Days remembering and commemorating the dead have been observed by peoples all over the world. In the northern countries, as days grew shorter and nights longer and as the year wound down, it became a time to focus on the mystery of human death. Especially in Germany there are, in November, many commemorations of the dead. Allerheiligen (All Saints) and Allerseelen (All Souls) are celebrated in Catholic areas at the beginning of November. November 9 is the commemoration of the Kristallnacht (crystal night) pogrom. On the 3rd Sunday in November the German Volkstrauertag (Memorial Day) is observed. On the last Sunday before Advent is Totensonntag (Sunday of the Dead) when Protestant Christians remember their dead. It corresponds to the Catholic All Souls Day. On the Wednesday before, the original Protestant "Buss- und Bettag" (Day of Repentance and Prayer) takes place. The last Sunday before Advent is also the last Sunday of the Church Year. The new Church Year is ushered in with Advent and the expectation of Christmas.

All Saints/All Souls became focal points of veneration of the dead ever since Pope Gregory in 835 initiated the church wide celebration. Dates still fluctuate somewhat. In Bavaria and Austria the time between October 30 through November 8 is celebrated as "Seelenwoche" (All Souls Week). Hallowtide is a time to remember and honor the dead, and it is a time when the "veil between the worlds," this world and the next, is "thinner" than normally.

By the end of the middle ages, the celebration of Allhallows Eve was an established part of the calendar of the Roman Catholic Church. However, after the Reformation, Protestants rejected Halloween and did not recognize All Saints' Day and All Souls' Day, because of strict adherence to the Ten Commandments, among which honoring the dead is not mentioned. Good deeds should not be carried out for the dead, but for the living. However, the Lutheran Church was not able to keep people from their need to commemorate their dead. Thus "Totensonntag" (Sunday of the Dead) was initiated, to be celebrated by Protestants on the Sunday before the first Sunday in Advent.

Allerheiligen/All Saint's Day was at first celebrated to honor all martyrs, later including all saints, known and unknown, and it now honors all those who died in the faith. The Catholic calendar is filled with names of saints and martyrs on the day when they died for their faith in Jesus Christ. Some were celebrated locally by observing the anniversary of their death, as a feast in honor of their birth into eternal life. The preservation of relics was a wide-spread custom. Devout Catholics would take the name of the saint on whose feast they were baptized and would celebrate their nameday every year. Over the centuries, as saints were added, a need for a common feast of all saints was becoming evident. It was first introduced in 610, when on May 13, Pope Boniface IV consecrated the ancient Roman Pantheon as a temple of the Blessed Virgin and All Martyrs ("Sancta Maria ad martyres"). Beginning with Gregory III the celebration of a feast of All Saints was commemorated at St. Peters on November 1. In 835 Pope Gregory IV extended this feast to the entire Church.

The feast of Allerseelen/All Souls developed more gradually, first with a monastic celebration of the departed at the French Monastery of Cluny in 998, it was then expanded to other monasteries, orders and dioceses. It was especially for the "Armen Seelen" those poor souls who were still in purgatory and had not yet reached their full communion with God.

Beginning in the 14th century it was celebrated just one day later, on November 2. Because All Souls' Day confronted people with death and their deceased relatives, All Saints' Day lost much of its earlier radiance. Requiem masses, cemetery processions, decorated graves with flowers and wreaths, alms and good deeds, were intended to shorten the time of suffering of the souls of the deceased in purgatory.

All Saints/All Souls over time became a celebration of the community and the extended family. All dead of a village will congregate for the "Geistermesse." All living members of a family try to return to their native village. In procession one moves to the graveyard and the graves, decorated and lighted with small lamps. The custom of decorating the graves makes the symbolic connection between the graveyard "Gottesacker" and the Garden of Eden, the lost paradise, where Adam and Eve were placed at creation. Now, the souls of the ancestors are to rediscover paradise after the difficult path through purgatory. Placing candles on the grave goes back to the idea that light is necessary for illumination and to see God.

In Catholic Austria at noon on All Saints' Day there may be a whole hour of "Schidungsläuten" or "Seelenausläuten." The souls are released until in the morning after All Souls the bells give the sign for parting. The customs in Austria are determined by a belief in a bodily presence. At All Saints/All Souls the departed are everywhere, in the dark, above the graves of the cemetery, on the paths in the fields, they travel in the wind and can be in frogs and toads. They are in church and walk alongside the living and sit at the table at meal time.

Frequently donations of food will be given to the poor or to children. The children receive gifts from the god parents or walk around the village in "Heischeumzügen" (asking for a small gift) with an All Souls song.

In Germany Allerheiligen/All Saint's Day on November 1 is an official holiday. People visit and spruce up the graves of their loved ones, and to bring a flower arrangement, a heart, wreath or cross made of evergreens and pines. German graves are planted with evergreens and flowers all year round. In 1993 the author of this participated in the All Saints/All Souls celebration in a small village in Bavaria. In the "Allerheiligen Gottesdienst" (church service), the sermon dealt with "all saints," all those, past and present who live a godly life. Family members, living out of town returned to the village. At noon there was a big family dinner followed by a procession to the cemetery. In the afternoon another family gathering took place at home for "Kaffee und Kuchen." On the next morning, All Souls' Day, there was a church service and prayers for the dead.

All Saints'/All Souls' Day services as serious Christian observations are limited to the Catholic Church in America and hence are barely-- if at all--noticed by the general public. Their exclusive religious character doesn't permit secularization/commercialization.

On All Saints/All Souls at St. Joseph's Church in Jasper, Indiana, there is a Mass and, weather permitting, a procession from the church all around the cemetery. In the middle of the cemetery at the cross, there is a prayer, and the choir sings special songs for the holy souls. People who can get off work come to Mass. There is a book at the church where the names of the deceased are entered. During the service someone from the deceased's family comes to the altar and in rotation goes to the rostrum and tells that person's name. This is done to remember those members of the parish who have died through the year.

There are also individual visits to the graves, and there is a bottle of holy water to sprinkle on the graves. Everyone goes to decorate the graves on All Souls Day and on Memorial Day. If real flowers are used, graves are decorated in the morning before the procession or the day before. With artificial flowers the grave can be decorated earlier.


Oswald A. Erich and Richard Beitl, Wörterbuch der deutschen Volkskunde, Alfred Kröner Verlag Stuttgart, 1996, ISBN 3-520-12703-2.

Interviews with Claude and Martina Eckert, Lillian Doane of Jasper, Indiana 12-16 and 12-17-1993.

Ruth Reichmann
Max Kade German-American Center
Indiana Univ.-Purdue Univ. Indianapolis

FURTHER RESOURCES compiled by Robert Shea

  • Classroom Activity - tombstone research and construction with oral report
  • All Saints' Day Strietzel or Spitz'l. Braided sweet breads.
  • All Saints, All Souls and Halloween: its origins and celebrations from the Catholic EWTN.

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