From dawn to dusk, Mayflower Church in Minneapolis streamed video of its members solemnly lighting candles and speaking the names of Americans who died from COVID-19.
In Anoka, the faithful paused at a sea of luminarias outside Anoka United Methodist Church, the flickering candles inside the bags revealing the names of church members, family, friends — “those who died alone during the pandemic.’’
The altar inside Alleluia Lutheran Church of St. Michael was adorned with 120 candles, each represented 2,000 victims of COVID-19, a symbol that “their lives still shine in our lives.”
The remembrance rituals of All Saints’ Day and All Souls Day, marked this week, have taken on particular poignancy as the faithful mourn not just the deaths of loved ones, but the loss of more than 225,000 Americans from COVID-19.
It’s a time when death is no longer accompanied by a funeral. Nor is it rare. And religious rituals that marked these emotional transitions are on hold indefinitely.
“This is typically a celebration of something that has passed,” said Christina Maas, worship director at St. Bridget Catholic Church in Minneapolis, which held a special All Souls Day service Monday.
“But we’re in the middle of a pandemic. We don’t know when it will end. And people are experiencing so many layers of grief.”
All Saints’ Day, celebrated Nov. 1, and All Souls Day, on Nov. 2, hold different theological significance for Catholics and Protestants, but both are sacred days of remembrance. Usually, many churches hold comforting worship services during which members bring photographs of their loved ones, light a candle in their honor, and listen to music and a sermon commemorating lives lost.
But most mainline Protestant churches still aren’t hosting in-person worship and many Catholics still haven’t returned to the pews. So churches are experimenting with new approaches this year, reflecting safety concerns as well as the sheer depth of sadness.
“All the religious rituals [around death] that are so important to us we cannot do,” said the Rev. Sarah Campbell of Mayflower Church, noting that All Saints’ Day worship typically mourns the dead and celebrates their lives.
“This year it’s pure tragedy,’’ she said. “People die by themselves. Everything is hidden. My own father is in hospice and I can’t be with him.”
For Minnesotans who have lost loved ones from COVID-19, the days of remembrance are bittersweet. Dick Stemper, a member of Mayflower Church, lost his father to COVID this spring. No family present. No funeral after.
So on Sunday, he and his wife, Megan Webster, sat down on the couch and set their laptop on the coffee table tuned to the All Saints’ Day service. They lit a candle in honor of his father, and later found the dawn-to-dusk reader who had lit a candle and uttered his dad’s name — Herbert Stemper.
“What Mayflower did, I feel like my dad was recognized,” said Stemper. “The longer this goes on, the more people [who have died] become a statistic. This has been a day to think about him and look forward to the day we can celebrate his life in person.”
The Rev. Jacqui Thone, of Alleluia Lutheran Church, also modified her All Saints’ Day worship to acknowledge the pandemic and address the “many deaths’’ people are facing.
“There are a lot of losses that people have been dealing with on their own,” Thone said, referring to job losses, social isolation, separation from families and friends. “All Saints’ Day seemed like the perfect opportunity to grieve them. If we don’t share those losses, we shoulder the stress alone.”
The more than 100 luminarias flickering in the dark outside Anoka United Methodist Church were designed in part to let the congregation grieve together, to be together, said the Rev. Laura Hannah, a pastor at the church.
For more than an hour, cars slowly pulled into the church parking lot, their headlights illuminating the rows of white bags hand-decorated with photos of church members and others, as well as victims of COVID-19 and the nation’s racial strife.
“I think it’s a great way to see not just our loved ones, but everyone else’s,” said Keith Rathje, who with his wife, Stacey, and son Andrew drove slowly through the luminarias, scanning the names.
“I appreciate that it recognized people like George Floyd and Breonna Taylor [killed by police],” added Stacey Rathje.
While the new rituals have brought comfort to many faithful, the uncertain future continues to haunt them. Said Stemper: “There’s been too much death.”