Remembrance of friends past

French Catholic ceremonies for honouring departed loved ones on All Souls’ Day survive on many Caribbean islands.

Lighting up the family gravesite. Photograph by Alex SmailesThe cemetery in St. Joseph Trinidad on All Souls’ night. Photograph by Alex Smailes

I remember being bathed in the soft golden glow of a thousand
flickering candles, as the crisp November night air carried the scent of
flowers and burning wax. The cemetery became a labyrinth, as family and friends
slowly filed between the graves and tombstones to visit their departed loved
ones on All Souls’ Day. They stopped to say hello to each other, combining
recitations of the rosary with the latest gossip.

We always came the day before to clean up the weathered tombstones, retouching
them with white paint, weeding the little patches of grass. To me it felt
something like Christmas. It was a celebration, after all, a time to show
we cared for relatives and friends no longer with us, hoping that in some
way they knew we were remembering them.

In Trinidad, as in many Caribbean islands, we continue the All Souls’
Day traditions brought over by French Catholic settlers hundreds of years
ago, visiting family gravesites after attending evening mass said for the
repose of souls waiting in purgatory (in Catholic theology, the state of
penance for past sins which the souls of the faithful must endure before
entering heaven; it is believed that the prayers of the living can speed
this transition). The early church had always devoted certain days to praying
for these souls. In 998, the monks of Cluny in France choose 2 November,
the day after the feast of All Saints, to say masses in the memory of the
dead. By the 13th century, it had become the official date in the church
calendar.

In those Caribbean islands with a strong French heritage,
many Catholics devotedly follow the old customs, not just offering prayers,
but showing their respect for loved ones through the simple ceremony of
visiting their graves and lighting them up with candles. To outsiders, this
may seem a macabre ritual; but the flickering lights, symbols of faith and
love, offer hope to the bereaved. And, recalling the stars above in their
hundreds and thousands, they remind those here on earth of the heavenly
place where they believe they will one day rejoin their beloved parents,
sisters, brothers, and friends.