All Saints Day: Let’s Talk About Dead People

all saints day cemetery

The morning after the fright night of October 31 is a great time to make pancakes with extra candy corn, or enjoy pumpkin pie for breakfast! But it’s also a holiday with a much longer history than Halloween as we know it: All Saints Day. Read more from Josie Ortega.

All Saints Day: A Brief History

Although November 1 is not a public holiday in the United States, it’s a religious festival being celebrated by Christians all over the world: All Saints Day. In various countries, All Saints Day might involve processions, saints day costumes, visiting cemeteries with lanterns and flowers, parties, and other saints day festivities.

If your church observes All Saints Day, you might already know that the November 1 feast day commemorates all the Saints—all the Christians—who have died before us.

Honestly, even writing that feels weird. In American culture, we’re not used to talking about our ancestors and death like other cultures do. It’s uncomfortable.

We’re focused on the here and now, or working hard for the future. We’re not necessarily thinking about connecting even to our living extended family, much less to those who have passed away.

Past and Present All Saints Day Connections

Though our culture boasts many wonderful characteristics, this lack of family connection is a weakness. But, by exercising this weak muscle, we’ll get stronger. It’s worth working on; in doing so, we’ll grow in our ability to grieve in a healthy way. All of us, our kids included, inevitably will face the death of loved ones.

On Halloween, we’ve already begun confronting death in a light-hearted way, confident in life’s ultimate victory because of the resurrection of Jesus. Next on the calendar: accept the invitation that All Saints Day offers us to practice a healthier approach to death, dying, and family connection.

No need to get super intense or weird about it. I’m not recommending a séance. But we have plenty of room to grow in a healthy practice of remembering.

In church we sometimes talk about our connection with Christians across the world; we also have a connection with Christians throughout time. My friend in seminary recently learned about early Christians holding services down in the catacombs—a super creepy spot, to us. But to them, it felt beautiful and important to worship near the graves of those who had died before them.

all saints day

All Saints Day – Perfect For Family Connections

Several years ago, I read a multiple choice question asking which factor was the greatest predictor of children’s emotional health, happiness, and resilience. It completely stumped me.

I thought “attending weekly religious services” might be the right answer, or maybe something like “living in a two-parent household.” But I was wrong. Doctors Marshall Duke and Robyn Fivush studied children and families, both before and after 9/11. They used a “Do You Know” measure, with questions like “Do you know where your parents met?”  The children who knew the most about their family and family history also had the highest indicators of emotional stability and self-confidence.

Doctors Duke and Fivush found that a strong sense of “intergenerational self” increases resilience in the face of difficulty or tragedy. Telling a family narrative that emphasizes sticking together through ups and downs will provide a healthy sense of rootedness and connection.

In my family, it’s my mom who has a great memory for family stories. And I’ve been surprised to find that my kids absolutely LOVE to hear them, asking for stories to be repeated over and over.

When I connect something we see or do to someone else in our extended family, even in the simplest way—Aunt Maltby loves horses! Uncle Will puts hot sauce on his eggs!—my kids feel like that thing must be truly awesome. (Or if it’s a food they won’t try, let’s believe they’re learning to respect others’ differences.)

Creating All Saints Day Traditions

It’s simple enough to foster these family connections in day-to-day life, and All Saints Day presents an opportunity to do something even more intentionally. A few ideas:

  • Gather old family photos and talk about those people.
  • Call an older family member and ask them to tell stories.
  • Reverse trick-or-treat. Take some of that excess candy to a nursing home or retirement home. While you’re there, spend a few minutes visiting with residents. (Bonus points: I bet they’d love to see kids in costumes!)
  • At a mealtime prayer, thank God for all the saints who have come before us.
  • In Mexico, this festival is Day of the Dead, Dia de Muertos. If you’ve seen Coco, you know pictures of loved ones and favorite foods and special items are displayed on ofrendas. One tasty idea is to serve a family favorite meal. You can tell stories about the grandmother who used to make it for you.
  • Visit a cemetery.

You can think of other ways for your family to become more intergenerational, and to get more and more used to talking about those who have died, in a gentle way. Frankly, it’s more awkward for adults than for children, probably. Maybe, like my kids, we’ll even grow to look forward to the remembering.

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