In cultures across the globe, many believe the ancestors are now beginning their return home, piercing the thin veil between the living and the dead. Darkness will give way to light, and light will remind us that darkness isn’t its opposite but rather its complement in this fragile journey of being.
Do do you know the real history behind All Hallow’s Eve?
Last year, our team put together a “true and truly brief history of Halloween,” Mexico’s Día de Muertos, including how to build altars that work—you can read it on the blog here if you missed it … and we debunked some of Halloween’s oddly misogynistic myths.
This Spooky Szn, we’re taking a virtual trip around the world to share what people on each continent (sans Antarctica) do to honor the dead and the living. This time of year is ripe for reflection and for seeking guidance from our ancestors and other spirits.
During this season of shifting weather and moods, you may find yourself in need of an emotional, physical, or spiritual boost. If that rings true, scroll down for healing herbs to support you through cold, grief, and loss.
Whether you’re planning to travel to a new destination to discover the region’s spiritual traditions or are curious about honoring the deceased, keep reading for our annual look at the fascinating rituals humankind has invented to acknowledge this eternal cycle.
Día de Muertos may be one of the best-known festivals of the dead worldwide, but there are many others that offer new perspectives about how societies value and acknowledge their departed. Through ritual, individuals and communities may find peace, deeper connections to their own mortality and purpose, and even communicate with the spirit world. Here are 10 festivals that bring the past and the present together in surprising, colorful, and unique ways.
ALL SOULS’ DAY
Origin: Western Europe
About: From Europe to the Philippines, Roman Catholics commemorate “faithful souls” who have transitioned on this day, praying they find eternal rest. Traditions vary from country to country; for instance, huge kites up to 65 feet are sent soaring up to the heavens in Guatemala, with notes attached to the tails for their ancestors to read.
CHEWA’S FESTIVAL OF THE DEAD
Origin: The Chewa people, a Bantu tribe (predominantly in Malawi)
About: If the idea of preparing a meal with water from the body of the dead seems unusual, or even shocking, consider that this communal Chewa burial ritual is also said to help prevent the spread of infections and deadly diseases. The entire village is summoned to the event, which is rooted in the belief that death is unnatural, instead likely caused by witchcraft. And since the Chewa community believes witchcraft is only potent for family members, a person’s killer would be afraid to attend the funeral. The honored person is said to be cleansed of their sins via this sacred act, practiced by over 1 million people.
About: Games, food, and honoring ancestors are part of Korea’s largest national holiday, a three-day festival. On the 15th day of the eighth lunar calendar month (sometime in September or October) aligned with the fall harvest, families express gratitude to the dead by sharing their harvest with others. They also visit and clean their ancestors’ graves, eat rice cakes in the morning, and participate in traditional dances under the full moon.
About: Annually, in August or September, one of Hinduism’s most revered animals—the cow—gets its own holiday. It is believed that the bovine’s procession leads the way for the deceased family member into the afterlife. Kathmandu is known for elaborate festivities, with costumes, plays, and other celebratory activities in full swing.
HUNGRY GHOST FESTIVAL
About: For the entire Hungry Ghost Month, Buddhists and Taoists honor their ancestors all across China, home to the world’s largest population. As with many international traditions, the gates to the netherworld are believed to be the most porous during this time of year. Lanterns placed on floats are released onto bodies of water with great care not to catch fire—the greatest distance without being set ablaze is said to be a sign of good luck for the family in the year to come. And like many other festivals of the dead, home altars house food offerings for “hungry spirits”, along with fake money, paper watches, and other items that are intended to appease the ancestors.
About: In late summer on the 15th day of the seventh lunar month, Japanese Buddhists dance, hang lanterns outside their doors, and light bonfires to guide the dead homeward. Like so many cultures around the world, these communities believe that the souls of the dead need light to find their way to visit the living. Many travel to their hometowns to mark the occasion, commemorating ancestral spirits with loved ones.
About: One of the most important holidays in the Khmer religious calendar, Pchum Ben lasts for 15 days between mid-September and mid-October each year. Gathering at pagodas clad in white (symbolic of mourning), Cambodians slow down to help the souls of the deceased atone for any sins committed earthside. Their offerings of food and drink are said to alleviate otherworldly suffering and are presented to the dead by Buddhist monks.
