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Days particularly set apart for ceremonies in honor of the dead are common to mankind and are well-nigh as old as history itself.
The Greeks performed impressive rites called Zoai, at each new grave.
These involved various libations and offerings of olives and flowers. The head of the departed was crowned with a floral wreath, and a luxuriance of bloom springing from the grave of the dead one was considered a token of his happiness.
The Romans honored their ancestors in a festival called the Parentalia, celebrated from February 13th to 21st. During this period the temples were closed, and the magistrates were obliged to go without the insignia of their office. The last day was called the Feralia. Then wine and milk, honey and oil, fruit, bread, salt, eggs, and the blood of cattle, pigs, and black sheep were brought to the tombs and offered up to the shades of the departed. The tomb was decorated with wreaths and flowers, especially roses and violets, as the later Latin poets record.
Our ancestors, the Druids, were believers in the transmigration of souls and celebrated their memorial day about the first of November on the eve of the great autumnal festival of thanksgiving to the sun. This was the time when their god Saman, the Lord of Death, was supposed to call together and pass judgment upon poor souls who had been obliged for their sins to inhabit the bodies of animals during the year. But, through the priests, by means of gifts and incantations, the cruel heart of Saman might be softened at this season. Even in China and Japan there exists an ancient festival in honor of the dead, known as The Feast of Lanterns.
Our Memorial Day is simply a secular All Souls' Day. Like most Christian festivals the latter is only a pagan feast in a new form. On that day the Roman Catholics endeavor, by prayers and charity, to soften the suffering of the poor souls in purgatory. The early Christians wrote the names of the dead on the diptychs or altar lists and from these the priest read the names of those for whom he was to pray that God might give them “a place of refreshment, light, and peace.”
In the sixth century the Benedictine monasteries used to hold a memorial service, at Whitsuntide, for their departed brothers. In 998 Abbot Odilon of Cluny instituted in all the monasteries in his congregation the practice of saying the Mass for the dead on the morrow of the Feast of All Saints, and obliging the priests to recite in private the matins and lauds from the office of the dead.
It is fascinating to study the customs of this holiday in different ages and nations. The account given by Walsh' is well worth following:
“In ancient times it was customary for criers, dressed in black, to parade the streets, ringing a bell of mourn
i In Curiosities of Popular Customs."
ful sound and calling on all good Christians to remember the poor souls in purgatory and join in prayer for their relief. In Southern Italy, notably in Salerno, there was another ancient custom, which was put an end to in the fifteenth century because it was thought to savor of paganism. Every family used to spread a table abundantly for the regalement of the souls of its dead members on their way from purgatory. All then spent the day in church, leaving the house open, and if any of the food remained on the table when they came back it was an ill omen. Curiously enough, large numbers of thieves used to resort to the city at this time, and there was seldom any food left to
A story strangely like this is told in the Apocryphal book of Bel and the Dragon.
“ All Souls' Day possesses a peculiar sanctity for all who have ever felt the poetry which underlies the services of the Catholic Church. In the toil and moil of life we too easily forget the dead, or remember them only with a sense of loss instead of gratitude. Hence it seems well that once in the year an opportunity should be afforded for dwelling on them in a different way, for recalling all that endeared them to us, which often means all that has lent our past life emotional value, for drawing close to them in the spiritual bonds which according to the Catholic Church are not severed by death, and for offering them that pious meed of prayer which, the same authority guarantees, will shorten their stay in purgatory and open out to them the sooner the final glory and peace of paradise.
“In nothing does the strange contrast of feeling appear more strongly than in the different ways in which