No tricks, but treats, prayer, music as Episcopalians honor the departed in weekend of celebrations

Trinity Wall Street launches virtual altar
October 28, 2011

"Trunks or treats," ghoulishly gripping music, eek-o friendly organic pumpkin giveaways, and commemorative ancestor altars — both real and virtual — are just some of the ways Episcopal churches are planning to observe the tricky triduum of Halloween, All Saints Day and All Souls Day.

All three holidays — Halloween or All Hallow's Eve on Oct. 31, All Saints Day on Nov. 1 and the Nov. 2 All Souls Day celebration, also known as the Commemoration of All Faithful Departed — are meant for prayers and remembrance of those who have died. In Latin American culture, Dia de los Muertos is observed Nov. 1-2, and is also a day to remember the beloved departed.

Spooky glee is what the Rev. Mary Janda is hoping for at the second annual "Trunk or Treats", to be held Sunday, Oct. 30 at All Saints Church in Salt Lake City, Utah.

It will begin with the regular 9:15 a.m. Sunday family service, where youth typically serve in a variety of liturgical functions, as ushers, readers, and chalice bearers. "Whoever preaches does a children's sermon and brings the kids up to the altar," where they stay through the Eucharist, Janda said in an Oct. 27 telephone interview from her office.

"Last year we had several really spooky witches, a goblin and a three-year-old in an Elvis cape and white satin suit around the altar. If someone didn't know what we were doing, they might think All Saints had gone to the devil," Janda chuckled.

After the service the adults line up to offer Halloween candy to the kids from the trunks of their cars.

Or not.

There were no tricks last year, just rain. So the event, originally planned for the parking lot so that preschool through junior high school children could move from car trunk to car trunk collecting treats, was moved inside. It was planned as a fun event in a safe environment with people they knew, and this year it stayed inside, Janda said.

"We had fun doing it," said Janda, who said she can't wait to see who comes dressed up as whom at this year's celebration. "It's hard to keep a straight face when you see some of these costumes."

The Otoacoustic Emissions will offer a whole different Halloween vibe at St. Augustine's Church in Tempe, Arizona on Monday, Oct. 31. "The best way to describe it is as a massive musical drone meditation," said Chet Sundin, a choir precentor or leader.

The yearly All Hallows' Eve celebration sounds like a deep, gothic church-based celebration, consisting of drones on the harmonic series, under the direction of composer and organizer Jacob Adler, the church organist, who also teaches at Arizona State University.

"It's just a come and experience an unusual form of spiritual practice" meant as a meditative reflection on life and death, Sundin said.

A procession of as many as 40 singers and 20 instrumentalists will enter the darkened sanctuary, humming. They sit in a semi-circle around a collection of lighted candles, intended to resemble a bonfire, Sundin said.

"We go very slowly through the harmonic series. It takes 90 minutes altogether and it starts out very softly. The tone and the notes gradually shift and the volume increases," he said. "There's a huge swell and then we go back down to a very low tone. Then we leave in silence.

"It's a bit eerie and intense," he added. "The idea is that we are joining ourselves in a reflection and musical meditation to remember those who have gone before us. That's one part of it."

Grace Episcopal Church in Oak Park, Illinois in the Episcopal Diocese of Chicago participated in an Oct. 15 communitywide "Green Halloween," according to the Rev. Shawn Schreiner, rector.

Billed as "the healthy, eek-o friendly and fun revolution," Green Halloween is a four-year-old program that began in Seattle and has spread to more than 70 U.S. cities this year, according to the organization's website. It aims to create child and earth-friendly holiday traditions, beginning with Halloween.

Schreiner said Grace served as the registration site, handing out little organic pumpkins to trick or treaters and other visitors to local businesses. "We had a D.J. playing music as well and offered organic apple cider and passed out organic popcorn to folks as they were coming in and sending them forth."

The event "was a new opportunity to step it up a level to begin to have some conversations and sermons around carbon footprint and what it means to make it a healthy environment for those of us here today and for those who will inherit what we have done or have not done," said Schreiner.

The congregation is also planning a 7:30 p.m. Nov. 1 Service of Remembrance and Healing. "Folks will have a chance to bring in photos or other kinds of memorabilia that remind them of somebody they've lost or if there's another loss in their life they come and place it in the church."

The choir will sing Lux Aeterna by Los Angeles composer Morten Lauridsen (1997) and "during that time we will have stations around the church where people can go and light candles or sit and be quiet while listening to the music. Or, they can come up and be anointed if that's something they feel they need in their lives."

On Oct. 27 Lupe Garcia, 35, spent several hours creating a three-tiered altar for the annual Dia de Los Muertos observance at Immanuel Episcopal Church, El Monte in the Diocese of Los Angeles.

