24 June 2008

Religious Beliefs: We Die Three Deaths

By Jennifer Linforth

We die three deaths.

First when our bodies die, second when our bodies are swallowed by the ground and are out of sight, and third when our loved ones forget us.

That is a popular Mexican saying, one that is forestalled by a special day set by the Catholic faith to remember those that left us. The tradition of a feast for All Souls dates back to 998 when St. Odilo of Cluny first began the remembrance. From there it spread to other monasteries and orders throughout Europe. The day follows All Saint's Day to shift the focus from those in heave to those that might still be in purgatory. Masses and festivities honor the dead and the traditions are vast. Many think of the Mexican day of the day with its rich symbolism and colorful celebrations. But for this blog we lean to the unusual...

The curtain that divides the living and the dead thins during Seelenwoche--at least that is the belief of many Austrians. All Souls Day is a part of the Seelenwoche, or All Souls Week (October 30-November 1) in Austria, and is the Catholic remembrance of Saint Martyrs. When many think of All Souls Day the most popular images are that of the Mexican traditions for this day of the dead, but Austria's tradition is as rich as it is lovely.

Imagine graveyards, centuries old, glimmering solely by the light of candles and lanterns. Many Austrian villages especially during the Franz-Josef years, hosted the gerstemesse. This is a family celebration of lighting graveyards with luminaries in order to create a bridge between the living and the dead. The light provided a means for departed loved ones to find their way home to their families more easily. Often the cemeteries were guarded at night with hired hands instructed to keep the candles and lanterns lit at all costs. The graves are traditionally decorated with chrysanthemums and marigolds usually formed into a wreath.

At the Zentralfriedhof, the largest Viennese cemetery, the graves are decorated to reflect the Garden of Eden. Here, thousands will gather for picnics and music in celebration of the family unit. Children are given small gifts as they stroll villages in the tradition of heischemuzugen, which means 'asking for a small gift.' They do this in honor of the dead in exchange for a song.

At noon on All Souls Day the church bells would ring signaling the hour of Seelenauslauten, when the souls are released. Austrians believe the souls of the living can be anywhere. The bells are to help guide them beyond the living world and cross over into heaven.

And finally, food which is a central part of Austrian life has its role too. Symbolic meals set aside for departed loved ones on All Souls Day does not go wasted. It is traditionally dispersed to the poor.

This blogger has always found All Souls Day to be a unique part of religious observations. Personally on the day I always think of this quote:

Remember me with smiles and laughter, for that is how I will remember you all. If you can only remember me with tears, the don't remember me at all....

Images: All Souls' Day by Aladar Korosfoi-Kriesch (1910), oil on canvas, Hungarian National Gallery, Budapest

All Souls' Day by Franz Skarbina (1896), Old National Gallery, Berlin