No undergrads allowed: The College of All Souls of the Faithful Departed, Oxford. Image: © Talha Bin Tariq.
All Souls College Oxford was founded in 1438 by Henry Chichele, Archbishop of Canterbury. It's a college with no undergrads. The fellows were meant to take their time spared from teaching and devote it to praying for the souls of Henry V (who died in 1422) and the English soldiers lost at the Battle of Agincourt (1415).
All Souls' Day grew out of the Roman festival of Lemuria, during which ancient Romans performed exorcisms in their homes to rid them of restless, malevolent or unwanted ancestral spirits. Wiki:
Ovid notes that at this festival it was the custom to appease or expel the evil spirits by walking barefoot and throwing black beans over the shoulder at night. It was the head of the household who was responsible for getting up at midnight and walking around the house with bare feet throwing out black beans and repeating the incantation, "I send these; with these beans I redeem me and mine (haec ego mitto; his redimo meque meosque fabis.)." nine times. The household would then clash bronze pots while repeating, "Ghosts of my fathers and ancestors, be gone!"For the original reference, see Ovid's work on fasts and calendars: Fasti, Book V, May 9 entry (here):
When Hesperus, the Evening Star, has shown his lovely face
Three times, from that day, and the defeated stars fled Phoebus,
It will be the ancient sacred rites of the Lemuria,
When we make offerings to the voiceless spirits.
The year was once shorter, the pious rites of purification, februa,
Were unknown, nor were you, two-faced Janus, leader of the months:
Yet they still brought gifts owed to the ashes of the dead,
The grandson paid respects to his buried grandfather’s tomb.
It was May month, named for our ancestors (maiores),
And a relic of the old custom still continues.
When midnight comes, lending silence to sleep,
And all the dogs and hedgerow birds are quiet,
He who remembers ancient rites, and fears the gods,
Rises (no fetters binding his two feet)
And makes the sign with thumb and closed fingers,
Lest an insubstantial shade meet ... him in the silence.
After cleansing his hands in spring water,
He turns and first taking some black beans,
Throws them with averted face: saying, while throwing:
‘With these beans I throw I redeem me and mine.’
He says this nine times without looking back: the shade
Is thought to gather the beans, and follow behind, unseen.
Again he touches water, and sounds the Temesan bronze,
And asks the spirit to leave his house.
When nine times he’s cried: ‘Ancestral spirit, depart,’
He looks back, and believes the sacred rite’s fulfilled.
Why the day’s so called, and the origin of the name,
Escapes me: that’s for some god to discover.
Mercury, son of the Pleiad, explain it to me, by your
Potent wand: you’ve often seen Stygian Jove’s halls.
The caduceus-bearer came, at my prayer. Learn then,
The reason for the name: the god himself revealed it.
When Romulus had sunk his brother’s spirit in the grave,
And justice was done to the over-hasty Remus,
The wretched Faustulus, and Acca with streaming hair,
Sprinkled the calcined bones with their tears.
Then at twilight they returned home grieving,
And flung themselves on the hard couch, just as it lay.
The bloodstained ghost of Remus seemed to stand
By the bed, speaking these words in a faint murmur:
‘Behold, I who was half, the other part of your care,
See what I am, and know what I was once!
If the birds had signalled the throne was mine,
I might have been highest, ruling over the people,
Now I’m an empty phantom, gliding from the fire:
That is what remains of Remus’ form!
Ah, where is Mars, my father? If you once spoke
The truth, it was he who sent us the she-wolf’s teats.
The rash hand of a citizen undid what the wolf saved.
O how gentle she was in comparison!
Savage Celer, wounded, may you yield your cruel spirit,
And bloodstained as I am, sink beneath the earth.
My brother never wished it: his love equals mine:
He offered, at my death, all he could, his tears.
Beg him by your weeping, by your nurturing,
To signal a day of celebration in my honour.’
They stretched out their arms at this, longing to embrace him,
But the fleeting shade escaped their clutching hands.
When the phantom fleeing dispelled their sleep,
They both told the king of his brother’s words.
Romulus, complying, called that day the Remuria,
When reverence is paid our buried ancestors.
Over time the harsh consonant at the beginning
Of the name, was altered into a soft one:
And soon the silent spirits were called Lemures too:
That’s the meaning of the word, that’s its force.
And the ancients closed the temples on these days,
As you see them shut still at the season of the dead ... .
I find one of the best contemplations of the departed is from Shakespeare's Hamlet (1599-1601). In Act V, Scene One, in the graveyard, Hamlet takes up the skull of the former court jester, Yorick. This is a classic scene in which the young Danish prince confronts death in a tangible, unescapable way. It's an archetypal moment when a brash youth literally cradles the skull of someone he knew, and it finally sinks in what death means: that the person he knew, who laughed and sang, has become this inert object. The lines: "Alas, poor Yorick! I knew him, Horatio; a fellow of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy; he hath borne me on his back a thousand times; and now, how abhorred in my imagination it is! My gorge rises at it. Here hung those lips that I have kissed I know not how oft. Where be your gibes now?"
What does it mean to contemplate the dead, to the point where we almost cross the philosophical or psychological barrier between them and us? Our ancestral rituals are old and hollow. They don't reach us with the immediacy, they don't get through to us, in the way they did in earlier times. Shakespeare is one of the few writers who can jar us out of the illusion of life so that we may grasp the enormity of death. He can take us right to the dotted line between life and death. He leads us casually up to the abyss, and points down to the fog-filled chasm. Al Pacino's Looking for Richard (1996), a documentary about a production of Shakespeare's play Richard III, opens with an excerpt from The Tempest which typically gives us that glimpse of the realm of death (see the clip here). Looking for Richard contains a scene that explains how fleeting Shakespeare's period of main productivity was. He only had three brief decades to capture and convey to us the highest points of English dramatic literature, and then he, too, was gone.
From The Tempest Act IV, sc. i. (source here) (1610-1611)
Our revels now are ended. These our actors,
As I foretold you, were all spirits and
Are melted into air, into thin air:
And, like the baseless fabric of this vision,
The cloud-capp'd towers, the gorgeous palaces,
The solemn temples, the great globe itself,
Ye all which it inherit, shall dissolve
And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,
Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff
As dreams are made on, and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep.