WASHINGTON — Most of us face death when a loved one passes away, and family and friends head to a cemetery.
But at the Franciscan Monastery of the Holy Land in Washington, the friars may think about death more often than most people, since a cemetery with their Franciscan brothers who have died is right in their backyard.
It lines a pastoral path where the living walk on crisp fall days.
On All Souls’ Day this year, that’s where they gathered for midday prayer, to include the dead in their prayers and to include them in life by remembering them.
“It’s simple tradition,” but one that has been around for decades, said Father Larry Dunham, the guardian of the monastery. “We gather for our Franciscan family, our religious family.”
Midday prayer is one of the shortest parts of the Liturgy of the Hours, which the friars pray several times a day, but they have chosen the prayer in the middle of the day, when the sun is at its highest, to include the dead in the ritual they took part in so often in life, “which is significant, too,” Dunham told Catholic News Service.
“We’re taking this time out and we’re celebrating with them,” he said, adding that after the prayer and a blessing of the cemetery, “We go to lunch, we’re going to tell tales that makes (the dead) present. We laugh and we cry.”
“It puts them in our mind, and we have a feast for them and continue that Eucharistic element that is still in everything we do as a church.”
This year, the brothers buried in the Franciscans’ cemetery received a special blessing as Franciscan Father Francesco Patton, the new custos of the Holy Land Franciscans, was present and sprinkled holy water on the graves. Custos is equivalent to a provincial minister.
“It connects us who are living with the part of the church that has passed on,” said Franciscan Father Greg Friedman, who attended the event with about 20 other friars present for the prayer and blessing.
With the sun at its zenith, Jesus, too, who is the sun, is “very powerfully present in all of this,” said Dunham. Though friars often take walks in the backyard, it’s rare that they gather as a community in the back, except for funerals and during All Souls’ Day, he said.
The day is special, Dunham said, because the church asks its members to stop and take account of the people who have died, and their lives.
“It’s kinda cool that a day is set aside like this,” he said. “We, in our faith, we believe that it’s positive and effective and good to pray for the dead.”
Although, as with any family member, recent deaths can be difficult on any community.
“You live with these people, day in and day out, you get used to them, and not having their presence here is very keenly felt,” said Dunham.
But death, which society often tries to hide or not talk about, is something that the friars often consider.
“Every time there’s a funeral here, or on All Souls’ Day, I think, where they’ve gone, that’s where I’m going to go,” he said. “I start to think, where am I going to be planted? But at the same time, not being macabre because this is part of the process of entering into what Jesus has won for us: eternal life.”
It’s a good exercise to think about death, resurrection and to face it, he said.
“It’s not hidden when you’re here,” he said, sitting on some stones near the graves. “It’s a good thing to remind me, this is my hope and this is my faith. Yes, I’m going to be here but I’m going to enter into eternal life. I really believe in the Resurrection.”
Sometimes, when the friars have visitors, he likes to point out the cemetery in the back and some say: “Oh my gosh, you have a cemetery.”
But that may lead some to reflect on death, faith and Jesus, he said.
“This is a constant reminder that Jesus has already won the victory,” he said. “It’s really healthy for our faith and our spirituality and to say we don’t fear this.”
In praying for the dead on All Souls’ Day, he said, we’re also preparing ourselves.
“Because we’re called, too, to die and rise again with the Lord,” he said. “All Souls’ Day is not business as usual.”