All Souls' Day: Christian Origin, Traditions and Prayer

All Souls' Day, traditionally observed on November 2nd, is a Christian holiday dating back over 1000 years. Learn more about this ceremonial remembrance of lost souls and its variations amid the different denominations.

Updated Dec 23, 2020
All Souls' Day: Christian Origin, Traditions and Prayer

All Souls' Day, also recognized as the Commemoration of All the Faithful Departed and the Day of the Dead is a holiday of prayer and memorial for the souls of those who have died. Those honoring All Souls' Day traditions often commemorate departed loved ones in numerous ways on November 2nd. Faiths and customs affiliated with All Souls' Day range broadly among Christian denominations.

The Origin of All Souls' Day

It is a long tradition in Christianity that certain days were dedicated to intercession for selective groups of the dead. The foundation of All Souls' Day for a general intercession on November 2 is due to Odilo, abbot of Cluny, who died in 1048. The observed date, which became essentially universal before the end of the 13th century, was determined to follow All Saints’ Day. After celebrating the feast of all the members of the church who are thought to be in heaven, on the next day, the body of Christ shifts to remember and pray for those souls suffering in purgatory.

In contemporary Western Christianity, the annual celebration is held on November 2nd and is part of the season of Allhallowtide that includes All Saints' Day (November 1st) and its eve, Halloween (October 31st)

All Souls' Day Meaning and Traditions

Catholic Church - In Catholicism, "the faithful" applies uniquely to baptized Catholics; "all souls" honors the church repentance of souls in Purgatory, whereas "all saints" honors the church triumph of saints in Heaven. In the doctrine of the western Catholic Church, it is named The Commemoration of All the Faithful Departed.

According to Britannica, "All Souls’ Day, in Roman Catholicism, a day for the commemoration of all the faithful departed, those baptized Christians who are believed to be in purgatory because they died with the guilt of lesser sins on their souls... Roman Catholic doctrine holds that the prayers of the faithful on earth will help cleanse these souls in order to fit them for the vision of God in heaven, and the day is dedicated to prayer and remembrance."

Orthodox Church - According to the Philippine Mission of ROCOR, All Souls Day is not on the Orthodox calendar. However, it is always appropriate for Christian people to pray for our departed loved ones. None of those who have fallen asleep in Christ are separated from Him, and death does not divide the Church.

Additionally, there is an Orthodox service called the General Panihida in which the priest offers at least seven times every year, on the Saturdays of Souls. Every Saturday is a traditional day to pray for the dead because Christ rested in the tomb on Saturday. But these Saturdays are specially chosen for the commemoration of the dead:

  1. The Saturday of Meatfare Week (the second Saturday before Great Lent)
  2. The second Saturday during Great Lent
  3. The third Saturday during Great Lent
  4. The fourth Saturday during Great Lent
  5. Radonitsa (Monday or Tuesday after Thomas Sunday)
  6. The Saturday before Pentecost
  7. Demetrios Saturday (the Saturday before the feast of Saint Demetrios of Thessaloniki)

In the Orthodox Church, there's not just one All Souls Day but seven of them, in addition to each family’s pious commemoration at the grave of loved ones.

Lutheran Church - During Luther's life, All Souls' Day was broadly commemorated in Saxony although the Roman Catholic meaning of the day was abandoned. Ecclesiastically in the Lutheran Church, the day was joined with and is often viewed as a continuation of All Saints' Day, with many Lutherans still attending and adorning graves on all the days of Allhallowtide, including All Souls' Day.

Anglican Church - In the Church of England it is named The Commemoration of the Faithful Departed and is a voluntary holiday. Anglicans observe All Souls' Day as an expansion of the devotion of All Saints' Day and it serves to "remember those who have died", in relation to the divine doctrines of the resurrection of the body and the Communion of Saints.

Methodist Church - In the Methodist Church, all faithful Christians are considered saints. Therefore, on All Saint's Day, the Church Universal, as well as the departed members of a local congregation, are honored and memorialized. In Methodist congregations that observe the ceremony on All Souls Day, the practice is seen as an extension of All Saints' Day to "remember our loved ones who had died" in their devotion to this feast.

Common All Souls' Day traditions represent general perceptions connected with purgatory. For example, ringing bells for the deceased was considered to comfort them in their cleansing, while the giving of soul cakes with the poor served to buy the dead a bit of reprieve from the misery of purgatory. In the same way, lighting candles was meant to ignite a light for the dead souls fading in the darkness. Out of this grew the traditions of going "souling" and the baking of specific types of bread or cakes.

Priests celebrate mass bearing vestments of differing color—black for mourning, violet expressing penance, or white signifying the hope of resurrection.

Saturday of Souls

Saturday of Souls (or Soul Saturday) is a day designated for the remembrance of the dead within the liturgical year of the Eastern Orthodox and Byzantine Catholic Churches. Saturday is a traditional day of prayer for the dead in acknowledging that Christ laid dead in the Tomb on Saturday.

These days are dedicated to prayer for perished relatives and others among the faithful who would not be remembered respectively as saints. The Divine Services on these days have specific hymns added to them to honor the deceased. There is often a Memorial Service either after the Divine Liturgy on Saturday morning or after Vespers on Friday evening, for which Koliva (a dish made of boiled wheat berries or rice and honey) is made and placed on the Panikhida table. After the Service, the priest blesses the Koliva. It is then eaten as a ceremony by all.

Prayer for All Souls' Day

This prayer reminds us that those who die in faith live in Christ.

O eternal God and Father,
you are not the God of the dead but of the living,
and all who put their trust in you,
who rest in their chambers under the earth,
live in you.

Be merciful to us, dear Father,
do not let us be afraid of the power and sting of death,
but keep us in the true faith in your dear Son,
who is the way, the truth, and the life.

Uphold us with your Holy Spirit,
and give us a clear conscience,
that we may live our Christian lives,
and finally fall asleep in peace and joy

when we leave this valley of tears,
and rest in peace until you open our graves
and awaken us with the sound of the last trumpet;
through Jesus Christ, our Lord.


Scripture Quotes about Souls

Ezekiel 18:4 ~ Behold, all souls are mine; the soul of the father as well as the soul of the son is mine: the soul who sins shall die.

Ezekiel 18:20 ~ The soul who sins shall die. The son shall not suffer for the iniquity of the father, nor the father suffer for the iniquity of the son. The righteousness of the righteous shall be upon himself, and the wickedness of the wicked shall be upon himself.

Matthew 16:26 ~ For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul? Or what shall a man give in return for his soul?

Matthew 10:28 ~ And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell.

Psalm 23:3 ~ He restores my soul. He leads me in paths of righteousness for his name's sake.

Ephesians 2:8-9 ~ For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.


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All Souls' Day | Description, History, & Traditions | Britannica's editorial staff is a team of writers with a background in the Christian faith and writing experience. We work to create relevant, inspiring content for our audience and update timely articles as necessary.


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