All Saints Day (November 1) and All Souls Day (November 2) are annual reminders to remember, honor, and celebrate the dead. Today these ancient observances are overshadowed by Halloween, originally observed as the eve of All Saints Day but now more known as a time of costumes, candy, and trick or treating, or by national days of remembrance such as the anniversary of 9/11. Yet the ritual of consciously remembering loved ones who have passed is an important spiritual practice in all our lives. It brings death into the context of our daily experience and reminds us that dying is not the end.

In our family three out of four parents are gone now, and it has been too long for us to be in obvious mourning. We live too far away to visit their graves more often than every few years. Fortunately, we have not lost too many relatives or friends of our generation, but we know the time is coming when we will want to create rituals to help us honor others who have died. As we age, All Saints/All Souls become more important days on the calendar.

Many religions and cultures remember the dead on the anniversary of the death. Since that date may bring back painful memories of a passing, we prefer to remember our departed loved ones on their birthdays. Here are some of the practices we have found meaningful.

  • Light a candle. We choose a candle in a color that reminds us of the person. As we light it, we say a prayer of thanks to God for our memories of this loved one. During the day, as we look up from our work at the flickering flame, we recall the blessing this person was in our lives.
  • Make a donation. One way to signal that you still feel connected to someone who has died is to make a donation to a cause he or she supported. You might send a check to a church, school, local service organization, or favorite charity. One grandmother we know gives a small bill to each grandchild on their grandfather's birthday. She includes a note saying that she knows their grandfather would want them to have a special gift and tells them a story about one of his interests.
  • Find something to remember them by. The inspiration for this practice comes from the Bible account of Jesus' disciples on the road to Emmaus. They were joined by a stranger whom they did not recognize as Jesus until they stopped to eat and he broke the bread for their meal. They knew him in that act; it was something he had given them earlier to remember him by.

When we think back on our relationships with people who have died, we can find something to remember each of them by. Mary Ann's mother was an avid rose gardener, so roses are always special to her family. Fred's father was a consummate storyteller; now when we see people laughing over a story in a restaurant or at a party, he comes to mind. Mary Ann's father was a lifelong learner who used to read the encyclopedia after dinner. Often when we find ourselves looking things up in our reference books or browsing the Internet for a piece of information, we recall how much he savored this kind of activity.

Other common triggers to memory are a favorite song, a particular recipe, a certain type of weather, a special fragrance, a piece of jewelry. Each creates a feeling of connection beyond the grave.

This year on All Saints Day and All Souls Day, make a list of your departed loved ones and find one act, one object, one gift that can be your remembrance for each of them as you go about your daily life in the year ahead. This simple spiritual practice becomes an expression of gratitude, wonder, and your continuing love.