All Souls’ Day: May They Rest in Peace

By Monique Sammut | November 2, 2017
All Souls’ Day

The Feast of All Souls, or All Souls’ Day, is a day set apart for honoring all who have died.  In Mexico, this feast is commonly known as The Day of the Dead.  The official name for this feast in the Roman Rite of the Catholic Church is: The Commemoration of All the Faithful Departed.  It is celebrated on November 2nd and is NOT a Holy Day of Obligation.  It is often confused with All Saints’ Day, which IS a Holy Day of Obligation.  While the two feasts are somewhat related, they do, in fact, have their differences.

All Souls’ Day is a day to remember the souls of all who have died, but especially those who have not yet attained Heaven.  Having a feast such as this may sound dismal, scary, or morbid, but it should not be.  This feast should serve as a valuable reminder of who we are and what we are made for.  It should also be a special day to fondly remember loved ones who are no longer with us.

There is a Mexican saying that people die three times: the first is when they die; the second is when they are buried; and the third is when they are forgotten.  Celebrating All Souls’ Day is one way to never forget those who have gone before us.

The Last Things

All Souls’ Day should bring to the forefront of our minds the four last things every person will have to face – death, judgement, Heaven, and Hell.  When a person dies, the Particular Judgement takes place where the soul is judged by God.  After the judgement, a person can go to one of three places – Heaven, Hell, or Purgatory.

Heaven is the eternal state of perfect happiness where those who were faithful to God in this life enjoy the Beatific Vision: seeing God face-to-face.  Hell is the eternal state of torment for those who rejected God in this life.


In addition to these two permanent states, there is an intermediate one called Purgatory.  This is a place for those who are free of mortal sin and are Heaven-bound but are in need of further purification before entering Heaven.  Purgatory is a place of purifying suffering.  Once the time of purification is over, the souls in Purgatory are then admitted into the perfection of Heaven.

A very early support for the existence of Purgatory lies in the Bible: 2 Maccabees 12, verses 44-45:

[F]or if he were not expecting the fallen to rise again, it would have been useless and foolish to pray for them in death.  But if he did this with a view to the splendid reward that awaits those who had gone to rest in godliness, it was a holy and pious thought.  Thus he made atonement for the dead that they might be freed from [their] sin.

We should pray for the souls in Purgatory often because with our prayers it is possible to lessen their time and suffering in Purgatory.  In the process we gain valuable friends and intercessors.  The souls in Purgatory are still members of the Church, and they are more alive than ever, present and united to us through the Mystical Body of Christ.

The Mystical Body of Christ

The Church is the Mystical Body of Christ.  There are three different parts:

The Church Militant consists of those still on earth.  We are militant because we still struggle against the world and the temptations of the Devil.

The Church Suffering refers to the souls in Purgatory.  They have completed their earthly journey but are not yet in Heaven.

The Church Triumphant consists of those already in Heaven.

The Communion of Saints is the name for the unity and cooperation between each of the three parts.

All Souls’ Day – A Brief History

The feast of All Souls’ Day has its origins in ancient times.  As previously mentioned, praying for the dead is mentioned in the Bible’s book of Maccabees.  It is thought to be the earliest, or one of the earliest references to the existence of Purgatory.

Mexicans have been celebrating The Day of the Dead since around 1800 B.C..  However, the actual Feast of All Souls was started in 998 by Saint Odilo of Cluny.  From the Abbey of Cluny, the custom of praying for the dead on November 2nd spread throughout the Cluniac order, whose monasteries were located all over Europe.  The tradition was then adopted by several dioceses in France.  From there it spread throughout the Western Church.

The Feast of All Souls was officially approved by Rome in the fourteenth century.  Eventually, the whole of November became the month to pray especially for the faithful departed.

Ancient Customs

Many of the traditions that circulate around All Souls’ Day, stem from Catholic and Christian rituals and largely from folk culture.  Celts believed that around this time, spirits came and destroyed plants with their breath, preparing the land for winter.  In order to appease these spirits, people would leave food and wine on their doorsteps.  They would also wear masks when going outside in order to blend in with the spirits.

In old England there was a custom called souling where poor people would go around on All Souls’ Day and beg for pastries in exchange for prayers for the dead.  In some places, children used to go around begging for food in the name of the dead.  The food was then given to the poor.  Traditions like this were eventually brought to America by immigrants and quickly evolved into the secular holiday of Halloween.

All Souls’ Day Traditions

There are many different traditions world-wide for the celebration of All Souls’ Day.  Many of the traditions combine All Saints’ and All Souls’ Day blurring the line between the two.  All Souls’ Day remembers the souls of all who have died and those who may not yet be in Heaven, while All Saints’ Day commemorates those who have died and are now seeing God face-to-face.  In some countries such as Poland, Lithuania, Hungary, Croatia, and the Ukraine, All Saint’s and All Souls’ Day are considered national holidays and shops, schools, and businesses are closed.


