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In Honor Of the Dead


Christians look to the month of November as the time to honor their dead.

This is a centuries-old tradition. It begins on the very first day of the month, the Feast of All Saints. A day later, Nov. 2, is the Feast of All Souls, when those who may not have made it into the Elysian Fields need some help from the living.

"The theological basis for the Feast of All Souls is the doctrine that the souls, which on departing the body, are not perfectly cleansed from venial sins, or who have not fully atoned from past transgressions, are debarred from the Beatific Vision and that the faithful on earth can help them by prayers, almsdeeds, and especially the sacrifice of the Mass," notes the Catholic Encyclopedia.

Many Catholics write down the names of their deceased loved ones and place the lists on church altars so that the prayers of the living may help the dead.

Over the years I've collected some unusual Baltimore stories that have the theme of honoring dead members of the family. Of them all, the one that seems the most charming was taught to me by my first-grade teacher, a devout believer named Sister Mary Agnes.

She hated all the pranks and mischief and trick-or-treat business associated with Halloween. Her belief was that the spirits of the deceased came back to call at their old homes on one night of the year. This night was Halloween, Oct. 31.

According to this legend, various deceased grandparents, parents, aunts and uncles would be showing up. That meant the living would have to prepare for their arrival by cleaning and polishing the best room in the house, usually the living room or parlor.

As a child I delighted in listening to this elaborate story, then putting my own twist on it. Didn't this ritual neatly coincide with another domestic ritual? Fall house cleaning?

November may be the month of the dead, but Baltimore possesses some traditional customs associated with death and funerals throughout the year.

Some may consider these hopelessly old-fashioned and sentimental, but in matters of death, tradition and emotion walk together.

Baltimore has distinct taste in flowers for funerals that is unknown in other parts of the country. And no matter how many times I read "please omit flowers" in a death notice, I find funerals filled with baskets and sprays of mums, glads, lilies and roses.

Perhaps our most distinctive local affection is for the "set piece," an elaborate, free-standing floral arrangement that takes an easily recognized shape. Another way of envisioning this is to think of a miniature version of a floral float at a parade.

Tradition-bound families often order a bleeding heart, a heart-shaped arrangement composed of either deep-red carnations or roses inserted into a Styrofoam base. The heart can have a crack fashioned in the flowers, and it usually has a trail of ribbons on it. The arrangement symbolizes the sorrow of the occasion, especially if the person has been taken unexpectedly or was young.

Commemoration of death can have its lighter moments. If the deceased enjoyed fishing or crab feasts, families will instruct the florist to make a rockfish or a hard-crab-shaped arrangement to place near the coffin. If the person was an enthusiastic traveler, there might be carnation suitcases for that final trip. Also popular are bingo cards and bingo chairs, as well as miniature vacant chairs rendered in flowers. The set-piece category also includes floral versions of ship anchors, an open Bible and the Masonic symbol.

The owner of a large North Avenue garage specified in his will that he wanted a scale floral model of a 1948 Ford at his wake. More common are floral crosses or floral pillows for the sleeping dead.

A floral telephone with the receiver off the hook is another Baltimore favorite. This set piece carries the words "Jesus is calling" or "Jesus has called."

The heavenly gates ajar in carnations and mums tells another story. A broken circle or wheel carries its symbolism and is traditionally chosen when a family suffers the death of a child.

Not every funeral in Baltimore will have these displays. Many people would denounce them as being too sentimental, or say this sort of thing is just not done or not required by up-to-date mourners. And not every professional florist does this kind of work. In fact, only a small number do. But just visit those florists' supply houses and you'll find all the frames and forms that go into these set pieces.

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