In Finland, the first Saturday of November is Pyhäinpäivä, or All Saint’s Day. It’s not easy to miss — all the shops close and public transport runs on the Sunday schedule. Aside from special church services, it is traditional to visit grave sites with candles and wreaths or boughs of evergreen. My friend Lloyd asked if I would like to go with him to visit his wife’s grave. I was happy to go.
It was my wife’s idea to visit the grave of Brother F in the same cemetery. Br. F was born the same month as President Hinckley. He was a pioneer member of the church in Finland, joining in the 1950s. He died last winter and his widow is too ill to visit his grave. I bought a candle and wrote out what I would say to her in Finnish from the grave site.
We got there at about 4:30 pm, and it was quite dark. The cemetery was full of people, solemn and purposeful.
We went to Brother F first. I called Sister F and told her I was at the cemetery and had just lit a candle on her husband’s grave. She asked, ‘Is it beautiful?’ I looked around at the candles dotting the hillside amid the trees and headstones. ‘It is beautiful,’ I said.
Lloyd and I went on to his wife’s grave. She has been dead fifteen years, from cancer. He visits often. He lit the candle, and we stood together quietly. He asked, ‘Do you have anything to say?’ I understood him. I am the most actively religious person Lloyd knows, and he wanted me to recite something to the purpose, something scriptural. I tried to think of a scripture about death that had tucked into my memory. Instead, I recited a text memorized as an undergraduate in Eloise Bell’s English course many years ago:
‘Who bends not his ear to any bell which upon any occasion rings? but who can remove it from that bell which is passing a piece of himself out of this world? No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend’s or of thine own were: any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bells tolls; it tolls for thee.’ (John Donne, Meditation 17)
He nodded, satisfied. We stood quietly for a while, then walked out of the cemetery, through the darkness and past the candles lit by those who love the dead.
Like Ronan, I think there is great value in formally and even ritually remembering those who are dead. Aside from our understanding of resurrection and mansions of glory and eternal families, we honor the dead by missing them, by remembering what it was like to have them with us and grieving for their absence, however short that absence is in the eternal perspective. It connects us to our past, individually and collectively, and reminds us of the immense spiritual family to which we belong.