Praying for the Dead: Catholic Liturgies and Practices

The Church has many liturgical and communal practices to allow the faithful on earth to intercede for the faithful departed.

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ROCHESTER, N.Y. — In the Chapel of All Souls in Rochester’s Holy Sepulcher Cemetery, a choir of voices will fill its brick walls with the mournful sequence of the Dies Irae, chanting ancient Latin verse to the cadence of a tolling bell and praying for the faithful departed, on Nov. 2, All Souls’ Day.

This year marks the second year in a row that priests of the Diocese of Rochester will offer a solemn requiem Mass — in the extraordinary form — as the three sacred ministers of priest, deacon and subdeacon vested in black will stand before a black-and-white marble altar that bears the words: Requiem aeternam dona eis, Domine (Eternal rest grant unto them, O Lord).

Last year, more than a hundred people filled the little-used Chapel of All Souls, adorned on either side of its walls with stained-glass windows that proclaim the beatitudes, in the middle of which rested an empty casket covered with a black pall, surrounded by six burning candles — all for the faithful who have fallen asleep in Jesus Christ.

Father Anthony Amato, this year’s principal celebrant and homilist, told the Register that the Church offers the requiem Mass, which has special readings, prayers and ritual symbols for the faithful departed, every All Souls’ Day.

Everything about the Mass is less ceremonial and more somber in tone than the usual celebration of the Mass.

“I really love doing this,” Father Amato said, noting he makes the two-hour-plus drive from his parish cluster in Owego, New York. The priest added that the rituals of praying for the dead make an impression on people. “I had one person tell me [last year] ... ‘I thought it was really important,’” he said.


Office of the Dead

Catholics in the Latin Church are called to pray for the dead on the feast of All Souls and throughout the month of November.

The Church has ways for people to pray for the faithful departed both through liturgy and communally with private prayer and devotion.

While many Catholics are familiar with the requiem Mass on All Souls’ Day, the Church also has the Office of the Dead from the Liturgy of the Hours.

As the public prayer of the Church, next to the Mass or Divine Liturgy, there is no more powerful form of common prayer for the faithful. John Sittard, music director of St. Hugo of the Hills Church in Michigan, said the parish does solemn evening prayer for the faithful departed on All Souls’ Day, which complements the requiem Mass offered that day.

“Evening prayer is such a rich tradition in the Church,” he said. Sittard said most Catholics are unfamiliar with the powerful Office of the Dead, which is not just recited for All Souls’ Day, but can also be prayed together by Catholics at wakes and funeral vigils, as well as privately, such as for the anniversary of a person’s passing.

Praying the Office of the Dead at evening prayer provides so much “comfort and beauty” to the congregation. At solemn evening prayer, he said, the music drives forward the liturgy, as the choir sings Psalms and anthems that give the congregation a rich imagery of heaven.

“It is such a treasure that is hidden to so many people,” he said. “But the more people are exposed to it, it is something that really resonated with them.”


The Last Day in Allhallowtide

All Souls’ Day traditionally formed the final day of a three-day season in the Latin Church once called Allhallowtide in English, translated literally as “all-holy-ones season.”

This triduum began with the vigil of All Saints Oct. 31 (All Hallows’ Eve or Halloween); then Nov. 1 (All Saints’ Day or All Hallows’ Day or Hallowmas) and Nov. 2 (All Souls’ Day).

All Saints originated as a feast starting on May 13, 610, when Boniface IV consecrated the Pantheon to St. Mary and All the Martyrs (later St. Mary and All the Saints). The new feast took place at the end of the three-day pagan Roman festival of Lemuria, where participants made offerings to satisfy restless ancestral spirits.

“All of this comes from [Pope St.] Gregory the Great, who ordered that pagan shrines and festivals not be destroyed or banned, but, rather, converted to use because they already spoke to the people,” Thomas McDonald, a Catholic author and blogger at, told the Register.

All Saints’ Day originally began in May as a way to supersede the Roman pagan festival of Lemuria, but in the eighth century, it was moved to Nov. 1.

The Benedictines of Cluny added a memorial for the faithful departed in 998, and All Souls’ Day became widely adopted.

