Wednesday, November 2, 2016

The Day of the Dead

In 1970, when I was all of 22, I spent the summer studying German at Schloss Klessheim, a baroque palace 4 miles west of Salzburg, Austria, within walking distance of the Bavarian border. Originally the summer palace of Salzburg's Prince-Archbishops, after the Napoleonic-era secularization it became the property of the Austrian imperial house of Hapsburg. From 1866 to 1919, it was the principal residence of Hapsburg Archduke Ludwig Viktor, younger brother of Kaiser Franz Josef I. During World War II, Hitler (while staying nearby at his Berghof residence) used the palace for major meetings with Mussolini, Horthy, and other allies. The post-war Austrian Republic also used it for meetings and conferences. Now, for the past 20+ years, it has housed a casino - as good an image as any of the decline of Western civilization!

As summer students, we lived and studied not in the palace proper but in other less elegant buildings on the property. Individually and in groups, we would regularly walk to the village of Siezenheim for beer and pastries either in the village Gasthaus or across the border in Germany or else catch the bus there from Siezenheim to Salzburg. Many of us also walked to Siezenheim on Sunday mornings for Mass in its beautiful baroque village church. Attached to that church was the village's Friedhof (cemetery). Archduke Ludwig Viktor is buried there. So, of course, are generations of villagers, whose relatives regularly stopped to visit familiar graves after Sunday Mass. 

When I was growing up, my family also used to visit the graves of our relatives (photo) - not weekly, of course, because the cemetery was not in a local "churchyard," but several miles away, but close enough to visit at least a couple of times each year. It is something I miss now, something I can rarely do now that I live so much farther away.

Cemeteries are important because they are very visible reminders of our connection with the dead. Nowadays, changes in funeral customs mean that all too often we lose that vital sense of connection. Our society is not really comfortable with death and with reminders of death and so seeks to eliminate it as much as possible, seeking to minimize or completely obliterate our connection with those who have died.

In contrast, today's celebration of All Souls Day exists to celebrate that connection and challenges us not only to remember the dead but to pray for them, as we hope in turn to benefit from the prayers of others when our time inevitably comes.

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