On November 20, we will be celebrating Totenfest during our Sunday worship. This is a celebration that comes from one of our ancestor churches that was German-speaking. In fact, we still have one member who remembers those days. 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 growsout 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 remembrancecontinues 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 spiritualhealth. 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.
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 WilliamIII 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 theEvangelical 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 garden sand 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 onesto clean off the summer flowers and cover the graves with evergreen boughs for the winter..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.
So there you have it — from medieval history to Prussia to San Francisco in 2011. At St. John’s, Totenfest consists of a lovely worship service where we remember those who have died in the past year — from our closest loved ones to friends of friends, to all those who have died in wars and conflict. Many other communities in San Francisco celebrate the Day of the Dead (Dia de los Muertos), we do it with a German twist.
If you have a friend or family member who you would like remembered in the Totenfest service, please call or email the church office and we will include them in our prayers.