Memento Mortuis

Juleigh Howard-Hobson

A “Year’s Mind” is the ancient English term for observing the anniversary of a person’s death. It comes to us through the Norse erfi minne: funeral drinking in honor of the dead. Interestingly, this observing of the dead on their death day is also known as ‘Minnying Days” which comes from the Saxon word “Lemynde”. Mind…mindfulness…being reminded… all terms that apply to annually remarking the passage from life to death for individuals.

Like a birthday, a death day is a day of great importance to a person, and to a family, and by extension, to a community. And days of great spiritual importance—whether personal or community-based—create a thinning of the veil that exists between this world and the next.

We are all familiar with the haunting potential of Halloween (Samhain, Winter Nights, All Hallow’s Eve, Allerseelen…) and its long history of being, if not celebrated, then at least acknowledged, year after year across Europe, with similarly held annual observations being made across the whole World. It is a time when the dead may interact with the living. It is universal in its scope.

Generally, though, the world is much less familiar with the concept of ‘Minnying Days’….yet these days do exist as much and are as strongly powerful as those famously universal melancholy days of autumn. It is on these death anniversaries that the spirit of the person who died can pierce the veil themselves. Hence the practice of ‘minding days’. Bringing the dead back to mind on the day they died so that they will either contact us if there is a need to (there are tales of the departed telling their loved one’s secrets such as where the will was hidden when they’ve been minded on their death day) or they will not feel the need to cross over at all, being happily reminded that they are remembered. Most of the living prefer not to be contacted by the dead, so remembering is a nice way to prevent this.

Unlike the fate of so many ancient pagan rites, Christianity did not damn or replace this practice. Indeed, as far back as the year 211, the noted Christian writer Tertullian wrote of minding the anniversary of death through prayer. To this day, the Anglican Church holds a weekly cycle of intercessions to remember the members who died that week in the previous year. In Roman Catholic tradition the celebratory mass to commemorate a loved one is still held on the anniversary of that person’s death. Obviously, this is an important rite.

Why? One of the best answers lies in the phenomena known as the anniversary ghost. It is posited that the great energy caused by an important event like one’s own death can create a portal which opens every year on the anniversary of its occurrence, allowing the dead access to the living. Great battles, tragic events, deep secrets, even close personal ties have the potential to generate enough power to make the dead want to come back to the land of the living, year after year, on the day of their death. Being forgotten will also generate this power.

Most spirits don’t have the impetus of battles, tragedy or secrets and so most don’t feel the need to cross over as soon as their death-anniversary opportunity presents itself… unless of course they are the unregarded dead, the unminded dead, among those who are not, to paraphrase Longfellow, “kept by ourselves in silence and apart with secret anniversaries of the heart.” These unremembered souls will certainly seek to return to haunt those who could have remembered them. They want to be noticed and remembered, even though they are dead. They have only one day a year to get our attention.  It is not a pleasant thought.

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