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Fall - Autunno - Jesen
Customs and Traditions
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All Souls' Day by William Bouguereau (French, 1825-1905)

The Feast of All Souls

All Souls' Day (Commemoratio omnium fidelium defunctorum) is celebrated on November 2 (on November 3 when it falls on a Sunday). It is a feast of the Roman Catholic Church on which the church on earth prays for the souls of the faithful departed still suffering in purgatory. The proper office is of the dead, and the Mass is a requiem. General intercessions for the dead (e.g., for those of a parish, a city, or a regiment) are very ancient (2 Mac. 12.43–45); but the modern feast was probably first established by Abbot Odilo of Cluny (d. 1049) for his community and later extended throughout the church. In Catholic countries there are many customs peculiar to All Souls' Day (e.g., leaving lights in the cemeteries on the night before). These vary from region to region. They should be distinguished from the customs of Halloween, which were apparently an independent development (see All Saints' Day).

All Soul’s Day is the last day of a triduum (a three-day celebration) of commemorations of the dead dating back to pre-Christian eras. As has been discussed concerning the Eve of All Hallow’s (Halloween) and All Saints Day, the Celts of northern Europe held a three day festival known as Samhain, during which they paid particular attention to the memory of their dead. The Church Christianized this festival by giving new meanings to the customs of Halloween night, and by offering a vision of the Communion of Saints that is remembered on All Saints Day, November 1st.

The last day of this Christianized commemoration of the dead is known as All Soul’s Day, falling on November 2nd. On this day, the Church remembers all of the faithful departed who died peaceable deaths with the expectation of Christ’s promises of eternal life. These were ordinary people, who were not given the status of sainthood by the Church, but who were nevertheless saintly communicants. Today, all Christians are reckoned as saints, a concept referred to as the Common of Saints. However, it must be remembered that this is an ancient theology that has only recently been reclaimed.

For much of history, a person known as a “saint” was only a person who had done some heroic deed for the benefit of the Church and the Faith, or who had died specifically because of their proclamation of that faith (ie, martyrs). These were the persons who were honored with canonization and were remembered on the Church’s calendar. They were believed to have ascended directly to heaven at the deaths and welcomed there by God. During this time, a person who remained faithful to the Church and Christ, but who had not done any extraordinary “saintly” deeds, were remembered on November 2nd. Until recently, these were people that Roman Catholics believed were in Purgatory, separated from the Saints and Christ until the Second Coming, but nevertheless at comfortable rest. Because the Common of Saints has been reclaimed, and the theology of Purgatory is waining, all Christians are generally remembered on November 1st whether they have been canonized or not. November 2nd, therefore, is increasingly falling into neglect. For the most part, where All Soul’s is commemorated, it is offered as an opportunity for individuals to remember their ancestors, such as parents, grandparents, brothers and sisters, sons and daughters, and spouses.

The Feast of All Soul’s was added to the triduum at a much later date than All Saints Day or All Hallow’s Eve. Even after Samhain in the north had ceased to be remembered, the Celts still had a cultural impulse to celebrate for three days, as if they knew they were supposed to be doing so but couldn’t remember why. Elsewhere in the Church, monasteries had established the custom holding requiem masses for the brothers of their order who had died. The theology of Purgatory required that we on earth continue to pray for the dead in order to shorten their time in Purgatory. These requiems were held at different dates throughout the year, depending on the region and the monastic order.

The first feast of general intercession was first established by Odilo, abbot of Cluny (d. 1048). The legend is given by Peter Damiani in his Life of St Odilo. According to this legend, 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. 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, was soon adopted in several dioceses in France, and spread throughout the Western Church.

The Church thought it reasonable to unify all of these commemorations on a single date for the sake of liturgical order. Therefore, by the turn of the Second Millenium, the Church had established the triduum of commemorations that began on October 31st and ended on November 2nd.

In the Latin world (southern Europe and Latin America), All Soul’s Day is known as the Day of the Dead. In Mexico, All Hallows' Eve, All Saints' Day and All Souls' Day are collectively observed as "Los Dias de los Muertos" (The Days of the Dead). First and foremost, the Days of the Dead is a time when families are reunited in the cemeteries where their ancestors are buried. During these family reunions, they decorate their ancestors’ tombs and hold parties which begin in the afternoon and continue on into the evening. They include spectacular parades of skeletons and ghouls and in one notable tradition, revelers lead a mock funeral procession with a live person inside a coffin.

These are not morbid celebrations, as one might expect, but very happy and positive celebrations that are intended to bring back happy memories of the ancestors that are very much included in the celebrations.

See also:

The Requiem Mass

Requiem [Lat.,=rest], proper Mass for the souls of the dead, performed on All Souls' Day and at funerals. The reformation of Roman Catholic liturgy following the Second Vatican Council (see Vatican Council, Second) has modified the traditional requiem, and it is now called the Funeral Mass, Mass for the Dead, or Mass of Christian Burial. Black vestments are no longer required, white or purple may be worn, and flowers are permitted. The hymnody, while still solemn in tone, is often joyful and reflects hope in the resurrection and the service is conducted in the vernacular. Its peculiarities include omission of the Gloria, the creed, and the blessing of the people. The famous sequence, the Dies irae, is now optional. The opening words of the introit, “Eternal rest grant unto them, O Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon them,” echo through all the prayers for the dead. The traditional Gregorian musical setting of the requiem is quite beautiful; other requiem music has been written (e.g., by Mozart and Verdi), but it is not often heard in churches.

