased a magic solution. Back at Roselawn, I donned a white plastic coat and gloves, and advanced on the grave. With mighty doses of elbow grease, I gave it my best. The plinth came back to its original alabaster state, and with the help of soft Irish rain, the headstone gradually lost its jaundiced appearance. I hoped that the next time I returned, I wouldn’t be banned, locked outside the gates!
Have your family traditions included visiting graveyards? How do you honor your deceased relatives?
Approaching November 11th, Armistice Day, I am reminded of the red poppies created throughout the U.K. by war widows, and sold, with the proceeds going to their fund. The poppies are worn on lapels from October into November, as remembrances of all who lost their lives in the World Wars. The landscape in Northern France was so damaged during World War I, that lime in the soil content increased to such a degree that little could subsequently grow. The poppy was an exception, and was memorialized by John McCrae ”In Flanders Fields “.
”In Flanders Fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place, and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.
We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we live,
In Flanders Fields.
Take up our quarrel with the foe;
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch: be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders Fields.”
John O’Donohue believes that life flows through death, and “at death the music of the heart becomes one with the unheard eternal melody.” He loves Revelations 21 v 1-5 : “Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth…Here God lives among men. He will make His home among them; they shall be His people and He will be their God; His name is God-with-them. He will wipe away all tears from their eyes; there will be no more death, and no more mourning and sadness. The world of the past has gone. Then the One sitting on the throne spoke: Now I am making the whole of creation new.”
As we remember all our loved ones, and their parts in our lives we ask
“Bless us God
with saints to tell us stories
with angels to surprise us
with friends along the way.
Bless us God
With strength and joy and courage
All the length and breadth
Of our nights and days.”
With grateful and loving appreciation of all our church friends who have moved onward,