Today is All Saints' Day, a major feast of the Church. Episcopal Churches will be celebrating the day next Sunday, November 7; some of my Methodist friends report to have celebrated it yesterday. Tomorrow is All Souls' Day. Yesterday was Halloween, which is otherwise known as All Hallows Eve or the Vigil of All Saints'. And then there is the Day of the Dead (El Día de los Muertos), celebrated both today and tomorrow. And of course, many churches in their liturgies tend to conflate All Saints' and All Souls' so that we sing songs of the Saints of God and also recite (while a bell or gong solemnly tolls) the names of all parishioners, friends, and family members who have died in the last year. Such a cluster of events!
We have a need (and probably a duty) to celebrate and remember our dead, to celebrate the saints, to remember some of our dead as saints now even if we didn't really consider them saintly in this life. In same ways similarly to the way we think about heaven, many of us have a kind of hazy idea about the dead, about saints, about remembering, about hagiography and its purpose. Its haziness works well: it gives us flexibility and room to re-evaluate, grow, and mature in our understanding of our forebears, our relationships, our hopes and dreams, our mortality.
I have noticed, however, that some folks who had contentious or otherwise negative relationships with family members or friends in life tend to reorganize their thoughts about that person after death. Perhaps the absence of active conflict allows time and space for true and honest reflection. Perhaps feelings of guilt and remorse create a climate ripe for something different - idealization, glossing over reality, setting up a new or reorganized "reality" that makes a saint out of a sinner. While the honest reflection is good, the creation of an idealized memory (which creates a curiously untrue picture) is stifling and often just seems bizarre.
Sometimes saints of some organization or institution or family are conjured up or invoked, consciously or unconsciously, in order to take power away from the living people who wish to move on with life. Who has not heard someone try to shut down a discussion about something as trivial as going on a cruise for Christmas instead of the thing the family does every year, or as important as adding on to the church building, by invoking the name of some sainted gone-before minister, father, aunt, child, and declaring that such an action would be disapproved by said saint or would be insulting their memory, or some such? It takes all the air out of the room when that happens. Who can press on in the face of such an emotional smackdown? Even if it is patently untrue that so-and-so would disapprove or even care! But conjuring up the sainted dead can give someone enormous power, provided the rest of the group is willing to go along. One sees all kinds of family and institutional dysfunction as a result of the group being willing to go along, or at least unwilling to call the person (people) on this and declare that the family or organization is not going to be held hostage even to the sainted departed (or sainted tradition).
I love All Saints'. I love feast days and their prayers and special music and traditional activities (whatever they are). The yearly celebrations help us organize time - in the same way birthdays and other holidays do except with a theological component. At All Saints' we are encouraged to remember our relationship with and gratitude for those gone before in the faith; at All Souls' we are encouraged to remember our relationship with and gratitude for those gone from our lives. Honest reflection is always good to do and I appreciate the Church making space for that reflection and opportunity for gratitude.
But hostage holding - not so much.