Two children light candles at the tomb of a relative in the cemetery of Holy Rosary Catholic Church in Dhaka on All Souls' Day in 2017. (Photo: Stephan Uttom/UCA News)
Promila Gomes visits the cemetery of St. Rita’s Catholic Church in Bangladesh's Pabna district at least twice a week during November, the month dedicated to departed souls in the Catholic calendar.
“I pray for the eternal rest of my father, father-in-law and mother-in-law and hope they are in heaven and seek their blessings for the welfare of my family. I try to visit their tombs as much as I can during each week, and we pray at home every evening,” Gomes, 68, a mother of three, told UCA News.
In the cemetery she offers prayers and light candles and is joined by Catholic villagers of the parish covered by Rajshahi Diocese. Often her two sons accompany her.
Gomes, a housewife, recalled that she inherited this practice of respecting departed souls from her childhood.
“I often joined my grandparents to visit the cemetery and watched them praying to God through intercession of departed family members and relatives. After marriage I have seen my mother-in-law doing the same. One day I will die and I think my children will continue with this tradition,” she said.
David Baroi, 46, a member of Most Holy Redeemer Catholic Church in central Gopalganj district, has been following the same tradition of prayer during the month of the departed souls.
Baroi, a grocery shop owner and father of two, lost his parents as a child and struggled for years before doing well in the business.
“I am solvent today thanks to the business. No matter how busy I am during the day, I take time to visit the cemetery to pray in memory of my parents. I believe their blessings have helped me overcome challenges and sufferings in my life,” Baroi told UCA News.
“My parents were good people, and I hope they are in heaven and they continue to bless my family.”
He pointed out that all through the year he visits the cemetery at least twice every week. His family also prays the rosary every evening.
Revering the dead and praying in the cemetery are common among minority Christians in Muslim-majority Bangladesh.
In rural and urban areas, Catholics and Protestants attend church cemeteries all year round. Many churches also offer Mass in the cemetery once or twice a month.
Most churches hold open-air Masses on All Souls' Day on Nov. 2 in the cemeteries where thousands of people pay tribute to their loved lost ones.
Both Gomes and Baroi noted that in the modern age the tradition of paying homage to those gone before has declined among younger generations.
“Some young people, who grew up in religiosity with their elderly grandparents in rural areas, continue to follow the tradition,” Baroi added.
The Church has always encouraged the tradition of revering the departed souls as it is rooted in the culture and religiosity of people, said Holy Cross Father Eugene J. Anjus, former secretary of the Catholic bishops’ Commission for Liturgy and Prayer.
“People in our country are religious-minded and they hold departed souls in high regard. Our priests visit common and individual cemeteries to bless tombs and attend prayer gatherings throughout November. People strongly believe that by respecting the dead, they can be blessed in their lifetime,” Father Anjus told UCA News.
The priest, however, disagreed that the tradition is on the decline.
“People have special feelings about their lost dear ones. That is why we see many visit cemeteries regularly to pray for the eternal rest of their family members and relatives. This is a kind of spiritual relationship that gives them power and as long as people are alive, this tradition will continue,” Father Anjus added.
Christians, the majority of them Catholics, make up less than half a percent of Bangladesh’s more than 160 million people. According to the Catholic Directory 2019, about 400,000 Catholics are spread across two archdioceses and six dioceses of Bangladesh.