US Catholic Faith in Real Life

Do this in memory

Gathering and displaying reminders of lost loved ones can connect us to our own personal communion of saints.

By Ann O'Connor | Print this pagePrint |
Article Your Faith

One day a friend of mine called a classmate from college with whom she had not talked in years, only to learn that the woman’s 7-month-old baby had recently died. Resisting her impulse to end the conversation quickly, my friend was inspired to ask what the baby was like. She must have been the first person to ask this question of the mother because her simple question released a flood of memories and they talked for a good, long time.

I was thinking of the grieving mother and her baby a few weeks later when I went to see my first “Day of the Dead” exhibit at a local Mexican art museum. The exhibit included more than a dozen ofrendas created by artists in honor of their loved ones who had died. An ofrenda, or “offering,” is a shrine composed of food, drink, flowers, and personal items that recall and celebrate the life of a deceased friend or family member.

There were two that I particularly liked. The first was an old painted wooden table set with two chairs, placemats, china coffee cups, flowers, and similar items ordinarily found on a kitchen table. Surrounding the table and chairs were drafting tools: triangles, compasses, rulers, and the like that recalled the work of the artist’s father, who had been a draftsman. The second was created in memory of the artist’s mother. It was an intimate space, much like a bedroom or dressing room. There were photographs on the walls and small tables with jewelry, bottles of perfume, and other objects the woman had used and enjoyed during her lifetime.

I was so intrigued by these ofrendas, and especially by their potential for storytelling to my children, that I decided to make one at home in memory of my father who had died a few years earlier. I cleared the mantle in our living room and went from room to room, gathering photographs and other items that my father had used or made or given to me during his life.

As I worked, I noticed that when his jewelry is in my dresser drawer, his photograph is in the dining room, and the other items that used to be his are scattered around the house, my father’s presence to me is very weak. However, as I gathered his possessions in one place, he once again became very real to me. I could practically feel his rough hands, see his beautiful smile, and hear his warm voice. I remembered things he taught me and things I had learned by simply observing him.

Later I reflected on the ways my dad had touched my life and those of countless others he encountered, and how we had all been changed by having known him. I saw that his actions rippled out to me and the other members of my family, his friends, co-workers, and acquaintances—all these known and unknown people—and realized that this wasn’t his story any more, and it wasn’t my story anymore. It was the story of the whole world.

It was a powerful experience, and I have created an ofrenda for my father and my father-in-law every October since then. From time to time my children ask me about the different items on display, and I’ve been happy to have the opportunity to tell them stories about their grandfathers that they might not hear otherwise.

Human beings have a strong need to tell stories, and it is through telling our stories that we recall, reclaim, and rekindle our most cherished memories—especially of our deceased loved ones. An ofrenda tells a personal story in a compelling way. It commemorates our human experience of family and friendships, love and loss, memory and reflection. Finally these altars of remembrance collapse time, and by dissolving the boundaries between past and present, they somehow—miraculously—heal both.

Fortunately the autumn liturgical calendar has three days for remembering those who have died: October 31 and November 1 and 2 (All Hallow’s Eve, All Saints Day, and All Souls Day, respectively).

All Saints Day has a long history in the church. From the earliest days the great heroes of our faith have been remembered and honored. Yet in our history there are countless saintly people who have lived faithfully and courageously. They are known only to God.

In order to honor all the saints, known and unknown, Pope Gregory III (731-734) established All Saints Day. The date for this “memorial day” for saints moved around until it was eventually set on November 1 by Gregory IV (827-844), and there it has remained for nearly 1,200 years.

The celebration of All Souls Day began in the seventh century when monks decided to honor and remember their deceased members on the day after Pentecost. In the 11th century, Odilo, the bishop of Cluny, ordered the date for this Mass to be moved to November 2, the day after All Saints Day, so that all in the communion of saints could be remembered during these days.

Fall feels like the right time for these three great days of remembrance. It seems natural to gather our memories along with the leaves. We rake them up, save the most beautiful ones, and compost the rest. Life, and memory, is good.