Festivals Of The Dead Around The World

Death isn’t always a taboo subject.
Festivals of the dead represented by two Asian women holding paper-bag candles in a celebration of the Hungry Ghost festival.

The relationship between humans and death is complicated. Some of our oldest rituals were created for burying the dead. And while every culture must deal with death, each one treats it slightly differently. In many parts of the western world today, a death is an unfortunate circumstance that is, for the most part, not talked about. In other parts, however, death is more candidly confronted. Nowhere is this clearer than in the festivals of the dead.

A festival of the dead is different depending on where it’s done, so the loosest definition is that it’s a time set aside each year to honor ancestors. Halloween is technically a festival of the dead — or at least it comes from one — but it’s become more about candy and horror than honoring anyone. Exploring the various celebrations around the world, you can see how different cultures deal with the inevitability of death.

United Kingdom

Names: Halloween, Samhain, Allantide (Cornwall), Calan Gaeaf (Wales), Hop-tu-Naa (Isle of Man)

Once a Pagan holiday, Christianity modified the festival of Samhain by merging it with All Saint’s Day and rebranding it as All Hallows’ Day, Hallowmas, Feast of All Saints or Solemnity of All Saints. The evening prior became known as All Hallows’ Eve and was the Catholic day to reflect on the realities of hell and to mourn the souls lost to evil.

Traditionally the Celts would wear ghostly disguises as a way to trick roaming malevolent spirits, and what we know today as trick-or-treating or guising used to be called souling or mumming. On All Souls’ Eve, the poor in Scotland and Northern Ireland would beg the rich for a pastry known as Soul Cake. Families would later share the cake, light candles and join in on prayer and songs.

In parts of the country near Somerset, children carve punkies, which were large beetroots. Carrying their creations, the children visit homes singing the “Punkie Night Song” and would offer prayers in return for cake or money. You can see parts of these traditions in the carved pumpkins of North America (chosen because pumpkins are indigenous to the continent).

Derry, Northern Ireland, hosts the United Kingdom’s largest Halloween celebration, complete with street carnivals, bonfires, firework displays and a hearty dinner of Colcannon (cabbage and mashed potato) and Barmbrack (fruit cake).

Mexico

Names: El Día de los Muertos, The Day of the Dead

One of the world’s most famous festivals, The Day of the Dead comes from a two-month-long Aztec festival of offering foods, alcohol, flowers and ceramics to the Goddess Mictecacihuatl, or “Lady of the Dead,” to celebrate the harvest and honor death. Today, Día de los Muertos is a blend of the Aztec festival and the Catholic traditions of the Spanish conquistadors.

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From October 31 to November 2 each year, homes are awash with color and altars decorated with photographs, flowers, drinks and food. The flowers’ brief lifespan symbolize the brevity of life, while brightly colored bunting, streamers and tissue paper symbolize energy and joy. Beside altars, families leave a washbasin and soap for the dead to wash after their long journey, and light incense to guide them home. On the final day of the festival, relatives have a picnic at graves with tequila and a mariachi band.

Mexican street parades are some of the most invigorating and lively parties on the planet, but the parades are not actually part of the original tradition. Rather they are consequence mainly of famous fictional spy James Bond, specifically the Daniel Craig film Spectre. In the movie, Bond encounters a Day of the Dead parade that didn’t actually exist. Tourism officials in Mexico decided to adopt the parade, though. In these parades often a living person is carried in a coffin through the streets as vendors toss flowers and fruit into the casket.

China

Names: 盂蘭節, Yulan or Zhongyuan, The Hungry Ghost Festival

Taoist and Buddhist cultures celebrate their festival of the dead on the fifteenth night of the seventh month (Ghost Month). It’s believed that hell’s gates open and deceased spirits roam on earth for twenty-four-hours in search of food and comfort. These spirits are pretas — malevolent souls who are unburied or never received a ritual send-off after death. They have long needle-like necks, because their families had not left food at the grave. Alongside the pretas, there are friendly ghosts that also return. To please the kind spirits families burn joss paper and incense, prepare an elaborate meal, and keep seats empty at the table for the spirits.

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Fourteen days after the festival, families set lotus-shaped lanterns afloat on rivers or the sea to guide the lost souls to the next life. When the lanterns go out, that’s a sign the dead have moved on.

Japan

Names: 于蘭盆會, Obon Festival, Matsuri or Urabon Festival

Sanskrit for “hanging upside down,” this Japanese festival is celebrated to ease the suffering of the dead. Obon begins on the 15th day of the seventh month, when dead ancestors return to the world of the living. Families prepare a feast, and as the sun sets, hang paper lanterns outside to guide the spirits home. On the last day of the festival, the lanterns are cast out to sea and huge bonfires are lit. The bonfires and lanterns lead the spirits back to the afterlife until next year.

In the ancient story of Maha Maudgalyayana (Mokuren), a disciple of the Buddha visits his deceased mother in the afterlife. Desperate to set her free from limbo between life and death, the disciple dances the Bon Odori and successfully helps his mother reach the next life. Today, Japanese families dance the Bon Odori to ensure their relatives pass on safely.

Nepal

Names:  गाई जात्रा, Gai Jatra, Cow Festival

The Festival of the Cow worships Yamaraj, the God with power over life and death. Celebrations take place on the first day of the dark fortnight, Gunla, in line with the lunar calendar (some time between August and September). Every family who had lost a relative in the past year walks through the streets leading a cow. The cow, being highly venerated in Hinduism, is believed to help the dead ascend to heaven. If a cow is unavailable for the family to walk down the streets with, a young boy in a cow costume is an adequate substitute.

The Gai Jatra parade originated when the son of King Pratap Malla of Nepal  died in 1674 CE. Desperate to make his distraught wife smile again, the king asked his people to dress in elaborate masks and tell jokes. The story goes that the people were able to make the queen smile once again. Today, costumes and colors remain central to Gai Jatra.

India

Names: पितृ पक्ष, Pitru Paksha, Fortnight of the Ancestors

Pitru Paksha is a sixteen-day Hindu festival of the dead that involves a lot of food. The festival falls on the second paksha of the lunar month, Bhadrapada (the first full moon in September), and lasts until the next new moon, Sarvapitri amavasya or Pitru Amavasya. The central ritual is the death rite, Shraddha or Tarpan. Some Hindus believe that for three generations the dead reside in Pitru-loka, a realm between heaven and earth, with Yama, God of the Dead. A son in the family of the dead must perform Shraddha to help his ancestor ascend to heaven. The son calls on his ancestor to reside inside a ring of kush grass, which he wears on his finger. If the ancestor is happy with his son’s performance, he will grant him health, wealth, knowledge, longevity and moksha (salvation).

This Indian festival feast must include Kheer (a sweet rice with milk), lapsi (a sweet porridge made of wheat grains), rice, dal, the vegetable guar (spring bean) and a yellow gourd.

Different cultures and people deal with death, and more specifically the returning of the dead in different ways. Having a party with lots of food, candles, and celebration seems to be common preference for many. Perhaps that’s what many of the zombie-horror flicks got wrong — they forgot to bring their dead some Pan de muerto!

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