The altar is a way to remember and share stories of her beloved abuelitos (grandparents). "My grandfather was the one who told us many stories and always was very gentle with us," Garcia said through an interpreter.

"My grandmother used to tell me funny stories and jokes all of the time. She was always there to listen. With her I felt I had someone to go to who would listen and give advice and help me," she added.

Because her grandmother loved honey, Garcia placed a jar of the gooey goodie on the altar, along with pan de muerto, bread of the dead -- white sweetbread shaped in the form of a cross and sugar-coated.

She also placed mementoes in honor of about eight others of her extended family, and two of her children, Emanuel and Lupita, who were stillborn, on the altar. Along with photos are edible pumpkin, coffee and even a beer bottle for a relative who enjoyed a cerveza now and then.

Despite its skeletons and sugar skulls, the Day of the Dead is not another version of Halloween ghosts and goblins, but a day of remembrance for loved ones who have died, said the Rev. Gary Bradley, Immanuel's rector.

According to Latin and Central American tradition, spirits of loved ones return on Dia de los Muertos — Nov. 1 or All Saints for children and All Souls on Nov. 2 for adults — and need refreshments, so favorite foods and beverages are placed on the altars for them.

Sugar skulls bearing the names of those commemorated are also placed on the altar, along with flores de muerto, flowers of the dead, cempasuchil or gold marigolds, and candles. The marigolds are sometimes strewn along the way, to help the beloved departed find their way to the altars, he said.

"The skulls in no way have anything to do with Halloween or goblins," said the Rev. Gary Bradley, Immanuel rector. "They are part of the celebrative nature of living in the world and recalling the good things from when a person was alive. There is a tradition that eating the skull represents part of the joy of not being afraid of death.

Each year, families at Immanuel erect the family altars, usually the week before Halloween in observance of the Day of the Dead. The colorful altars are placed inside the church, where there is also a large community altar for those who opt out of making individual ones.

Bradley said creating the altars is a way to "concretize the memory, the reality of who this person they loved was."

"It's usually pretty joyful," added the Rev. Kesha Brennom, associate rector. "A lot of work goes into the set-up usually. It's a solemn occasion but it can also be a time for people to grieve and mourn, as well as celebrate life."

For Garcia, it is both. "It calls very deeply in the heart," she said through a translator. "I had fun doing it because I believe and feel that they (loved ones) enjoy watching me make the altar and getting it ready for them."

She added that: "Part of the pleasure of it is knowing it is gratifying or makes them happy that I care enough to do it for them."

In New York City, Trinity Episcopal Church, has gone viral with the observance, opening up a virtual altar for the entire Internet universe to honor and share photos and remembrances of their beloved departed.

Internet users can honor their loved ones from Oct. 16 through Nov. 2 by clicking here.

Located at Broadway and Wall Street, the church has an actual, physical memorial, too, where people are invited to leave photos, notes, candles or flowers, symbols of the loved ones who have died.

"Last year, we suspected that the Altar of Remembrance would connect, but it really caught fire beyond our expectation, both online and in person," said the Rev. Daniel Simons, priest for liturgy, hospitality and pilgrimage at Trinity Wall Street, in a press release.

"Clearly the dead are still with us, on our minds and in our hearts. Our souls and bodies are looking for a concrete opportunity to give witness to that connection," he said.

Trinity is also hosting a Friday, Oct. 28 Halloween event where participants may create mementoes to place on the church's altar. The names of those who died within the last year will be read at Nov. 2 All Souls liturgies, webcast live at 12:05 p.m. and 6 p.m., and available for on-demand viewing on Trinity's website.

All Saints Sunday will be celebrated Nov. 6 with a festive Eucharist at Trinity at 11:15 a.m.

In the meantime, photos and remembrances have begun showing up at Trinity's virtual altar.

Like this one, from Anne Mary Teresa: "In Loving Memory of my darling Dad, Charles Wallace Winter, June 25, 1906-August 16, 1986. You are still, and always will be my Dearest Dad!"

And from Elisabeth Jacobs, in honor of "My BFF, Sandra Wilson."

An Oct. 16 remembrance of his mom by Al DiRaffaele sparked a virtual conversation. "It was my mom's 12th anniversary yesterday," he wrote. "May she and all our loved ones rest in peace, AMEN."

It was "liked" by Elizabeth Colette Melillo, who responded: "Beautiful lady. For a minute I thought this was like Rita Hayworth."

"Everyone thought she was Rita all her life," replied son Al. "In fact, Rita Hayworth's BD (birthday) was on the day my mom passed. Oct. 17th an interesting coincidence ..."