RELIGION
11/01/2014 02:02 pm ET Updated Nov 02, 2014

Why Death Is On The Minds Of Many Major Religions This Month

Chris McGrath via Getty Images

As his friends in Milwaukee don costumes for Halloween parties this weekend, 23-year-old Felipe Beltran will be observing a different tradition around death, one that he says is "much realer" to him than the commercial holiday.

A Catholic who grew up in the Mexican city of Guanajuato, Beltran has put out sweet rolls, flowers, bottles of beer and tamales at a colorful homemade altar in his kitchen. He's dedicated it to the memory of loved ones who are no longer alive, such as his grandmother who died 11 years ago and a close family friend who died of pancreatic cancer in April. For Día de Muertos, friends and family will visit his home, and he'll stop by theirs, to pray for the dead and the living.

Hundreds of miles away in New York City, Courtney Weber, a Wiccan priestess, will at the same time be preparing a celebration for Samhain, an ancient Celtic holiday of death and renewal, when modern witches and neopagans pay tribute to their ancestors and the dead.

Meanwhile, in Canton, Georgia, pastor Cyndi Parr of Faith Presbyterian Church is organizing the first All Saints' Day and All Souls' Day service at her congregation, where she'll read aloud the dozens of names of deceased congregation members and their family members as part of a prayer service.

Death is in the spiritual air these days, across faiths and cultures.

Catholics -- and some Protestants -- are observing All Saints' Day and All Souls' Day, by visiting graves and praying for the departed. All Saints takes place on Saturday, and as one might expect, is meant to celebrate the saints. All Souls, on Sunday, is for Catholics a day to pray for every soul, particularly those in purgatory who are waiting to get into heaven. Both have historically influenced Halloween, and both rose in part out of Samhain, which pre-dates Christianity. In Mexico, and among Latin American communities elsewhere, Día de Muertos (also Día de los Muertos), or "the Day of the Dead," and related celebrations take a colorful, festive and sometimes humorous angle on All Souls and All Saints. One tradition is for families to share funny stories and poems about the dead, such as those that focus on relatives' quirky habits.

These intricately connected traditions are not the only ones permeating homes and places of worship with thoughts of mortality as November begins.

Muslims have been coming together since last week in majlises, late-night prayer and study gatherings during Muharram, one of the holiest Islamic months and one that's particularly meaningful for Shias. The month peaks with the day of Ashura on Tuesday. An intense time of spiritual mourning for the seventh-century martyrdom of Hussain ibn Ali, the grandson of the Islamic prophet Mohammad, the holiday observes his death with prayer, inner reflection and, among some, self-flagellation.

In late November, Sikhs will remember the martyrdom of one of their own revered: the ninth Guru Tegh Bahadur, who was executed in the 17th-century for standing up to the Mughal emperor Aurangzeb for religious freedom.

"Death seems to be integral to the theology and celebrations of every culture and religion, and it comes out over and over again in the fall," said John Troyer, the deputy director of the Center for Death and Society at the University of Bath, west of London. "Part of it has to do with this time of year, since earlier agrarian civilizations were structured around the changing of seasons. But in other traditions, there's a particular event that has taken a huge historical importance that's being observed."

The purposes of the holidays and observations also vary.

For Beltran, a student at Milwaukee Area Technical College, Día de Muertos is mainly about "remembering and not forgetting," he said. After 11 years in the United States, it's also a ritual that keeps him connected to his Mexican culture.

Weber, 33, thinks people can be too scared of death, and looks at Samhain as a way challenge that. "It's nothing to fear, but is a sacred mystery," said the priestess, who works at Auburn Theological Seminary as an events and trainings manager. "We honor people to honor that sacred mystery, but not be fearful of it."

While the holiday runs through Saturday, Weber's event will take place later in the week at Catland, an occult bookstore in Brooklyn, where Weber has organized a "celebration of life being brief and beautiful." At a time of year considered to be one when there's a thinning of the veil between life and death, Weber and her companions will be drumming, singing and lighting candles around a community altar throughout the night.

In Georgia, Parr said she also wants to honor those who came before her in faith and in the church community. After asking the 50-member church to submit names of loved ones two weeks ago, she's amassed nearly the same number to read from the pulpit on Sunday. Her sermon will touch upon the "great cloud of witness" -- members of the church and faith who have died -- and will reflect on the notion that "everything we learn through the year, we build upon," she said. "Everything we have today is because of the inventions and spirit of our ancestors."

She hopes to use the occasion to put into context the current issues being discussed among Christians, such as same-sex marriage. "I want to remind people that we are in a continuum. We are part of a chain reaction, and we have to honor how we, as well as our theology, has changed over the years," she said.

"So just like we are not burning people at the stake anymore, and maybe we are not sending black people to separate schools anymore," she said, "we have to think about how our practices and views of faith can change for the better today."

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