Today is Cemetery Sunday in the parish where I grew up, so it’s a good opportunity to post a short piece about this old Irish tradition. Cemetery Sunday usually consists of a service in a graveyard to remember the dead, and it is one of the shared dates that many communities revolve around. Relatives work to spruce up the cemetery for weeks before, and many graves will be decorated with fresh flowers and wreaths, headstones freshly scrubbed, and plots weeded. Not all graveyards get a service, however — there are so many — but families with relatives in these cemeteries will spruce up the place nonetheless.
In the larger towns, traffic can sometimes be brought to a halt, the streets lined with cars. But, the day is perhaps most important to the communities around many of the deconsecrated churches throughout the country, because although the churches may not be in use, their graveyards will always be — indeed they may still called into service several times a year. For these locations, Cemetery Sunday may be the one religious service of the year, and for the communities around these graveyards it is a significant event, reaffirming bonds of community and kinship through the pervious generations.
It’s possible that the Cemetery Sunday tradition grew out of the medieval “pattern days.” These were days set aside to honor local saints (who often founded the local church) and perform a series of prayers, stations, etc. (patterns) at (or more often around) a churchyard or holy well. Although, in order to increase the likelihood that the weather will be more cooperative, most parishes now hold their cemetery sunday celebrations during the summer months.
It can be odd to find dozens of cars parked along the sides of quiet country roads where the only traffic is normally the slow morning and evening trudge of cows on the way to be milked. Visitors coming upon a remote country churchyard teeming with people and looking well-cared for can be tempted to interpret this as a sign of strong faith and a strong religious community — all the old stereotypes about the land of saints and scholars seem to be at once confirmed. This is not necessarily the case; neighbors may choose to attend services at different local churches, or not at all. Many may only attend on one of the major feasts. But, Cemetery Sunday is about honoring the ancestors, remembering parents, grandparents, great grandparents, and reminding ourselves of the larger connections within the community.
People trying to trace their Irish roots via web forums and late-night emails to parochial offices might do well to attend the Cemetery Sunday service in their original family townland, and strike up some conversations with the other people present. Everyone congregates around their family plots, so it would be easy to find others with the same name, and identify common ancestors — after all, gravestones are essentially a three-dimensional family tree. Before you go, consult the parish bulletin (now often posted online) to discover the dates of Cemetery Sunday for your parish of origin.
Update: As far as I know, these services are performed by Catholic priests. However, some of the old churchyards are often those of deconsecrated protestant churches. Many of the deceased in these cemeteries will be of both faiths, as families will have inter-married over the years but sought to keep the deceased together in one cemetery.