In Mexico, all of the dead are remembered during the Day of the Dead holy days extending from October 31 until November 2.  All Saints’ Day falls on the same day as the Day of the Innocents, a day remembering children who have died.  All Souls’ Day is specifically known as the Day of the Dead. There are many songs, dances, parades, and poems associated with this day.  Some people believe that the spirits of the dead return to take part in the celebrations.  Graves are cleaned and decorated with pictures of the diseased and items that he/she enjoyed or loved while still alive.

Calaveras are edible skulls made out of sugar or chocolate and given as gifts or used as decorations during the celebration.  Funny Bones: Posada and His Day of the Dead Calaveras is a multicultural children’s book that delves into the origins of the calaveras in a simple and colorful way.

In many cities, there are processions, meals at cemeteries, and candle-light ceremonies.  There is special bread made called “Pan de Muerto” that is baked with a toy skeleton/skull inside.  The bread is eaten at the cemetery along with tamales, cookies, chocolate, and other food.  Whoever finds the skeleton/skull in the bread will have (it is said) good luck.

There is an old Mexican saying, “Don’t take anything lying down – even death!”  The lively and colorful celebrations for All Souls’ Day are a testament to the Mexican spirit where death is seen as an inevitable part of life considered without fear.


In Europe, people place flowers or candles on graves to serve as memorials.  More specifically, in Poland, it is said that a light can be seen in parish churches at midnight because the souls are visiting.  Afterwards, the souls are thought to visit their families so doors and windows are left open to welcome them.  Hungarians place lightened candles at graves. Czechs remember the dead with prayers, flowers, and candles.  In Austria, souls are said to wander in the forests praying for release.

There is a tradition in Italy and Malta (a tiny island under Italy where Saint Paul was shipwrecked and I was born), of making cookies in the shape of bones.  In Italy the cookies are called, “Bones of the Dead.”  In Malta the cookies are called “Dead Man’s Bones” and are made with egg whites, sugar, almonds, and almond essence.  The cookies are then covered with icing.

Other Countries

In Brittany (a region in France), people leave food on the table for the souls before going to bed.  Many Bolivians believe that the dead eat whatever food is left out for them.  Brazilians attend Mass or visit cemeteries to decorate their relatives’ graves with flowers.  In countries such as the Philippines, families repair and paint graves and then decorate them with flowers and/or candles.

In some places, candles are placed in the windows to guide the souls of the dead back home and a place is set at the table in remembrance of the dead.  Sometimes food is left out for them as well.  Candles may be placed on graves to help departed souls find their way to Heaven instead of back home.  All Souls’ Day is a good day in any country to clean the graves of loved ones, sprinkle them with Holy Water, and decorate them with flowers and votive candles.  It may also be a nice time to bring out photo albums of times past and share old stories and happy memories.

Memento Mori

In ancient Roman times, citizens would crowd into the streets to celebrate the triumph of their troops after a victorious battle. The winning general would stand in front of the crowd, the most coveted place at the time.  During this celebrated time, a slave would whisper in the triumphant general’s ear from time to time: “Remember, thou art mortal.”  This served as a reminder that however triumphant, the general was still a man and not a god.

In Florence, Italy, there is the Dominican Church of Santa Maria Novella.  There, The Holy Trinity fresco resides, painted by Masaccio during the Italian Renaissance.  Towards the bottom of the fresco lies a skeleton on a slab of stone.  Above the skeleton are carved the words, “I once was what you are now.  What I am, you shall be.”

Reflecting on mortality is an ancient practice.  Every Ash Wednesday we are reminded, “Remember, you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”  This is something we must keep constantly in our minds.  Thinking about our mortality does not have to be morbid or depressing.  Rather, it should help us treasure the gifts of today and remember that life is a gift.  Tomorrow is not promised.  We should live every day as if it is our last.  We sometimes forget the harsh reality that in an instant it could all be over.  Just like that.

This is a chilling thought but one that should make us all the more eager to be prepared, to love while we can, to do what is ours to do while it is today – in the moment that we have, because even the next moment is not promised.

Prayers for the Dead

There are many ways to remember the dead all year round and there are also many prayers that can be said for the souls of those who have died.

The most powerful prayer of all is offering the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass for the souls in Purgatory and for the souls of all who have died.  Going to Mass should be an essential part of All Souls’ Day because of its importance and great power.  Holy Communions can also be offered for souls.

There is also the Saint Gertrude Prayer.  Tradition has it that Our Lord told Saint Gertrude that every time the following prayer was devoutly recited, 1,000 souls (or a vast number) would be released from their suffering in Purgatory:

Eternal Father, I offer You the most precious blood of thy Divine Son, Jesus, in union with the Masses said throughout the world today, for all the Holy Souls in Purgatory, for sinners everywhere, for sinners in the universal Church, for those in my own home, and in my family.  Amen

A Special Prayer

There is another special prayer we can say for the dead.  Translated from Latin, its title is Eternal Rest:

Eternal Rest grant unto them, O Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon them.  May they rest in peace.  Amen

This prayer can be said throughout the whole year and it is a good practice to pray it whenever you pass a cemetery.  It can even be prayed between decades of the Rosary or added as part of the grace before meals:

Bless us, O Lord, and these thy gifts, which we are about to receive, from thy bounty through Christ, Our Lord.  Amen.  And may the souls of the faithful departed, through the mercy of God, rest in peace.  Amen


According to Pope Paul VI’s teaching, an indulgence is “a remission before God of the temporal punishment due to sins whose guilt has already been forgiven.”  We can obtain indulgences for ourselves or apply them to those who have died.  However, they cannot be applied to people who are still living.  The Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC 1472)states:

…sin has a double consequence.  Grave sin…makes us incapable of eternal life…which is called the “eternal punishment of sin.”  …every sin, even venial, entails an unhealthy attachment to creatures, which must be purified either here on earth, or after death in…Purgatory.  This purification frees one from…the “temporal punishment” of sin.

