Help a poor soul out: Visit a cemetery this month to pray for the dead

A man prays at a gravesite at Our Lady of Hope Cemetery in Brownstown Township on Nov. 7. During the month of November, Catholics can gain a plenary indulgence — either for themselves or for a soul in purgatory — by visiting a cemetery to pray. (Valaurian Waller | Detroit Catholic)

The month of November invites us to contemplate the saints in glory and pray for the departed in purgatory. The Commemoration of All Souls on Nov. 2 directly follows the Solemnity of All Saints on Nov. 1, and the two celebrations’ proximity reminds us of our obligation spiritually to help the Holy Souls attain heaven.

When teaching my students about the saints and our bodily resurrection at the end of time, I showed them Fra Angelico’s “Last Judgment,” an altarpiece that depicts heaven as a stately, light-filled dance between angels and saints upon the celestial meadows. Later, the students listened to Handel’s musical meditation upon St. Paul’s description of the Last Judgment: “the trumpet shall sound, and the dead shall be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed” (1 Cor. 15:52). 

One student commented thoughtfully that the measured yet light-hearted movement of Handel’s trumpets reminded her of Fra Angelico’s beatific dance. And so it should: if we have loved God and neighbor in life, the trumpet-heralded coming of Christ in judgment, awe-inspiring as it is, will also fill our hearts with ecstasy, since He comes “whom my heart loves” (Song 3:1) and we will never have to leave Him again but may cling to Him forever (John 20:17).

The Holy Souls in purgatory, with every fiber of their being, desire this blissful union with Love, and our charity in helping them constitutes part of our own path to heaven. The Gospel reading for All Saints’ Day reminds us: “Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy. … Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God” (Matt. 5:7, 9). It is a great work of mercy to “pray for the dead,” and what peacemaking could be more exalted than that which helps souls achieve the Sabbath rest of heaven?

This year, the Apostolic Penitentiary has extended to the whole month of November the opportunity to gain a plenary indulgence for the Holy Souls in purgatory. This means that, if you visit a cemetery and pray for the dead this month, go to confession and receive Holy Communion, pray for the intentions of the Holy Father and detest sin, you can not only lessen, but actually end, a soul’s time in Purgatory! Such is the mercy of God and the mercy of the Church.

Almost all of my students chose to visit a cemetery and pray for the Holy Souls this month; many initially shied away from the assignment, but, upon completing it, reported a profound sense of peace and expressed their hope to visit the cemetery again. One of my football players described a “crushing sense of joy” at having been able to spend time at his grandfather’s grave. Perhaps his heaven will be not a dance but the satisfying crush of a successful football tackle. And when he, God willing, finally attains that beatitude, he will know that grateful souls, whom his charity helped lift from Purgatory, in turn assisted him on his way by their prayers.

Sr. Maria Veritas Marks is a member of the Ann Arbor-based Dominican Sisters of Mary, Mother of the Eucharist.