by Alexander Taylor
Last month, by way of a late summer holiday, I was able to spend a couple of weeks backpacking around northern Greece. One of the highlights of the trip was the day I spent visiting the ancient monasteries of the Meteora. The Meteora is a magnificent geological formation of many great rock pillars and plateaus, on top of which are built a number of Orthodox monasteries. Whilst exploring the Great Monastery of the Transfiguration, I came across a most extraordinary place; an ‘ossuary’, a room housing the bones of all the deceased monks from the community. In rocky environments like the Meteora where space is scarce, bodies are usually buried until they have decomposed into skeletons, then disinterred and placed within the more compact space of the ossuary. Whole bodies are not even kept together but are divided up into collections of skulls, ribs, femurs, and so on and so forth. Quite apart from saving space, it reveals an attitude of acceptance and even familiarity towards death that is quite different from the sanitised view that we typically have in much of the West. The fascination and fear of death is central to the human condition – in fact, it could easily be argued that it is the origin of religious conviction itself. Tombs and places of worship the world over demonstrate how much the questions of life and death have preoccupied the human mind. The ossuary of the Great Monastery on the Meteora reveals the sense of proximity that these Eastern Orthodox monks have to the journey beyond the grave, a sense of proximity that has held a great sway over Christianity throughout the ages.
Since the earliest days of the Church, prayer for the dead has been an important aspect of the Christian life. In my own formation in the Anglo-Catholic tradition, the offering of intercessions for the departed is strongly encouraged in both personal and communal worship. The main day associated with commemorating the dead (other than Good Friday, the day on which Christ was crucified) is the feast of All Souls’ Day. All Souls’ is celebrated in the Western Church on the 2nd November, the third and final day of Allhallowtide, which also includes Hallowe’en on 31st October and All Saints’ Day on 1st November. The origins of this feast are almost certainly pre-Christian, being based on the pagan festival of Samhain, when it was believed that the veil between the living and the dead was at its weakest. The Church adopted the festivities around this liminal time of year, and developed them into a time for Christians to remember and intercede for the dead. Whereas All Saints’ Day was a time for celebrating the saints who had died and were in heaven, All Souls’ was a time for remembering all the faithful departed. In Roman Catholic theology, this relates to the belief that the saints who are already in heaven are ‘the church triumphant’, whereas the faithful who are in purgatory are ‘the church penitent’. Prayer and masses said for the dead help them through purgatory and enable them to enter the glory of the beatific vision. The belief in purgatory was rejected by Protestant Churches at the Reformation, but many of these Churches have maintained or revived the festival of commemoration on 2nd November with a more Reformed understanding of the afterlife. This demonstrates the curious appeal that praying for the departed holds for human beings, despite our many differing philosophies and beliefs about death.
The Eastern Orthodox Churches also believe that commemoration of the dead is a central aspect of their worship life. They do not celebrate All Souls’ Day on 2nd November, but instead celebrate several All Souls’ Days throughout the year. These are predominantly on Saturdays, remembering that Jesus lay in the tomb on Holy Saturday. As I saw with the monks of the Meteora, death is something that is accepted rather than ignored, just as the bones in the monastic ossuary are housed together for all to visit. I cannot help but be reminded of the many genocide memorials in Rwanda, where the bones of those killed in the massacres in 1994 are left on display for their loved ones to visit, speak to and pray with. It may seem bizarre, even repulsive, that the dead are left so close to the living, but it may well enable a healthier and more holistic attitude towards death than is found in much of the UK and elsewhere.
Anglo-Catholicism embraced All Souls’ Day as part of the revivals of the Oxford Movement in the nineteenth-century, and it remains an important fixture in the liturgical year. In both Roman and Anglo-Catholic churches, All Souls’ Day masses are typically solemn, with black vestments worn, mournful hymns, and lists of the departed read out during the service. This may seem macabre to some, and strange. After all, Christianity teaches that Jesus Christ ultimately conquered death by rising again on Easter Day, casting light into the darkness of the tomb, and bringing all people back into the embrace of God. Why then do Christians celebrate All Souls’ Day with such sobriety? I would argue it is because, for most of us, we live mainly in a ‘Holy Saturday’ experience. Holy Saturday is the in-between time, after the crucifixion but before the resurrection. We have faith, but we also have doubt. Death remains a mysterious and fearsome thing for all people, whatever their faith or philosophy. To pretend otherwise is not to do justice to the human condition. On All Souls’ Day, Christians give liturgical expression to their doubts, hopes and fears about our life here and about the life hereafter. It brings together both our faith and our weakness, enabling us to continue the journey of life in the hope that there is some form of sense and meaning to it all – even if we do not always know what it may be.