November: a Month of Poor Souls and Cemeteries
This post was originally written in November 2014.
It is therefore a holy and wholesome thought to pray for the dead, that they may be loosed from sins (2 Mach. 12:46).
Every November I like to make a "Public Service Announcement" of the Church's opportunities at the beginning of the month to help the Poor Souls. The Church dedicates this month to the Poor Souls in Purgatory and reminds us to pray for the faithful departed. Of particular note is the opportunity to gain a plenary indulgence each day for the Poor Souls from November 1 through 8 -- an unofficial octave for the Poor Souls. I wrote Praying for the Dead and Gaining Indulgences During November as a summary of all the November indulgence opportunities and requirements. I also recommend the section entitled The Memorial of the Dead in Popular Piety in the Directory on Popular Piety and the Liturgy.
I love November. The Liturgical Year is drawing to a close, corresponding to the autumn season with the falling leaves and the "dying" or hibernation for winter. The liturgy brings our focus on the Four Last Things: death, heaven, hell, and final judgment. The Church also provides tangible reminders of our connection in the family of Christ, the Communion of Saints, especially with the feasts of All Saints and All Souls.
Even though winter approaches, the month of November gives our family impetus to do more things related to the Poor Souls.
Praying for the Dead
We begin the month by trying to gain the plenary indulgences for the Poor Souls in Purgatory. We try to attend Mass every day from November 1-8 (and since Daylight Savings Time ends November 2, it might be easier to get up earlier in the morning). After Mass we drive to the nearby cemetery and pray for the dead and for the Holy's Father's intentions. If we are short on time or the weather is bad, we might just do a "drive-through", driving into the cemetery, staying in our car and praying. Other times we get out and visit the graves of deceased friends.
There’s something special about this month; I know I am not alone feeling a closeness with the Poor Souls. I find myself pricked with reminders throughout the day to offer extra mortifications and prayers for the Poor Souls. Little episodes that start to test my patience are interrupted with a mental voice reminding me to “Remember those Poor Souls!” I am also more sentimental during this month. Songs transport me back, remembering family and friends that have died. I try to make that a chance to offer a prayer for their souls. It might have been many years since they died, but I am comforted by the fact that there is no time with God; everything is present with Him, and no prayers will go to waste.
Besides my personal offerings, we try as a family to share verbal reminders and extra prayers and sacrifices for the Poor Souls. We discuss how those being purified in Purgatory cannot help us, but once they get to heaven, they will remember us and intercede for us. It helps to have the extra motivation to help someone else in need.
One of my favorite places to visit when I attended Franciscan University of Steubenville was the old Union Cemetery (although as a Southerner I had to put aside the fact that it was "Union"). This was a place to walk, rest, pray and have picnics. It was peaceful and a beautiful nature setting. Many other graduates would agree with me that it was quite "romantic."
I have continued my love of visiting cemeteries and now we visit them as a family, especially in November. First we visit cemeteries that have the graves of family and friends, and then we try to find other ones in the area, especially the older ones. As we wander through praying for the dead, the stones of young and old reveal stories of life, love, grief and loss. Walking through the graves teaches empathy.
Besides being an opportunity for contemplation and prayer, we are providing opportunities be comfortable and familiar with the cemetery. We do not need to be afraid of death, but understand that we are still deeply connected with those who have died. Our visits to the cemetery include various aspects.
- An opportunity for nature study.
A cemetery is such a wonderful place to contemplate God's creation. We have often taken our nature sketchbooks to paint or sketch the beautiful nature we find. The leaves are still in the process of changing color and falling. We enjoy observing the traditional trees and plants used in cemeteries, such as yucca, cedar and other evergreens. Besides the offering of flowers at the graves, roses and lilies are a few of the traditional planted flowers.
We have also focused on the different types of rocks and minerals used in the headstones and walls, studying which ones withstand the elements over time. We also observe the different species of lichen found on many of the older graves, noting the various textures and colors.
- A family reunion
We get to know our family by visiting the cemeteries with family graves. Our highest priority is to visit the family members who were nearest to us, such as my husband's father and our grandparents. While we visit we pray for their souls and share memories of their life. We have also found older family plots, such as the first German immigrant ancestors from the 19th century on my husband's side.
We enjoy doing headstone rubbings with paper or medium-weight interfacing and crayons. This not only creates a tactile experience but also a visual record of the family graves.
- A connection with history and culture
Stopping at cemeteries that are varying in age, size and location, we observe the differences in heritage, geography, religion, culture and history. There are the simple clean lines of the German sections, contrasted with the flowery, ornate Italian stones. There are the very small stark stones of blacks of a segregated south from the 1920s compared to the ornate Victorian mausoleums. We can spy the Catholic section of the cemeteries by the statues of Jesus and Mary.
Since 2011, our area has been commemorating the 150th anniversary of the Civil War. We have visited Confederate and Union cemeteries, praying for the fallen soldiers on either side. We even have found graves of soldiers who served in the War for American Independence.
Each visit is an opportunity to observe, to rest, to listen, and to pray.
Having the familiarity with cemeteries keeps our departed brothers and sisters in Christ in the forefront of our minds. Our visits bring tangible memories. All this helps us remember to pray for the Poor Souls in November.
Eternal Rest, grant unto them, O Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon them. May their souls and the souls of all the faithful departed, through the mercy of God, rest in peace. Amen.