In societies throughout the world, people keep in mind their dead ancestors and family members. Their memories act as an anchor in times when we are tempted by the passing fashions of the present. In some societies, ancestors are worshiped. In other societies, days of memory are kept when family members return to their ancestral lands. In modern societies, graveyards—with their gravestones and columbaria—honour the memory of the dead. Recently when Queen Elizabeth died, Great Britain stopped for a week to honour and to bury her.

In the Catholic Church, as in other religious communities, death has a central place. Death makes us focus on what matters in our lives and causes us to wonder at the mystery of our coming into the world for such a relatively short time, only to leave it again. Any serious account of what it means to be human must grapple with death. In Christian faith, the most familiar symbol is the cross. It remembers the Son of God, who shared our lives, our rejection and our death—in his case, a tortured death on the cross. Death remains central to our faith. When we think of it, however, we are turned from defeat to victory, and from sadness to celebration through Christ’s rising from the dead. Death has its say, but it does not have the last word. When we die, we shall live with Christ in a new life.

That faith turns cemeteries from the place of demons to the place of angels, who were waiting for the apostles at Jesus’ tomb. In Christian faith, Christ offers life after death to all those who have faith in him. That vision of death and life is represented in a Melbourne cemetery, where over the gate is the inscription, Janua Vitae—the gateway to life.

For that reason, the early Christians Church wrote the names of Christians who belonged to the Church on tablets and read them out in the eucharistic liturgy. The names of people from the congregation who had died were also inscribed and remembered, especially those who had suffered for the faith during times of persecution. Preachers still sometimes say of people who have died that their names are written in the book of life.

The practice of remembering the dead in the liturgy was retained in monasteries, where eventually one day a year was chosen to remember all those who had died. It was natural for communities to gather together in prayer to remember that they were bound together by memory and hope. This practice is maintained each year in a moving ceremony at some Vinnies shelters for people who are homeless, where wall plaques each year hold the names of people who would otherwise be forgotten. They are blessed, and each person is remembered by one of their colleagues or the people who have accompanied them. We honour death to express our hope that life triumphs.

On All Souls’ Day, Catholics have long prayed to free people from the traces that sin has left on them and from their time of cleansing in purgatory. That focus, too, has awoken compassion and solidarity through the conviction that our prayers and faithfulness to people who have died can bless them, just as they now bless us by their prayers and compassion. The day came eventually to be celebrated on 2 November each year. It is a day when many people go to cemeteries to pray at the graves of their family members. All Souls’ Day gathers together the community of the living and the dead.