There are two kinds of indulgences: partial and plenary.  A partial indulgence only removes part of the temporal punishment, while a plenary indulgence removes it all.  A plenary indulgence can be gained only once a day.  However, several partial indulgences can be earned during the same day.

The Church designates a few conditions in order to receive a plenary indulgence:

  1. Receive the Sacrament of Confession – the person must be in the state of grace to receive the indulgence.  The person must also be interiorly detached from all sin.
  2. Receive Holy Communion on the day of the indulgence (it is better to receive during Mass, but for the indulgence, only Holy Communion is necessary).
  3. Pray one Our Father, one Hail Mary, and the Apostles’ Creed for the intentions of the Pope.

If one of the conditions is not met, the indulgence is only partial.  To gain a partial indulgence, one must be in a state of grace and have the general intention of earning the indulgence.

Indulgences on All Souls’ Day

The Catechism 1479 also states:

Since the faithful departed now being purified are also members of the same communion of saints, one way we can help them is to obtain indulgences for them, so that they temporal punishments due for their sins may be remitted.

These indulgences (following the usual conditions) are only applicable to the souls in Purgatory:

  • A partial indulgence can be obtained by visiting a cemetery throughout the year and praying for the souls of all who have died.
  • A partial indulgence can be obtained all year round but especially during the month of November, by praying the Eternal Rest prayer.
  • A plenary indulgence can be obtained every day between November 1 and November 8 by those who visit a cemetery and pray (even mentally) for the departed.  It is good to remember not only the souls of those dearest to us, but also to say a special prayer for the abandoned souls – those souls who have no one to pray for them.
  • A plenary indulgence can be obtained on November 2, or another day at the discretion of the bishop, by visiting a church or oratory and praying an Our Father and the Apostles’ Creed.
Requiem Masses

In the old Latin Rite, there was a tradition of celebrating three requiem Masses on All Souls’ Day in memory of departed souls.  In 1915, Pope Benedict XV, granted every priest the privilege to celebrate three requiem Masses – the first offered for a specific intention, the second offered for all the faithful departed, and the third for the intentions of the Pope.  This privilege has never been revoked.

Traditionally, the vestment color worn on All Souls’ Day is black or violet.  The mood should be solemn, flowers are usually not placed by the main altar, and simple candles might be used, as if during Lent.

Praise the Lord

While All Souls’ Day is a somber feast, there are still many songs that can be played and/or sung to remember the faithful departed.  Mozart’s Requiem is a very well known and beautiful piece of music.  Part of that piece is the “Dies Irae, Dies Illa” – “The day of wrath, that dreadful day.”  It serves as a reminder of the judgment we will all face at the end of our lives.

Other more common songs that are often sung on All Souls’ Day (and at funerals) include:

Donna Nobis Pacem – This is a song that children could easily learn and it is beautiful when sung in a round.

Lead Kindly Light – This song is based on a prayer written by Blessed John Henry Newman.

On Eagles Wings – This song is commonly sung at funerals.  It is based on Psalm 91 and Isaiah 40:31.

May the Choirs of Angels Come – This is a beautiful song sometimes sung at funerals – the lyrics are simple:

May the choirs of angels come to greet you.  May they speed you to Paradise.  May the Lord enfold you in His mercy.  May you find Eternal Life.

Food for Thought

“For death is no more than a turning of us over from time to eternity.”       ~ William Penn

“He who [is] gone…abides with us…more present than the living man.”    ~ Antoine de Saint Exupéry

“The world’s an inn and death the journey’s end.”  ~ John Dryden

“Is death the last sleep?  No – it is the last and final awakening.”               ~ Sir Walter Scott

“The world’s thy ship and not thy home.”  ~ Saint Therese of Lisieux

“All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”           ~ Gandalf, The Lord of the Rings

“Death leaves a heartache no one can heal; love leaves a memory no one can steal.”  ~ From an Irish Headstone

“The devotion to the memory of the dead is one of the most beautiful expressions of the Catholic spirit.”  ~ Pope Saint John XXIII

Forever Remembered

“Death cannot stop true love.  All it can do is delay it for a while.”

Westley’s words from The Princess Bride are a fitting reminder that the bonds of love cannot be broken even by death.  All Souls’ Day should not be a feast of fear – it is, and should be, a feast of love.  The memory of those who have died should live on every day – not just on November 2.

Eternal Rest grant unto them, O Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon them.  May they rest in peace!  Amen.