November 2, 2020

This year has been a bad year to die, and a very hard time to lose a loved one. The experience of dying and grieving has become particularly abnormal in the midst of the pandemic; the fear of infection forces us to act in ways which run counter to our deepest instincts. Imagine telling someone, last Christmas, that in 2020 many people would have to face the prospect of dying alone, or surrounded by masked strangers, even while their family were desperately longing to be with them.

A year ago, it would have been unthinkable that we might be prevented, by law, from visiting the dying or comforting the grieving. Who would have ever thought there would be national rules restricting who you can hug at a funeral? A year ago, you wouldn’t have allowed yourself to imagine it; it would have been too grim to contemplate.

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There’s a particular horror in the idea of dying alone, and the fear of a lonely death haunts many of us. But in one or way another, death is always lonely. The grave is a solitary place, and death is a journey you have to undertake alone. Different cultures develop their own ways of lessening the loneliness of the grave, providing those who are grieving with some continuing connection to the dead. In the Christian Church, for the past thousand years, an important season for bridging the gap between the living and the dead has been the twin feasts of All Saints’ and All Souls’, on 1 and 2 November.

As the names suggest, both feasts offer the very opposite of solitude: they are opportunities to connect with multitudes, communities, vast companies of the dead. The first day celebrates the saints in heaven, the “cloud of witnesses” and the “great multitude which no man could number”, as they are described in Biblical texts read at this feast; the second day is for everyone else, all the “faithful departed” — an even greater crowd of souls.

The two feasts, now entwined, have separate histories, and weren’t always kept so close together. They have their origins in a diversity of local feasts which emerged in different parts of the Church during the first millennium, some commemorating all the saints, others all the departed. In different regions these were observed on various dates, in the spring and summer as well as in the winter. By the ninth century, however, 1 November had become the predominant date for the feast of All Saints’, and over the course of the next few centuries it was gradually supplemented by a second commemoration the following day.

By the later Middle Ages, these days formed a coherent and widely observed season of remembrance, known in medieval England as “Hallowtide”. The two days had distinct but related aims: All Saints’ was intended to celebrate the glorious dead and to ask for their prayers, but the purpose of All Souls’ was to pray for the dead, for those in Purgatory who needed the prayers of the living to help them in their passage to heaven. It was a time not only to remember the dead but to look after them, to give them assistance and comfort. On the nights of Hallowtide, church bells rang out to reassure the souls in Purgatory that the living had not forgotten them. It must have been profoundly comforting to the grieving, too, to feel that they could still do something to help those they had lost.

Caring for the dead wasn’t just for Hallowtide, though. In the Middle Ages, looking after the dead was a duty incumbent on believers all year round. Prayer for the dead, known and unknown, was a regular feature of medieval devotion, and was seen as an important act of charity. Believers were encouraged to pray for the souls of those they had known in life — their family, godparents, or benefactors — but also for those whom they had not personally known, but with whom they shared some connection: deceased members of their professional guild, or all the dead buried in their parish church. And they were asked to pray too, as many still do today, for those who had no one else to pray for them. No one was to be left alone in death.

It was important to care for the bodies of the dead as well as their souls. To bury the dead was one of the seven Works of Mercy, a set of charitable deeds medieval Christians were encouraged to perform. To modern eyes it can be surprising: we understand feeding the hungry and clothing the poor as impulses of charity, but why burying the dead? It was not just a response to a social need — assisting those who had no family to bury them — but another manifestation of the idea that the dead needed the help of the living; the need for community and mutual aid did not end with death.

Medieval ghost stories tell of corpses who can’t rest until they’ve had a decent burial, and have to wander the earth asking the living for their help and prayers. In other stories, a person who buries a penniless stranger out of charity is then rewarded in some fabulous way by the ghost of the deceased (a story-type known to folklorists as “the Grateful Dead”).

