Are you prepared for your death?
This is a query we all confront throughout our lives, but we don’t have to do it alone.
For more than a decade, the National Shrine of Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton has hosted the Back from the Dead Cemetery Walk, a prayer-provoking faith drama experience as an antidote to the excesses of Halloween. The immersive experience offers an opportunity to confront our mortality and prepare for death through the imparted lessons – and warnings – from a unique lineup of saints, martyrs and other figures from the past.
“It is an hour-long examination of conscience,” said Rebecca Corbell, director of Back from the Dead and evangelization programs manager at the Seton Shrine. “There is so much to be learned about ourselves through the teachings of saints and souls that came before us. Our goal is to share this wisdom to help others deepen their faith and get right with God.”
Fr. Brian Nolan, currently the pastor at St. Isaac Jogues Parish in Baltimore, created the program while he was the Catholic Campus Minister at McDaniel College in 2002. Back from the Dead was designed to educate college students about their Catholic faith and answer questions regarding the afterlife. While the secular world is speaking about the dead and demons throughout October, Back from the Dead helps one reflect on preparing to meet our Lord, living the theological virtues of faith, hope and charity and the reality of both the good and fallen angels.
The Back from the Dead program, which has attracted more than 10,000 participants over the years, is part of a unique series of faith dramas performed at the Seton Shrine throughout the year. Some of these programs showcase what 19th century life was like for Mother Seton on the sprawling grounds in Emmitsburg, Md., where her Shrine is located. Other programs highlight the spirituality of America’s first native-born saint.
Held in the Seton Shrine’s St. Joseph’s Cemetery Back from the Dead participants walk through the “Four Last Things”: death, judgment, heaven and hell. Rather than encountering goblins, ghosts and ghouls on their cemetery journeys, participants travel through 11 stations to meet saints among the likes of St. Faustina Kowalska, St. Cardinal John Henry Newman and St. Maria Goretti and listen to their stories and admonitions about preparing for the inevitability of their passing. The lineup of saints is different each year and often reflect specific messages that will resonate with current audiences.
“All who participate in Back from the Dead leave the event different from when they came, whether in their mental, emotional or spiritual state,” Corbell said. “People have actually converted as a result of their experiences.”
Rachel DeMartino is a veteran performer who has portrayed Mother Seton and St. Gianna Molla in the past. This year she is playing St. Therese.
“This event allows me to be something bigger than myself,” she said. “The Cemetery Walk is something everyone should experience, if not for oneself, then for the sake of others, as we all need prayers and guidance from the Saints to achieve heaven as our destination.”
To help guide participants through these heavy, though-provoking questions, each session ends with a debrief discussion and an opportunity to partake in the sacrament of reconciliation.
“What started as one person asking to receive confession after the completion of their journey has turned into a signature piece of the event series,” Corbell said. “Some of the confessions take forever, which I find absolutely beautiful, because you know that they are truly heartfelt.”
This year, more than 50 actors and support staff including local community actors, seminarians and high school students have trained and prepared for the evangelization drama.
“Back from the Dead has allowed me to engage in evangelization in a singular way by vividly presenting the lives of the saints to others,” said Deacon Phillip Briggs of the Diocese of Arlington, Va. This year he is reprising the role of the Gravedigger and has played St. Isaac Jogues in the past. “It has been such a joy to team up with the local community in this way and meet people who share the same thirst of spreading the Gospel to all who come to the performances.”
Back from the Dead takes place on nine weekend nights between Oct. 15-31. Tickets are $5 in advance and $7 at the door. Visitors are encouraged to get their tickets immediately as many nights have already sold out.
For more details, please visit setonshrine.org/back-from-the-dead.