All Souls’ Day: 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 Smailes
  • The 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.