It’s a light in the time of darkness, a little flicker of hope when we need it the most.
When the flame of a memorial candle is lit, we’re participating in a ritual that has endured for thousands of years. It’s also a practice that’s shared among a multitude of cultures and religions. When a family lights a candle in honor of a loved one, they’re following a tradition that’s rich with history.
But when — and how — did the tradition of memorial candles start?
The early concept can be traced back to civilizations in the early 4th and 5th centuries. The Macedonians would light candles for up to 40 days after a death. They believed the flame was a way to ward off ghosts and demons that might harm the deceased’s soul.
The Greeks and Romans had similar traditions and used candles or torches as a way to guide the dead on their final journey. Early Pagan cultures in Europe and Asia buried their dead with unlit candles and lamps as a way to give them light in their next life.
The concept of remembrance candles that we probably relate to the most came about from Jewish and Christian practices.
In Judaism, the memories of a loved one are carried on through a tradition called Yahrzeit. It’s the practice of lighting a Yahrzeit candle on the anniversary of a loved one’s death. The candle stays lit for 24 hours and is accompanied by prayer.
Christianity also used candles in memorial practices. The Paschal Candle, or Easter Candle, is used during funerals to remind Christians of the resurrection of the dead and their life with Christ. Candles are also lit on anniversaries of a death and can be lit in a church or at the site of the grave to honor a loved one.
All Souls Day is another time when candles are lit to commemorate the lives of the departed and to offer prayers for them.
Today, remembrance candles remain prevalent in funeral and memorial services — although they’ve seen some modern updates. Some people prefer digital candles. With the rise of mourning on social media and digital memorials, families and friends now have the opportunity to light virtual candles in honor of a loved one.
As personalization became a must for memorialization, candles evolved to meet the demand. Family and friends now have more options and they’re choosing to customize their candles to match the personality of loved ones.
Candles also help communities heal. Candlelight vigils are increasingly popular. They’re held in response to all kinds of tragedies — disease, massacres, natural disasters — as a way to mourn together.
Memorial candles won’t be going away any time soon. There’s something so simple, yet so powerful about them. We light candles as a sign of hope and comfort, and as a reminder of the fire a loved one brought into our life. And we aren’t alone in doing so.
We’re following in the footsteps of ancestors from thousands of years ago.