In various medieval European countries, All Souls’ Day saw practices such as bell ringing, bonfires, requiem Masses, lighting candles by gravesides and offering prayers, alms and distribution of food to the poor, such as “soul cakes.”

McDonald said that Allhallowtide originated from the Church’s ancient practice of praying for the dead and the realization that certain religious festivals of non-Christian peoples, with many of their trappings, could be retained and serve to spread the Gospel by uplifting their focus with Christian revelation.

In the 15th century, the Allhallowtide triduum was given an octave, but after the 1955 liturgical reform of Pius XII, the season was suppressed and All Saints and All Souls became adjacent feasts on the Latin Church’s calendar.

Anglicans and evangelical Lutherans still observe Allhallowtide, but for many Catholics, the connection of All Souls and All Saints and their cultural traditions has weakened with the season’s liturgical demise.


Día de los Muertos

Allhallowtide survived in the Mexican Catholic tradition as the “Day of the Dead,” called Día de los Muertos.

Indigenous civilizations in central and southern Mexico celebrated the dead in a monthlong festival during August, but the feast underwent changes — such as veneration for the Virgin Mary replacing veneration for the goddess of the underworld — when the Catholic faith was spread in Mexico by Spanish missionaries.

They relocated the feast, with its new Catholic orientation, for indigenous Catholics to the Allhallowtide triduum then celebrated by Catholics in Spain.

Ernesto Vega, coordinator for adult faith formation in Spanish for the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, told the Register that the Day of the Dead traces its origins to indigenous Mexican cosmology that found fulfillment in Catholic revelation.

For Mexican Catholics and other indigenous Catholics of the region who commemorate All Souls’ Day/Day of the Dead, Vega said, the festival shows the faithful the closeness of the Church on earth with the Church in heaven.

Practices for both parishes and families include placing pictures of loved ones on the ofrenda, a temporary family altar with a cross and an image of Our Lady of Guadalupe.

A special bread emblazoned with a cross and a special drink, such as a glass of tequila, is left for the dead — a practice that has Catholic counterparts in Europe, such as the west Irish custom of leaving an uncut loaf of bread and jar of water out for the holy souls.

Families will have a celebration with their loved ones in the graveyard, holding a picnic and staying all night, praying the Rosary, singing songs, sharing the stories of their ancestors and remembering the wisdom they passed on to the living on earth.

The Los Angeles Archdiocese is holding two Day of the Dead celebrations in cemeteries Oct. 27 and Nov. 3 to foster the indigenous Catholic tradition in households.

Vega said the Day of the Dead has other practices, such as painting skulls and adorning them with marigolds.

The imagery of the skulls, he explained, represents death as passing from the life of the flesh into the life of the spirit; the imagery of marigold flowers, Vega said, illustrates not just the beauty of the afterlife, but also heralds the promise of the resurrection to come. They underscore the closeness of the communion of saints.

“It shows there’s life and death,” he said, “and God is the owner of both.”


Other Traditions

Susan Tassone, an authority on purgatory and author of The Way of the Cross for the Holy Souls in Purgatory, told the Register that the Church has many communal ways of praying for the dead on All Souls’ Day and throughout November.

“People want to do something for their dead,” she said.

Tassone said when she was in the Diocese of Rockford, Illinois, she helped organize “Cemetery Sundays” where people would go to the cemeteries of loved ones, pray the Rosary for them and beautify the gravesites.

Another practice, she said, is to name the people who have died that year in a parish roll call on All Souls’ Day, light candles and pray the Rosary for them.

Parishes may also keep a Book of the Dead, wherein the names of loved ones who died may be inscribed and kept near the altar so they may be remembered at Masses through November.

A less-seen practice is having a Gregorian Mass — or 30 consecutive days of Masses offered for a deceased loved one — during the month of November.

A person can also visit a cemetery and obtain a plenary indulgence for the faithful departed from Nov. 1-8, a remnant of the Allhallowtide octave.

Tassone said Catholics should remember their prayers for the faithful departed are a two-way street.

“The more we do for them,” she said, “the more powerful their intercession becomes for us, both in purgatory and before the throne of God.”

Peter Jesserer Smith is a Register staff writer.