Why Do People Light Candles for the Dead?

We trace the origins of this tradition.

All over the country on All Saints' Day, cemeteries come aglow with the soft, warm flames of thousands of candles. It is a welcoming and beautiful sight.

The tradition of lighting candles for religious reasons dates back thousands of years before the existence of Judaism and Christianity. The Ancient Romans lit candles before the image of their emperor, whom they considered a god. 

Christians adopted the tradition of lighting candles but ascribed to it a variety of purposes such as for liturgy, prayers, and reverence to God. The act of lighting candles for the dead remains one of the most common uses of candles for many, but why do they do it?

Here are some reasons:

Candles extend prayers.
For Catholics, candle lighting is not merely symbolic but is a form of prayer. The candle acts as an extension of your prayer that gets repeated over and over for as long as the light is alive. This is why you may notice people uttering short prayers when they light votive candles in church or in cemeteries.  The beauty in this tradition is that it allows a person to remain connected to God even when one leaves to go about one's day. 

It drives away evil.
The purpose of candles is to bring light when it’s dark. For Christians, a blessed candle symbolizes the presence of Christ as the light of the world. It symbolizes how the earth is in shining splendor and how darkness and evil were defeated because of the radiance of Christ. 


Fire is a very powerful element in Christianity because it symbolizes God’s justice, especially in hell, and His purification of souls in purgatory. It is for this reason that the devil hates fire, even a single flame from a small candle lit by a follower.

It’s a form of sacrifice.
Burning a candle serves as a sacrificial gift or offering for the eternal repose of our loved ones. For Catholics, it helps alleviate a soul’s holy suffering in purgatory and shortens the time they spend there for purification.

People light multiple candles for their departed loved ones in the hope that they will spend little time in purification and finally come into communion with their Creator.

The next time you light a candle, remember these things. For the faithful, a single candle goes a very long way.

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Mario Alvaro Limos
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