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All Souls Day: Chris Fewings

November 2nd, the Day of the Dead, is a big deal in Mexico, where All Souls Day has absorbed many pre-Hispanic practices. In the UK it may pass by unnoticed. We still give a nod here to All Hallows (November 1st), and All Hallows Eve (commemorating the unquiet dead) is now a commercial hit, though often frowned on by the churches. Remembrance Sunday, which this year falls on the 94th anniversary of the Armistice which ended the First World War, is still solemnly observed. As the leaves fall in the temperate zones of the northern hemisphere, we have opportunities to remember our dead.

Around this time some churches hold a service to remember ‘those whom we love, but see no longer’. The Anglican church where my parents’ funerals were held invited me to attend one last year: the invitation went to all close relatives of those ‘buried’ in that parish in the previous twelve months. It was a simple service and I dutifully sat through it and stood up to sing when instructed, glad I had made the effort. Then suddenly I was in floods of tears. We were singing “Great is thy faithfulness” and I was transported back to the Baptist church I attended for a few years as a child where I had learned this hymn. I could feel the Baptist Hymnal in my hand in its green plastic cover. My father had been a deacon there, and I thought of his faithfulness to his family, to his unwavering evangelical faith, to the churches he attended.

Afterwards I thought of D. H. Lawrence’s nostalgic poem Piano, which describes how listening to a singer transported the speaker back to ‘the old Sunday evenings at home’, with ‘hymns in the cosy parlour’. Nostalgia is often dismissed as sentimental, but it can also be seen as bringing our past consciously into our present. Childhood influences everything we do; letting all memories of it lie, all the time, probably increases its influence. There are times to celebrate or question or in some cases exorcise our childhood memories, as part of the process of integrating early experiences into our current lives.

At one time the local church was very visibly a community of those who lived and had lived around it. Most people would attend church and eventually be buried in the churchyard. Traditionally their feet would point East, so that at the second coming they would rise and face Christ in Jerusalem. Even now, in the secular West, many still turn to the church for ‘hatching, matching and dispatching’: the beginning of life, the mingling of two lives, and the puzzling time when ‘what we have loved so long’ drifts off somewhere.

Fortunately British culture is gradually moving away from a dire time when death was brightly boxed off from the rest of life (in the 1970s, an aunt of mine was not allowed to see her stillborn child). ‘Death is part of life’ has become almost a cliché. The psychological importance of the long process of grieving is recognised, though rather privatised. Funerals often include rich celebrations of the life which has been lived, and people are not expected to keep a stiff upper lip. I wonder if Anglican churches around the world are playing their full part in this more open attitude to the departed: surely the Christian tradition has rich resources both to endure the pain (perhaps the rage) of loss and a proper awareness of the departed. It will be interesting to hear from other provinces in the comments.

The Resurrection is a strong theme of All Saints, All Souls, and every funeral. I think it’s abundantly clear from the New Testament that

  • resurrection is not resuscitaion
  • we are all called to participate in the resurrection of Christ
  • resurrection is mysterious: Mark’s gospel may originally have ended with the three women fleeing in bewilderment; the resurrection appearances are puzzling; in their letters both John and Paul seem to struggle to find language for the resurrection body.

The slightly silly pastiche (see Sonnet 65)that follows isn’t meant to cast doubt on the bodily resurrection, but to acknowledge that we don’t know what it is, which to me makes it far more exciting.


If mind, nor eye, nor art, nor boundless knowledge
Can penetrate the mystery of being a babe
Why do we think by going to Bible college
We’ll glimpse what life is like beyond the grave?
O wondrous meditation! How, I ask,
Can bodied breath’s awareness brave the tomb?
And why should we assume that we will bask
On clouds, when sense and neurons join the plume
Of smoke from our brief pyre? For we don’t know
How consciousness is built from cells: I am
More than my mind, one with a tale which flows
Before and through and after this brief span.

When he appears in daily labour’s bread
We sip the fellowship of all the dead

© Chris Fewings 2009

Chris has written about his Dad’s last days at

2 comments on this post:

Chris Fewings said...

Malcolm Guite has written a sonnet for All Saints which seems to encompass All Souls and Halloween, though he doesn’t say so in his introduction. “The witness of the ones we shunned and shamed” is caught up in the great cloud of witnesses. It’s well worth listening to him reading it too.

02 November 2012 09:35
UKViewer said...

When I die, a fire I will fuel,
burnt to a crisp, ashes cask full,

Soul despatched, with prayer to rest,
while grievers beat upon their breast.

Ashes to ashes, literally true,
on a mantelpiece, they can’t let go.

Soul in dark, or in light,
I really don’t know its real plight.

Hope sways me towards heaven,
but doubt signs me towards the devil.

When we’re gone, someone cares,
Unreasoning grief, is hard to bear.

But faith and hope in Jesus’ word,
Gives peace to them, of it’s own accord.

All Souls,is that hope justified,
All Saints is that hope multiplied.

02 November 2012 09:50

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