My three favorite holidays are Halloween, All Saints Day, and All Souls Day, which is also known as the Day of the Dead. I have to come to appreciate these days more in recent years for a number of reasons, not the least of which is my new-found hobby: family history research. This hobby has brought me in and out of a dozen wonderful cemeteries since 2010, both here in the US and in Ireland, and through these visits, I find myself now coming around to an understanding of a single line in a prayer I learned in the second grade.
“I believe in the communion of saints.”
I have recited these lines, from memory, in complete oblivion all my life. They are nestled in and among some lovely words that I memorized in grade school, along with the Pledge of Allegiance and the Girl Scout Oath. The line never meant anything to me other than a suggestion of a certain reverence for the holy men and women who have been identified by the Catholic Church as saints. These are the people, all dead, who have made a spiritual impact on the living. They are remembered by their followers, their neighbors, their town.
But I have always thought of saints as separate from me, different from me, and better than me. Isn’t that why we call them saints? They work miracles, they were strong, or devoted, or saintly in ways to which I can only aspire. In my dreams, I could be like a saint.
I visited the cemetery just a few weeks ago to see where my mother is buried. It’s a small town cemetery that I have always had a fondness for because I recognize most of the names on the headstones. These are the graves of the mothers and fathers of the children I went to school with. It’s not a particularly fancy place. There aren’t any impressive monuments or large mausoleums, but my best friend from the eighth grade is there, so every time I would drive by, I’d think of her and smile, remembering how we spent time sledding in the winter or sharing bags of popcorn at the local movie house.
When I started collecting information about my father’s family, I located a document that listed that very cemetery as the final resting place of his great aunt and her husband. I found their graves and added photos of the headstone to my family tree, all the while thinking how nice it would be if someone had photos of them so I could get to know them a little better. My aunt died in 1938 so I considered the exercise a lost cause.
Then, I thought, it was time I left some flowers as a tribute to my slim connection to this woman and her husband. I had given up the idea of every knowing what she looked like and I knew very little about her, but I decided that pink carnations might be a fitting tribute. The color looked great against the grey stone, so I took another photo and left. The next day, I was looking around for old photos of the town and I stumbled upon a collection online of the lake resort my aunt and uncle had owned where so many of my relatives had gone to dance. The photos were labeled “grandmother.” It was her.
It would be easy for me to say that her spirit led me to find this marvelous online collection of photos of her and her family. I could say there was some creepy force that motivated me to go to this particular site, looking for photos of the town and finding the very thing I had looked for, but that’s not what this is about, I don’t think.
Slowly, I am coming around to something my cousin said when I told her what had happened, how I had left the pink flowers and suddenly found the photos. I had given up ever finding images of this aunt and now, in a single flash, I had a dozen of them. She said simply, “I believe in the communion of saints.”
And there we had it. Finally, and without realizing it, I had embraced the communion of saints. This communion is why I am drawn to cemeteries. This communion is why I find cathedrals and churchyards to be so peaceful and so calming. It’s much less about the Church and that prayer that I recited for so long and more about identifying the immutable connection between the living and dead. The departed souls we celebrate on the Day of the Dead are a real tangible part of this more abstract notion of a communion. We are all bound together by experience, by family, by loss, or by joy. We are knitted together with similar threads and in that moment when I am standing in the midst of the dead, whether it is in that lovely small town graveyard, or an antique churchyard on a hill overlooking the Irish Sea, or the civic cemetery next to my bus stop in Manhattan, I can feel it.
The dead cannot judge you or hurt you. All that remains is the communion.
I believe in the communion of saints.
If you would like a sneak peek at my next book, it’s here on Wattpad, a feature in Non-Fiction.