5 Festivals That Celebrate the Dead Around the World

Mexico's Dia De Los Muertos may capture the headlines – but many faiths and cultures around the world have their own ways to honour the departed.Wednesday, 23 October 2019

Lanterns are lit in preparation for the Japanese festival of Obon. The lights – which illuminate rivers, streets and are hung outside doors – are meant to guide spirits home.
Lanterns are lit in preparation for the Japanese festival of Obon. The lights – which illuminate rivers, streets and are hung outside doors – are meant to guide spirits home.
photo by Photo Resource Hawaii / Alamy

Across the world, festivals are celebrated throughout the year to honour those no longer on this mortal coil. These celebrations can be jovial, spiritual, and occasionally sinister. In the way Mexico's Day of the Dead mingles Catholic influences with traditional Mesoamerican beliefs, some of these share similarities with each other, some share dates, and some have roots in the same origin stories.

But all have become unique, and are celebrated differently from region to region in their homelands – as well as in countries where cultures have brought their traditions with them. While all celebrate the lives of the departed, almost universally these are times for families to come together, remember loved ones and rekindle often ancient customs.

Here are a few of the other Days of the Dead.   

 

The Festival of the Hungry Ghost

Also called by the less spine-tingling name of Zhongyuan, this atmospheric Chinese event takes place over the seventh lunar month. During this month restless spirits are said to emerge from the lower realm and roam the streets. They can cause mischief unless appeased with offerings of food, and intricate, highly convincing paper creations in the form of cars, books, phones and ‘hell money’ – paper joss paper in the form of bank notes – are burned.

This culminates on the 15th night, or Yu Lan, where streets are literally aflame with the offerings. The spirits need to be entertained, too, with entertainment in the form of musical celebrations called getai.

Aligned celebrations across South East Asia feature similar motifs: the avoidance of wearing the colour red to ward off spiritual possession, the provision of empty seats at dinner tables and festivals for the ghosts to occupy, and the hurling of rice and other offerings into the air. Specific tributes to deceased ancestors are also observed during this month.

(Related: Read about Mexico's Bread of the Dead.)

In Hong Kong, paper offerings – including 'hell money' are burned in special receptacles to pacify the spirits said to roam the land of the living during the month of the Hungry Ghost..
In Hong Kong, paper offerings – including 'hell money' are burned in special receptacles to pacify the spirits said to roam the land of the living during the month of the Hungry Ghost..
photo by ZUMA Press, Inc. / Alamy

Obon 

Celebrated on the 15thday of the seventh lunar month, which usually falls in late summer, Obon – sometimes shortened to Bon – is a Japanese Buddhist festival, in which it is traditionally believed that the souls of the dead revisit the living. The festival is defined by dancing, family reunions but most especially light. During the Mitama Matsuri, lanterns are hung outside doors, lit flotillas and bonfires that are said to guide the dead back home. 

A woman dressed in the traditional Japanese Yukata, at the Gokoku shrine in Japan's Kyushu region during Obon.
A woman dressed in the traditional Japanese Yukata, at the Gokoku shrine in Japan's Kyushu region during Obon.
photo by ERIC LAFFORGUE / Alamy

Chuseok

Celebrated in both North and South Korea having been established before the division of the country, Chuseok – which begins on the 14thday of the 8thlunar month and means literally ‘autumn evening’ – is a multi-faith festival with a strong tradition of honouring ancestors. Rites include bulcho and sungmyo, which involve grave tending and cleaning followed with a symbolic bow or offering to the deceased; and charyeis a form of food ritual, featuring an intricately arranged offering of meats, rice and drink favoured by departed relatives (who are believed to still be present for four generations) and a memorial tablet to symbolise their presence. Charye is also performed during gijesa, or jesa – which commemorates the anniversary of the deceased’s passing.

The Charye food ritual, performed during Gijesa and Chuseok festivals, feature food enjoyed by the deceased and a memorial tablet to signify their presence.
The Charye food ritual, performed during Gijesa and Chuseok festivals, feature food enjoyed by the deceased and a memorial tablet to signify their presence.
photo by Hotaik Sung / Alamy

All Soul’s Day

Though often eclipsed in many western cultures by Halloween, the traditional Roman Catholic festival of All Soul’s Day commemorates the faithful who have died – including those who are in Purgatory due to lesser sins that were not admonished before they passed on. The belief is that prayer will allow these souls to find eternal rest. Traditionally following All Saints Day, which itself follows All Hallows Eve, All Soul’s Day traditions inform the Catholic elements of Mexico’s Day of the Dead – as has the date of 2ndNovember.

Candles are lit on All Soul's Day at gravesides in Styria, Austria.
Candles are lit on All Soul's Day at gravesides in Styria, Austria.
photo by volkerpreusser / Alamy

Thursday of the Dead

An inter-faith celebration of the dead particular to the Middle East and shared by Christians and Muslims, Thursday of the Dead (or Thursday of the Secrets) typically takes place on Maundy Thursday – though the two celebrations are largely unrelated. While the evening of Maundy Thursday is said to mark the occasion of the Last Supper, Thursday of the Dead is celebrated in the early morning, when the departed are honoured with visits to graves at dawn, and offerings of food are made to the poor and to children. As a celebration it is believed to have originated with the Muslim leader Saladin in the 12thcentury as a way of building bridges between Christians and Muslims in the Levant.

A portrait of the Muslim leader Saladin – also known as Ṣalāḥ al-Dīn Yūsuf ibn Ayyūb – circa 12th Century.
A portrait of the Muslim leader Saladin – also known as Ṣalāḥ al-Dīn Yūsuf ibn Ayyūb – circa 12th Century.

Pitru Paksha

Also known as Shraddha, this festival is observed in Hindu faiths and is colloquially known as the ‘fortnight of the ancestors,’ Occurs in the Indian lunar month of Asvina – usually around September – it takes the form of ritualistic food offerings, and is subdivided into various observances, such as for those who have met an unexpected or violent death, those particularly close in relationship, and  those who have passed away most recently. Abstinence, pure thoughts and pilgrimage are often observed during this time. 

The ritual of Tarpan being performed during Pitru Paksha. Tarpan refers to an offering made to those who have passed on, and to the gods, and refers to offering as well as the substance used.
The ritual of Tarpan being performed during Pitru Paksha. Tarpan refers to an offering made to those who have passed on, and to the gods, and refers to offering as well as the substance used.
photo by Pacific Press Agency / Alamy

Read more about the Mexican Dia De Los Muertos (Day of the Dead) here.

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