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  • November 17, 2019 - 9:00 am - 10:00 am

From the UCC Website


Throughout Christian history, the church has and continues to remember and celebrate the lives of faithful people who have died. Totenfest is a distinctive practice that grows out of the Evangelical tradition of the United Church of Christ. Although the name Totenfest is unknown to many in the UCC, its importance as a special time of remembrance continues not only in our Evangelical heritage, but for all. It is a way of remaining related to deceased loved ones, as the process of grieving and remembering are vital to our spiritual health. To this day, Eden Theological Seminary, with Evangelical roots, has a memorial service to remember friends, faculty and students of the seminary, who have died in the previous year. This resource both briefly describes the history of Totenfest and suggests ways a time of remembrance might be included in your own worship for All Saints Day.

What is the Tradition of Totenfest?

Totenfest is a German word that means “Feast of the Dead” or “Festival for the Dead.” It was established in 1816 by Prussian Emperor Fredrick William III as a day to remember that nation’s soldiers who had died in the recently concluded Prussian War. Obviously it became an important observance in the Evangelical Church in Prussia (established by the same emperor in 1817) as a day to remember not only the war dead, but also church members who had died in the previous year. It was observed on the last Sunday of the church year, right before Advent began. This was also the time of clearing gardens and fields of the summer’s growth in preparation for winter. To this day, Totenfest in parts of Germany is the day families visit the graves of loved ones to clean off the summer flowers and cover the graves with evergreen boughs for the winter. In Lutheran traditions, “Totensontag” or “Death Sunday” became the preferred term to Totenfest.

The term fell into disuse in America as churches of German heritage started substituting English words for German ones. In fact, by the 1916 Evangelical Book of Worship published by the German Evangelical Synod of North America, the term Memorial Sunday had been substituted for Totenfest. That service included an opening sentences, invocation, opening prayer and closing prayer. Whatever else was done in this service was left up to local customs.

This memorial has roots in All Saints and in All Souls days from the medieval church. All Saints Day was begun by Pope Boniface IV in 609 to remember the virgin Mary and all the martyrs. It was officially designated on the church calendar in 837 to be celebrated on November 1. Alternately, All Souls Day was a time to pray for the souls of those in purgatory. This day was first observed in the seventh century as a private day of remembrance for deceased loved ones, and by the eleventh century was in common practice in monasteries. Different countries began celebrating the day on different dates, but St. Odilo, the Abbot of Cluny, France, established it in the eleventh century as November 2 (the next day if this was a Sunday). By the thirteenth century it was a fixture on the church’s calendar.

Evangelical churches started moving this observance to either Memorial Day (Decoration Day) Sunday or to the first Sunday in November, as those Sundays were preferred in the wider Christian community. Other faith traditions have similar observances. In the Jewish tradition, for instance, there is a service at the one-year anniversary of a death. The term “Totenfest” is also used in Indonesia and Japan.

A Service of Remembrance

A time of remembrance is easily incorporated into regular morning worship on the first Sunday in November. It is appropriate near the end of the service before the final hymn and benediction. Introduce the time as one to remember and celebrate the lives of members of the congregation who have died since the last time of memorial and remembrance. Perhaps state a bit of the history of “Totenfest”, “All Saints,” and “All Souls” days, and the appropriateness of remembering those “whom we have loved and lost but for awhile”.

Opening your official registry or membership book at the altar or communion table and reading names makes visible the presence of the “communion of saints.” Even if you don’t actually read from a book, but from a list you have created, the book becomes a symbol not only of those remembered on that day, but all who have gone before and even those worshiping on that day.

Listing the names in the bulletin (usually by dates of death, not alphabetically) helps people to remember those individuals being commemorated. Read each name, one by one, in the following way: “James Michael Jones, born to life April 30, 1925, born to life eternal August 5, 2005, at the age of 80 years, 3 months and 5 days.” After each name is read, a brief silence may be observed. An actual bell may be tolled or such a sound may be available on your church’s organ. Be aware that a bell’s tolling clapper is different from the one that chimes the bell. The toll is appropriate; a swinging ‘clang’ is not. Should a large steeple bell, or organ stop, not be available, a soothing chime could be used.