Celebrations of the Dead Around the World

By Amanda Little

There is more than one way to carve a pumpkin, or celebrate our ancestors. Pumpkins and candy are popular for some celebrations of the dead, but other countries visit graves, offer food, or clean the headstones of lost loved ones. So light a candle, and follow this funeral procession around the globe.

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Halloween • USA

Before there was candy and latex masks, Halloween was known as All Hallows Eve, and before that Samhain, where it was an ancient Celtic holiday where people would light bonfires, wear costumes, and carve terrifying faces into gourds and pumpkins to ward off evil spirits. As the holiday modernized, Halloween became a holiday to share sweets, carve pumpkins, and some still light candles on the graves of loved ones. While this holiday is highly popular in America, the rest of the world all have their own ways to celebrate lost loved ones.

Obon Festival • Japan

Like many celebrations of the dead, the Japanese Obon Festival is far from somber. It's most commonly celebrated on August 15th, but it is a three-day-long celebration that goes back over 500 years, and involves fireworks, feasts, dancing, and games. People return to their hometowns to celebrate, since its believed ancestors return to the family on this day, and to keep them from suffering in the afterlife, they pay homage to their lost loved ones and celebrate with them, then light giant bonfires and floating lanterns that drift along the river at the end of the festivities to help guide the spirits back to the world of the dead.

Gaijatra • Nepal

The lighthearted Gaijatra festival in Nepal lasts for eight days in August or September, and is also known as the Festival of the Cows. Because it is a Hindu festival, cows are considered holy, and family members who have lost a loved one within that year will lead a cow through the center of the town with the belief that the cow will help guide the deceased to the afterlife. If the family can’t find a cow to lead through town, a boy in a cow mask works too.

Quingming Festival • China

Said to date all the way back to 732 AD, the Chinese Quingming Festival is a day reserved to celebrate ancestors by cleaning their tombs, and leaving gifts of things like joss paper, tea, and food. Also known as Ancestors Day or Tomb-Sweeping Day, this festival is less lighthearted than some others, but still a time for families to come together and remember their past, as well as honor the people who died during significant events, like Tiananmen Square.

El Dia de los Muerto • Mexico

Probably one of Mexico’s best-known holidays, the Dia de lost Muertos, or Day of the Dead, starts on October 31st and ends on November 2nd. While it lines up with the European Halloween and All Saint’s Day, the holiday is a blend of Halloween, and the Aztecs’ Festival of the dead. Instead of being a morbid holiday, the Day of the Dead is lively and full of celebration, because it is believed the dead return to visit their living relatives. The living place photos of their loved ones on their graves, and offer food, flowers, and drinks as well. Colorful sugar skulls and brightly colored and decorative tissue paper adorn family tombs, while people dressed as skeletons worship the dead by dancing and playing music. For some spirits, there is even a washbasin and soap for the dead to tidy up before they leave.

Pchum Ben • Cambodia

Cambodia celebrates their dead similarly to China, with many offerings of food, like sweet sticky rice and bean treats, and drinks, but to observe Pchum Ben, everyone wears white and carries their offerings to pagodas, where Buddhist monks then offer it to the deceased. Huge batches of rice mixed with sesame seeds are also left out in front of the pagodas for hungry ghosts, which are spirits left without any living relatives to remember them. This holiday is very important in Cambodia, so all participate, including visitors. It is recommended to wear white and avoid shorts and tank tops. Speeches, music, and delicacies are all enjoyed on this day, while everyone visits friends, family, and their passed loved ones.

Galungun • Bali

When your ancestors come to visit for Galungan, the living relatives had better prepare to entertain and welcome them, or the ghosts will haunt their home. To prevent this, the Balinese prepare huge feasts and beautiful flowers and celebrate to keep everything lively and honor the loved ones that have passed away. The whole island is decorated with penjor, or tall bamboo poles decorated with coconut leaves, fruit, and flowers, set up to the right of every residence. This is one of the most important feasts in Balinese tradition, to honor their ancestors, show gratitude to their creator, and of course keep their homes from being haunted!

Chuseok • Korea

The people of South Korea take three days to celebrate their harvest festival, which is like their Thanksgiving, but it is also when they honor their ancestors. Similar to Chinese and Japanese traditions, Chuseok is celebrated by the family gathering together and cleaning the headstones and tombs of their passed loved ones, as well as leaving offerings of food, traditionally songpyeon, and drink. They thank their ancestors for their prosperity, and hope for more in the future. Those who participate put on traditional clothing, and dance, wrestle, and cook together. This holiday also pre-dates the divison of Korea, and can be celebrated in North Korea if they are able to attain the appropriate travel permits, and pay their respects to their former leader as well.

Ari Muyang • Malaysia

Those who celebrate Ari Muyang in Malaysia are a minority, but the holiday is rich in tradition. Shamans offer blessings and villagers wear beautifully carved masks to perform the Main Jo-oh dance to honor their ancestors. Each family builds their own altar and offers flowers, incense, and food the night before, and thank their ancestors for good fortune in the past and ask for prosperity in the future. The day of, they burn the offerings. The date of this festival is very different, because it is influenced both by the lunar cycle and, legend says, when a village elder receives it in a dream from their ancestors.

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