Weekly Reflections

What about the dead? (and Halloween)

What about the dead?

and Halloween

In the early years of the church from the times of the great persecutions, Christians began to remember those who had died. The commemorations of the “saints” who had died, especially the martyrs eventually developed as an annual festival at the beginning of November. As time went on all Christians who had died were included.

The invention and development of the doctrine of Purgatory led to a distinction between those who were officially regarded as Saints, and the souls in purgatory, the latter being remembered on the following day; All Souls Day.

At the Reformation the English reformers abandoned All Souls Day. All Saints Day (the day before) is meant to include all the faithful departed.

Archbishop Cranmer (the main architect of the English Prayer Book) not only left the commemoration of that day behind but also got rid of the unbiblical ideas to do with what happens after death.

The strange medieval fear of the souls in purgatory being able to roam the earth on the eve of All Saints (All Hallows) and frighten the living is not the most significant left over from this period. We rightly think the present Halloween nonsense is just that. But modern western culture has a much more serious problem with death itself.

You can see the problem at most funerals.


Sometimes there is a funeral where the person who has died and those who mourn believe there is nothing more after death. No continuation, no spirit, nothing. But this is rare I think.

More often there is a belief that the person themselves isn’t really dead. That they continue somewhere, perhaps as an angel, or a star, or they live “up there”, or are even in “heaven”. People who give eulogies at funerals often talk to the person in the box as though they were listening. Sometimes their hoped for continuation is marked by the release of balloons or even doves.

All this is a long way from Christian belief. It is a kind of Greek belief in the immortality of the soul. But Christians don’t believe in the immortality of the soul. They believe in the resurrection of the body (as the Apostles’ Creed says).

One of Cranmer’s great contributions to Christian ceremonies was to transform the burial service from an attempt to see the person safely through purgatory, to a celebration of “the sure and certain hope of the resurrection to eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord”.

Christians believe in real death. The dead are really and completely dead. And they believe in the resurrection of the body into a spiritual body that is immortal, imperishable and shares the glory of God himself (1 Cor 15; 2 Cor 4-5).

Cranmer’s special prayer for All Saints day praised God “that you have knit together your elect in one communion and fellowship in the mystical body of your Son Christ our Lord...” (Eph 5.32). That is a future worth looking forward to just as we experience a foretaste of it now.

One of the Bible readings for the day concluded like this:

 After this I looked, and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb. They were wearing white robes and were holding palm branches in their hands. And they cried out in a loud voice:

Salvation belongs to our God,
who sits on the throne,
and to the Lamb.”
Rev 7.9-10