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All Souls' Day

In Western Christianity, All Souls' Day commemorates the faithful departed. This day is observed in the Roman Catholic Church, churches of the Anglican Communion, Old Catholic Churches, and to some extent among Protestants. The Eastern Orthodox Church observes several All Souls' Days during the year. The Roman Catholic celebration is based on the doctrine that the souls of the faithful which at death have not been cleansed from venial sins, or have not fully atoned for mortal sins, cannot attain the beatific vision in heaven yet, and that they may be helped to do so by prayer and by the sacrifice of the Mass (see Purgatory).

All Souls' Day is also known as the Feast of All Souls, Commemoration of all the Faithful Departed. The official Latin designation Commemoratio omnium Fidelium Defunctorum, on which this last name is based, is rendered more literally in Portuguese Comemoração de todos os Fiéis Defuntos and many other languages. Day of the Dead (Día de los Muertos or de los Difuntos) is used in Spanish-speaking countries, and Thursday of the Dead (Yom el Maouta) in Lebanon, Palestine and Syria.

The Western celebration of All Souls' Day is on 2 November and follows All Saints' Day, which commemorates the departed who have attained the beatific vision. If 2 November falls on a Sunday, the Mass is of All Souls, but the Office is that of the Sunday. However, Morning and Evening Prayer (Lauds and Vespers) for the Dead, in which the people participate, may be said. In pre-1969 calendars, which some still follow, All Souls Day is instead transferred, whenever 2 November falls on a Sunday, to the next day, 3 November.

The Eastern Orthodox Church dedicates several days throughout the year to the dead, mostly on Saturdays, because of Jesus' resting in the tomb on Saturday.

The Western celebration

The custom of setting apart a special day for intercession for certain of the faithful departed is very old. But the celebration of general intercession on 2 November was first established by St. Odilo of Cluny (d. 1048) at his monastery of Cluny in 998. The decree ordaining the celebration is printed in the Bollandist Acta Sanctorum (Saec. VI, pt. i. p. 585). From Cluny the custom spread to the other houses of the Cluniac order, which became the largest and most extensive network of monasteries in Europe. The celebration was soon adopted in several dioceses in France, and spread throughout the Western Church. It was accepted in Rome only in the fourteenth century. While 2 November remained the liturgical celebration, in time the entire month of November became associated in the Western Catholic tradition with prayer for the departed; lists of names of those to be remembered being placed in the proximity of the altar on which the sacrifice of the mass is offered.

A legend became associated with the institution of the celebration. According to Jesse Voyles in his Life of St Odilo, a pilgrim returning from the Holy Land was cast by a storm on a desolate island. A hermit living there told him that amid the rocks was a chasm communicating with purgatory, from which perpetually rose the groans of tortured souls. The hermit also claimed he had heard the demons complaining of the efficacy of the prayers of the faithful, and especially the monks of Cluny, in rescuing their victims. Upon returning home, the pilgrim hastened to inform the abbot of Cluny, who then set 2 November as a day of intercession on the part of his community for all the souls in purgatory.

Eastern Orthodox Church

Among Eastern Orthodox and Eastern Catholic Christians there are several All Souls' Days during the year. Most of these fall on Saturday, since it was on a Saturday that Jesus Christ lay in the Tomb, and are referred to as Soul Saturdays. They occur on the following occasions:

(In the Serbian Orthodox Church there is also a commemoration of the dead on the Saturday closest to the Conception of St. John the BaptistSeptember 23)

Saturdays throughout the year are devoted to general prayer for the departed, unless some greater feast or saint's commemoration occurs.

Protestantism

At the Reformation the celebration of All Souls' Day was fused with All Saints' Day in the Anglican Church, though it was renewed individually in certain churches in connection with the Catholic Revival of the 19th century. The observance was restored with the publication of the 1980 Alternative Service Book, and it features in Common Worship as a Lesser Festival called "Commemoration of the Faithful Departed (All Souls' Day)".

Among continental Protestants its tradition has been more tenaciously maintained. Even Luther's influence was not sufficient to abolish its celebration in Saxony during his lifetime; and, though its Ecclesiastical sanction soon lapsed even in the Lutheran Church, its memory survives strongly in popular custom. Just as it is the custom of French people, of all ranks and creeds, to decorate the graves of their dead on the jour des morts, so German people stream to the graveyards once a year with offerings of flowers.

Pagan roots

Certain popular beliefs connected with All Souls' Day are of pagan origin and immemorial antiquity. Thus the dead are believed by the peasantry of many Catholic countries to return to their former homes on All Souls' Night and partake of the food of the living. In Tyrol, cakes are left for them on the table and the room kept warm for their comfort. In Brittany, people flock to the cemeteries at nightfall to kneel, bareheaded, at the graves of their loved ones, and to anoint the hollow of the tombstone with holy water or to pour libations of milk on it. At bedtime, the supper is left on the table for the souls.

In Bolivia, many people believe that the dead eat the food that is left out for them. Some claim that the food is gone or partially consumed in the morning.

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