What Does It Mean to Light a Memorial Candle for the Dead?

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Lighting a candle is something humans have done for centuries in honor of the dead. Across religions and cultures, candle lighting has come to mean a number of different things. From creating a connection to the afterlife to religious symbolism, you might be surprised by what it means to light a candle after the death of a loved one. 

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You don’t need to belong to any of these faiths or traditions to partake in candle lighting. If you want to do something in memory of someone you love who is no longer with you, lighting a candle is a simple, easy way to feel peace and connection. For many, this is a way to celebrate the life of a loved one while also reflecting on your own memories.

In this guide, we’ll take a closer look at what it means to light a memorial candle for the dead in different cultures. 

Meaning of Lighting a Memorial Candle for the Dead According to Different Faiths

Throughout human history, different cultures, faiths, and backgrounds adapted the candle lighting tradition to encompass a variety of meanings and traditions. These customs are based on local beliefs, mythology, ancient teachings, and family history. They bring people together and serve as the basis for holidays. Which of these meanings below has significance to you?

Catholicism

If you’ve stepped into a Catholic church, you’ve likely seen rows and rows of candles either at the altar or to the side. These candles typically rest in front of an image or statue of Christ, and it’s not uncommon to see Christians praying over them. 

In Catholicism, lighting a candle is a way to strengthen a prayer. While you don’t need to light a candle when praying, it’s an old custom that goes back thousands of years. Jesus himself used the symbol of light to guide his followers, and lighting a candle brings followers closer to Christ. 

Catholics also celebrate a holiday known as All Saint’s Day. This takes place on the first of November, and it’s a time for remembering the dead. Throughout the entire month of November, family members light candles and pray for the souls of the deceased. This practice shortens the distance between earth, heaven, and purgatory. 

Protestantism

While Protestants lessened their usage of ceremonial lights as a result of the Reformation, it's not uncommon to still see small candles in Protestant churches today. These are an expression of private, individual prayer. They might be used by outsiders of the church or loyal followers. 

Protestants don’t see the candles as carrying any specific power. However, they are a way to focus on the symbol of Christ and pay homage to a loved one who passed. They might light a small candle when remembering a family member or to say a prayer of their own. 

Judaism

The Jewish mourning process involves a number of rituals, from religious prayers to sitting shiva. Over the first year after the passing of a loved one, it’s important for the family to follow these traditions and customs closely. 

One of these rituals is known as Yahrtzeit. This is the yearly anniversary of a loved one’s death, and this takes place yearly for the rest of the surviving family’s life. 

During the observing of Yahrtzeit, there’s a lighting of a symbolic candle. These candles are lit on the evening of the death anniversary. A family member might say a special prayer, but this isn’t required. What’s important is that the family members reflect on the memory of the deceased or share memories. 

Buddhism

Candles have a strong tie to Buddhism. They’re commonly found in front of Buddhist statues and shrines, usually alongside food and drink offerings, flowers, and incense. Candles represent the light of Buddha’s teachings, and they’re a sign of spiritual life. 

These candles are lit daily as a way to reflect on one’s belief in Buddha and these teachings, and they’re also a way to meditate. Candle meditation plays a strong role in Buddhism. Lighting a candle is one of the best ways to focus during your mindfulness practice.

As you focus on the visual of the flame, it’s easier to reflect on your inner thoughts and ideas. The world fades away, and this is the perfect way to reminisce about your lost loved one. 

Wicca

Candles also are frequently used in the Wicca tradition. Pagans used candles as a way to aid in their meditation and practice for thousands of years, so it’s no surprise that modern Wiccans still look to candles as a way to remember the dead. 

In Wiccan rituals, candles are placed on altars to aid in harnessing natural energy. While Wiccans believe in natural magic, this is very similar to the Buddhist belief of self-reflection and enhancing one’s own spiritual power. Using a white candle is said to help aid with channeling the memory of past spirits and family members. 

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How to Light a Memorial Candle for Someone Who Has Died

After learning about the religious practices above, you might be wondering how to light a candle of your own. Follow these steps below to create the perfect memorial tradition.

1. Find a candle

The first step is to find a candle. There are a lot of candles to choose from, whether you opt for a religious votive or something you already have in your home. Some choose to personalize candles with the name of their loved ones, but you don’t have to go to those lengths if it’s not in your budget. Common candles to use for memorials are:

  • Religious candles - There are a number of religious candles like votive candles or Jewish Yahrzeit candles. If you’re a member of these faiths, using a religious candle could bring comfort or honor the deceased loved one’s beliefs. 
  • White candle - If you’re not a part of a religion or you’re not sure what to use, a white candle is often the best choice. Choose a scent that reminds you of the person you’re remembering, or choose a scent-free candle. 
  • Flameless candle - If you live somewhere that isn’t practical for candles or where fire isn’t allowed, choose a flameless candle. These are powered by batteries or electricity, and they last much longer than a real candle. 
  • Virtual candle - Finally, you can even light a virtual candle online to offer remembrance to a loved one. 

2. Use photos or other mementos

Sometimes it helps you remember the person if you use photos or other mementos. Creating a small tribute to their memory keeps them at the forefront of your thoughts so you can reflect on them clearly. 

Keeping a selection of photos, mementos, and other memory items in a small box, scrapbook, or an online tribute page is a great way to keep this individual in your thoughts. Though they might be gone, they’re still with you. 

3. Recite a poem or prayer

Once you’ve lit the candle, it’s time to lose yourself in your remembrance. You might meditate, recite a poem or death anniversary prayer, or just think of the person. There are no rules for what you need to think about or say. Just allow yourself to feel anything that comes up naturally, and to respect the memory of the deceased. 

If you’re lighting your candle lighting during a special event like a death anniversary, consider making this a tradition. There are a number of unique wedding memorial ideas or death anniversary traditions for bringing these customs into your own life. 

Reflect on Your Deceased Loved Ones

People have used candles for thousands of years to feel peace after the passing of a loved one. If you’re looking for a way to honor the memory of a deceased family member, why not light a candle of your own? This is a simple, inexpensive way to reflect on your memories and feelings after the death of someone you care about. 

How do you want to be remembered? Start end-of-life planning to answer these questions for yourself and your family members. From lighting candles to creating new traditions, there are no limits to your legacy. 


Sources

  1. Gold, Neil. “Why Do We Light Yahrzeit Candles?” Jewish Boston. 30 October 2012. JewishBoston.com
  2. Guiley, Rosemary. “Candle Lore and Magic.” Llewellyn. 19 June 2003. Llewellyn.com
  3. “Questions and Answers.” Indiana Buddhist Temple. IndianaBuddhistVihara.org.
  4. Schneider, Jorg. “Private Candles in German Protestant Churches.” The Social Science Research Council: Reverberations. 19 October 2015. SSRC.org
  5. Van Sloun, Michael. “Why Is Jesus Referred to as the ‘Light of the World.” Archdioceses of Saint Paul and Minneapolis: Rediscover. Rediscover.archspm.org
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