At the Reformation, many of these practices by which people had sustained a relationship with the dead were banned. All Saints’ Day survived in a circumscribed form, but All Souls’ Day was suppressed; it was no longer permitted to pray for the dead or say masses for their souls. This was a huge cultural shift, and some historians have seen it as the most significant and painful rupture of the Reformation, violently severing the links between the living and the dead. It meant, in the words of the historian Greg Walker, “an end to those spiritual continuities that had hitherto bound the generations of the living and the dead together in mutually supportive collaboration, and tied both to the mediation of the saints in heaven”.

For centuries, people had believed that there were practical things they could do to communicate with their dead, both to help them and to ask for their help. They could have masses said for them, light candles, go on pilgrimage; they could ask saints for assistance and they could seek comfort for their departed loved ones, all in the hope that one day they would be helped in their turn. People in the Middle Ages were constantly speaking to and for the dead. And then, suddenly, all those channels of communication were closed.

The suppression of All Souls Day meant that Britain doesn’t today have the kinds of widespread customs which are still common in Catholic countries, such as visiting churchyards to bring flowers or light candles on the graves of loved ones. But the longing to feel a connection with the dead is a deep-seated desire, and it wasn’t so easily rooted out. Even after prayers on All Souls’ Day were officially prevented within churches, the desire lingered in unofficial, private rituals of commemoration. Children still went door-to-door begging for “soul cakes”, originally cakes given in exchange for prayers to help the dead out of Purgatory. Long after such prayers had been forbidden, the custom of “souling” continued, and survived well into the 20th century in some parts of Britain.

In pockets of rural England, All Souls’ Day also lingered in local traditions of going out to fields or hilltops at midnight and lighting fires to pray for departed family and friends. These were called “tindles” or “teen-lay” fires (“tind” is an old word for kindling a fire). One witness of such a custom in 19th-century Lancashire memorably described how each family would go to the highest hill near their home and set fire to a large bunch of straw, praying for the dead until the fire burned down; he recalled seeing the bright fires burning in the darkness in every direction, forming a circle all round the horizon.

In the past century the British festival calendar has changed rapidly, and today’s All Souls’ Day doesn’t look much like it would have done in the Middle Ages. It might seem strange to say it, but the modern version of this early-November season actually offers a much more intense focus on death than the medieval Hallowtide did. For one thing, it’s now heralded by a much bigger version of Halloween than was at all common in the Middle Ages. Even a few decades ago Halloween, though popular in some parts of Britain, was far from ubiquitous — but now its grinning skeletons and ghosts are everywhere, and gaining more ground by the year.

On top of that, the modern All Souls’ Day has also been influenced by the fact that — by sheer coincidence — it now falls close to Remembrance Day. That relatively new commemoration, scarcely a century old, means that for several weeks at the beginning of November we’re constantly surrounded by bright-red reminders of mortality: the poppy, one of the most ancient symbols of death, invested with new meaning in modern times.

So from late October to mid-November, images of death are impossible to avoid, whether it’s shops full of Halloween costumes or poppies on coats and war memorials. Everywhere you look, you see a memento mori. In effect, we’ve created a modern fortnight of Remembrance — a longer and more intensive season for encountering mortality, whether to laugh or to mourn, than the medieval Hallowtide ever was.

Both Halloween and Remembrance Day have had to be severely curtailed this year; All Souls’ Day will once again be focused on private, family rituals, as in the days of tindle fires. In the thousand-year history of its rise, suppression and revival, All Souls has had to be a mutable commemoration. It was only in the 20th century that the Church of England began tentatively to accept All Souls Day, but it was careful to develop its own version: officially, its purpose is to remember the dead, not to pray for their souls.

This year the Church of England is offering people who can’t get to a church the opportunity to light candles virtually. That’s only a new step in the ongoing evolution of the day, which seems more important than ever after this difficult year for the dying and the grieving. The longing for a connection with the dead is a need which never goes away.