Dies irae [Lat.,=day of wrath], hymn of the Roman Catholic Church. A part of the Requiem Mass, it is a powerful description of the Judgment and a prayer to Jesus for mercy. Suggested in part by Zeph. 1.14–16, it was probably written by Thomas of Celano. In 16th-century polyphonic masses it was usually sung to the plain-song melody, but there are a few isolated examples of new music combined with the old melody in masses by minor composers. More recently, it has usually been supplied with new, and frequently intensely dramatic, music, notably by Mozart, Berlioz, and Verdi. It is no longer in general use in Roman Catholic funeral liturgy.

Dies Irae

Latin version: English version:
Dies irae, dies illa,
solvet saeculum in favilla,
teste David cum Sibylla.
That day of wrath, that dreadful day,
shall heaven and earth in ashes lay,
as David and the Sybil say.
Quantus tremor est futurus,
quando iudex est venturus,
cuncta stricte discussurus!
What horror must invade the mind
when the approaching Judge shall find
and sift the deeds of all mankind!
Tuba mirum spargens sonum
per sepulcra regionum,
coget omnes ante thronum.
The mighty trumpet's wondrous tone
shall rend each tomb's sepulchral stone
and summon all before the Throne.
Mors stupebit et natura,
cum resurget creatura,
iudicanti responsura.
Now death and nature with surprise
behold the trembling sinners rise
to meet the Judge's searching eyes.
Liber scriptus proferetur,
in quo totum continetur,
unde mundus iudicetur.
Then shall with universal dread
the Book of Consciences be read
to judge the lives of all the dead.
Iudex ergo cum sedebit,
quidquid latet apparebit:
nil inultum remanebit.
For now before the Judge severe
all hidden things must plain appear;
no crime can pass unpunished here.
Quid sum miser tunc dicturus?
quem patronum rogaturus?
cum vix iustus sit securus.
O what shall I, so guilty plead?
and who for me will intercede?
when even Saints shall comfort need?
Rex tremendae maiestatis,
qui salvandos salvas gratis,
salva me, fons pietatis.
O King of dreadful majesty!
grace and mercy You grant free;
as Fount of Kindness, save me!
Recordare Iesu pie,
quod sum causa tuae viae:
ne me perdas illa die.
Recall, dear Jesus, for my sake
you did our suffering nature take
then do not now my soul forsake!
Quarens me, sedisti lassus:
redemisti crucem passus:
tantus labor non sit cassus.
In weariness You sought for me,
and suffering upon the tree!
let not in vain such labor be.
Iuste iudex ultionis,
donum fac remissionis,
ante diem rationis.
O Judge of justice, hear, I pray,
for pity take my sins away
before the dreadful reckoning day.
Ingemisco, tamquam reus:
culpa rubet vultus meus:
supplicanti parce Deus.
You gracious face, O Lord, I seek;
deep shame and grief are on my cheek;
in sighs and tears my sorrows speak.
Qui Mariam absolvisti,
et latronem exaudisti,
mihi quoque spem dedisti.
You Who did Mary's guilt unbind,
and mercy for the robber find,
have filled with hope my anxious mind.
Preces meae non sunt dignae:
sed tu bonus fac benigne,
ne perenni cremer igne.
How worthless are my prayers I know,
yet, Lord forbid that I should go
into the fires of endless woe.
Inter oves locum praesta,
et ab haedis me sequestra,
statuens in parte dextera.
Divorced from the accursed band,
O make me with Your sheep to stand,
as child of grace, at Your right Hand.
Confutatis maledictis,
flammis acribus addictis.
voca me cum benedictis.
When the doomed can no more flee
from the fires of misery
with the chosen call me.
Oro supplex et acclinis,
cor contritum quasi cinis:
gere curam mei finis.
Before You, humbled, Lord, I lie,
my heart like ashes, crushed and dry,
assist me when I die.
Lacrimosa dies illa,
qua resurget ex favilla.
iudicandus homo reus:
huic ergo parce Deus.
Full of tears and full of dread
is that day that wakes the dead,
calling all, with solemn blast
to be judged for all their past.
Pie Iesu Domine,
dona eis requiem. Amen.
Lord, have mercy, Jesus blest,
grant them all Your Light and Rest. Amen.
Purgatory [Lat.,=place of purging], in the teaching of the Roman Catholic Church, the state after death in which the soul destined for heaven is purified. Since only the perfect can enjoy the vision of God (inferred from Mat. 12.36; Rev. 21.17), and some die in grace who have still unpunished or unrepented minor sins on their conscience, they must be purged of such sins. Those who have suffered already (especially the martyrs) may have undergone much or all of their punishment. Souls in purgatory are members of the church along with the living and the blessed in heaven and may be helped, as in life, by the prayers and works of their fellow members. This unity is the communion of saints. Prayers for the dead are therefore commonplace in Roman Catholic life; one form is the requiem Mass (see also indulgence). The duration of time and the nature of the state of purgatory are not defined; the suffering is different in kind from that of hell, for the soul in purgatory knows that his punishment is temporary. The ancient Jews prayed for the dead (2 Mac. 12.43–46), and the Christians continued the practice, holding the concomitant belief in a middle state between life and heaven. The Eastern Orthodox Church maintains this position without adopting the Western terms developed in the Middle Ages. Protestants have generally abandoned it.



  • The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2005, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

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Created: Tuesday, October 18, 2005; Last updated, Saturday, September 14, 2013
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