Cemetery Sunday

Cemetery Sunday (also sometimes referred to as Blessing of the Graves) is an annual Roman Catholic observance on which a priest blesses the graves in the local cemetery and leads parishioners in devotions or celebrates Mass. These rituals are also performed in Protestant and non-denominational cemeteries in Ireland. Parishioners prepare by cleaning family graves and, in some cemeteries, decorating the graves. Grave decorations incorporate flowers as well as crafts and mementos.

In cemeteries where a priest is not available, Cemetery Sunday may still be held absent the ritual service and blessing. For churches which are no longer used, Cemetery Sunday can the only regularly held service on the grounds.[1]

Dates observed

In the United States, Cemetery Sunday is the first Sunday in November, around the time of All Souls' Day.[2] In Ireland, the date varies by parish, and is typically in summer. Parishes coordinate to avoid scheduling Cemetery Sunday on the same week so that families can attend services at all cemeteries where their relatives are buried.[3][1]

Observance in Ireland

Earliest Irish observances

St. James Church (Church of Ireland) in Dublin, had an long-established tradition of cemetery cleaning and decoration in conjunction with the Fair of St. James, historically held on July 25, the Pattern Sunday for St. James. There are records of burials at St. James as early as 1495 and it is believed that the cemetery may have been in use as early as the 13th century. There is no known documentation of when cemetery decoration began at the St. James Cemetery, but it was well established by the early 19th century.

The fair itself was banned from the public streets by the 1730s but continued in a smaller way next to the cemetery through the 1820s.[4][5] In 1821, G. N. Wright wrote of a custom to "deck the graves with garlands and ornaments, made of white paper, disposed into very extraordinary forms".[6] By 1828, Nicholas Carlisle characterized St. James cemetery decoration as an custom that was already old:

It was, and perhaps is still, the custom in Dublin on St. James’s day, for the relatives and friends of those who are buried in St. James’s church-yard, to dress up the Graves with flowers, cut paper, Scripture phrases, garlands, chaplets, and a number of other pretty and pious devices, where those affectionate mementos remained, until they were displaced by fresh ones the next year.[7]

Burials continued in the St. James Cemetery through the 19th and 20th century before ceasing completely due to the closure of the cemetery.

Ritual elements

Cemetery maintenance and decoration


For days or weeks before the designated Cemetery Sunday at a particular cemetery, family members of those buried there work to clean and tidy the graves. This may also include removing overgrown plants and debris from the cemetery and other general maintenance to the grounds.[3]


Cemetery decoration often features cut flowers. Homemade crepe paper flowers were also common in early St. James cemetery decoration.[6] Today, artificial flowers are often used. Flowers can be placed on graves in any number of ways, including in patterns.[3]

Grave tokens

Decoration can include the placing of tokens at individual graves. Tokens are often personal or household items significant to the relationship between the person who places the token and the deceased.[3]


Homecomings and family reunions

Relatives of the deceased often choose Cemetery Sundays to return home for visits and reunions after moving away.

Food and drink

Food is a common element in many Cemetery Sunday traditions.

Music and singing

Singing is also common but not universal.

Connection to Decoration Day in Appalachia and Liberia

Scholar Barbara Graham connects Cemetery Sunday traditions to the Decoration Day traditions of Appalachia and Liberia as many Irish and Scotch-Irish refugees and other immigrants from Ireland settled in Central and Southern Appalachia.[3]

See also


  1. Rennicks, Rich. "Cemetery Sunday in Ireland". A Trip to Ireland. Archived from the original on 22 February 2019. Retrieved 14 September 2019.
  2. "Cemetery Sunday". Archdiocese of Newark. Retrieved 5 August 2013.
  3. Graham, Barbara (2016). Death, Materiality and Mediation: An Ethnography of Remembrance in Ireland. Berghahn Books.
  4. Hopkins, Frank (2008). Hidden Dublin: Deadbeats, Dossers and Decent Skins. Mercier Press, Ltd. p. 28.
  5. Murphey, Sean. "The Story of St. James Fair". Fountain Resource Group. Archived from the original on 14 September 2019. Retrieved 14 September 2019.
  6. G N, Wright (1821). An Historical Guide to Ancient and Modern Dublin. London: Baldwin, Cradock, and Joy. p. 164.
  7. Carlisle, Nicholas (1828). An historical account of the Origin of the Commission appointed to inquire concerning charities in England and Wales; and, an illustration of several old customs and words, which occur in the reports. London. pp. 326–327.
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