It is a centuries-old tradition in Western Christianity to observe All Souls’ Day on November 2 by attending mass, offering prayers and sacrifices, and lighting candles to help ease the suffering of those who have died without having been saved and whose souls are believed to be in purgatory. In a looser interpretation, many people who are not strict adherents to church doctrine still may set this day aside to contemplate their family’s or social circle’s departed, in solemn remembrance and honor.
History of All Souls Day
On All Souls Day, the Catholic Church teaches that the purification of the souls in purgatory can be assisted by the actions of the faithful on earth. Its teaching is based also on the practice of prayer for the dead mentioned as far back as 2 Maccabees 12:42–46. In the West there is ample evidence of the custom of praying for the dead in the inscriptions of the catacombs, with their constant prayers for the peace of the souls of the departed and in the early liturgies, which commonly contain commemorations of the dead.
Tertullian, Cyprian and other early Western Fathers witnessed the regular practice of praying for the dead among the early Christians. The theological basis for the feast is the doctrine that the souls which, on departing from the body, are not perfectly cleansed from venial sins, or have not fully atoned for past transgressions, are debarred from the Beatific Vision, and that the faithful on earth can help them by prayers, alms deeds and especially by the sacrifice of the Mass.
As far back as the 6th century CE, it became a regular tradition in Benedictene monasteries to set aside a day to honor the departed, at that time set for the Monday after Pentecost. Though other dates were set by other groups, eventually — in the 11th century — Saint Odilo of Cluny standardized the day after All Saints’ Day — All Souls’ Day — as the time to pray for the unsaved who had passed on, for all members of monasteries dependent on the Abbey of Cluny.
The new day and customs gradually spread to other monasteries and then generally throughout the Western Church. In the Church of England it is called ‘The Commemoration of the Faithful Departed’ and is an optional celebration. Anglicans view All Souls’ Day as an extension of the observance of All Saints’ Day, serving as a reminder to those who have died, in connection with the theological doctrines of the resurrection of the body and the Communion of Saints
Partially due to circumstances surrounding World War I — the great number of dead and the number of destroyed churches, in particular — priests were granted the privilege of conducting three masses in one day on All Souls’ Day. This custom is still in practice today.
All Souls Day timeline
The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops decrees that for this year the Saturday evening Mass in the U.S. was to be that of All Souls.
The Church of England’s “Alternative Service Book” acknowledges the fusion of All Souls’ Day with All Saints’ Day.
The Roman Rite is revised to make the Mass of All Souls replace the regular Sunday mass, should November 3 fall on a Sunday.
Prussia introduces a new date — the last Sunday before Advent— for the remembrance of the dead for its Lutheran citizens.
All Souls Day FAQs
Is All Souls’ Day a day of holy obligation?
No, it is not. And it shouldn’t be confused with All Saints’ Day, which is indeed a day of holy obligation.
What countries is All Souls’ Day celebrated in?
Other than the U.S. and Canada, just some other countries that celebrate the holiday are — in alphabetical order — Angola, Belgium, Bolivia, Brazil, East Timor, Ecuador, El Salvador, Guam, Haiti, Luxembourg, Macau, Nicaragua, Philippines, San Marino, and Uruguay.
Are all of the souls in Heaven Saints?
It depends on the branch of the Church. The faithful deceased are automatically considered saints in the Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Anglican, Oriental Orthodox, and Lutheran doctrines.
How to Observe All Souls Day
Tend to a friend or relative’s grave
Across denominations, it is considered customary to visit a loved one’s grave on All Souls’ Day to lay flowers or tidy up the grave site from fallen leaves and other detritus. While you’re there, take a moment to reflect on the deceased’s life and works.
Attend an All Souls’ Day Mass
Even if you’re not a regular churchgoer, it can be cathartic to attend Mass this day to “officially” recognize the departed soul of someone you know who has passed. More than one person has told us that they gained a sense of closure — and peace — from the All Souls’ Day service.
Support a Christian friend
It can be emotional when your faith demands that you think of a loved one’s soul as resting in Purgatory — which is defined as being outside of time and space. Today, if a Christian co-worker or friend of yours seems down, be there to offer a listening ear.
5 Amazing Facts About Purgatory
Souls that find themselves there are not damned
According to the “Catholic Encyclopedia,” “The ancient Liturgies and the inscriptions of the catacombs speak of [Purgatory as] a ‘sleep of peace,’ which would be impossible if there was any doubt of ultimate salvation.”
We are the recipients of prayers as well
St. Robert Bellarmine and other theologians theorized that since souls in Purgatory are closer to God than the living are, their prayers and petitions hold more power.
A belief held by the ancient fathers
The ancient Roman epic poem “The Aenid” describes souls from whom “the taint of wickedness [is] burned away with fire [before being called to] the joyous fields of Elysium.”
Volunteering to suffer
Both St. Catherine of Genoa and St. Thomas of Aquinas agree that souls cast themselves willingly into Purgatory when they see what awaits in Heaven — meaning not that there is another available choice, but that souls knowingly submit to Purgatory.
Purification by fire
St. Catherine also wrote that souls in purgatory experience happiness in the form of the things that hinder them from heaven being gradually burned away — “Sin’s rust is the hindrance, and the fire burns the rust away so that more and more the soul opens itself up to the divine inflowing.”
Why All Souls Day is Important
It’s about caring
At the end of the day, All Souls’ Day holds the true meaning of caring for and remembering those we have lost. This can be in a larger sense, as in sending a prayer out for those who have lost their lives in war, or a very narrow and personal sense such as sharing stories about a late grandparent, and everything between.
It honors the vulnerable
Everyone has heard the term “Christian guilt.” Part of that guilt in the hearts of many individuals is that they may have “let” a loved one pass on without working harder to make sure they were in good shape for Heaven. So All Souls’ Day can be a refuge, a day where at least the departed are honored and mentioned.
It’s an important part of Christian culture
It never hurts to gain more knowledge, and we’ve seen people become impressed and engrossed, reading up and talking about Christian holy days like All Souls’ Day, sheerly by the history and doctrine surrounding them. Dig a little, and you’ll be surprised what you find out.
All Souls Day dates