PITRU PAKSHA (“SHRADDHA”)
About: Also known as the “fortnight of the ancestors” or Shraddha, Pitru Paksha falls during the Indian lunar month of Asvina. In or around September, ritualistic food offerings are distinguished by category. For instance, the most recently departed, those closest in relationships, or those who have met an untimely or violent death are observed differently. Other observances during this time include pure thoughts, pilgrimage, and abstinence.
About: On the fifteenth day after the spring equinox (sometime in early April), the Chinese celebrate Cleansing Day, a time of prayer and offering. Burning incense, gold or silver “spirit money” paper, and plates of food are typically set out for the deceased. Many travel to Mianshan mountain, revered as the “cradle of the country’s national heritage,” for the Qingming festival, where tombs are swept, and green rice cakes sell out in little time.
THURSDAY OF THE DEAD
Origin: Egypt / The Levant
About: With its origins attributed to the 12th-century Muslim leader Saladin, this interfaith celebration is shared by Muslims and Christians and takes place in the early morning of “Maundy Thursday,” which marks the occasion of the Last Supper. In addition to the familiar tradition of visiting the graves of the deceased, food offerings are instead made to the living, specifically to children and to the poor
Made up of 48 countries, according to the United Nations, the world’s largest, most populous continent has birthed a myriad of religious traditions. In addition to those mentioned above, ancient societies in Sri Lanka practiced life cycle rituals with Theravada Buddhist monks, the Hindus of India lay their deceased’s ashes in the Ganges River to help them descend to heaven, and the Sikhs gather with family to recite hymns of peace (sukhmani). As diverse as their spiritual practices are their rituals for death and rebirth, with Islam and Hinduism’s combined 1.2 billion adherents being the dominant faiths and accompanying ceremonial observances.
With over 50 countries comprising modern-day Africa, the continent’s numerous indigenous ethnic groups are vastly heterogeneous, though they also share many cultural commonalities. With the exception of Western religions, which have been brought and imposed (often by force) throughout history, lived traditions that center rituals, ceremonies, and lived practices are more rooted in the traditions of African communities. In the Akan region of Ghana, “Funerals are usually so lavish as to cost an equivalent of one year’s income of an average Ghanaian.” Much of that is spent on fantasy coffins, or adebuu adekai, which symbolically represent some significant element of the deceased person’s life and may help distract the mourners from their suffering, especially the widows (source: GVSU). Health, wealth, and procreation are among the core concerns, with women playing key roles as priestesses and other revered figures in African religious traditions. This harmony, as well as the strong linkages between the living and their ancestors, are vital components of the rituals that honor this symbiosis.
Among the most well-documented burial rituals of the world are those of the ancient Greeks. The Odyssey’s Homer described the Underworld in great detail. But did you know that “The Greeks believed that at the moment of death, the psyche, or spirit of the dead, left the body as a little breath or puff of wind” (source: The Met Museum)? Elsewhere, in the middle of the Mediterranean on the island of Sardinia, “carnivalesque rituals … not only explicitly refer to death, but also to rebirth” (source: Linea 20). While much of the funerary rites practiced throughout the West originated in Europe, they have been adapted to be less ornate and cumbersome. Still, there is much to be gained from learning more about how ancient Europeans viewed life, death, and rebirth—often with equal parts fear and reverence.
Among certain Native American tribes (as well as in some segments of Buddhism), the dead and the living are said to coexist. With more power attributed to the dead in these cultures than in others that view these ancestors as “gone but not forgotten”, there is a belief that the dead can impact the well-being of the living (source: GVSU). While the indigenous tribes and peoples of North America have countless culturally specific traditions, “one common aspect is the idea that the spirit of a person lives on after their physical death and journeys into the afterlife” (source: Funeral Guide). The concepts of heaven and hell don’t exist in the Native American belief system. But, the Ojibwa or Chippewa tribes made dolls from the hair of dead children so that the grieving mother could “carry” her pain for the year to come and because these communities shared the belief that a child’s passing merited their own unique rituals.
Mayan culture is the most studied and researched ancient civilization in all of Latin America. According to Chimu Adventures, “The basic credo of Mayan belief was that virtually everything on the planet had a divine life force, or k’uh.” Their great reverence for the ancestors was evident in their burial practice of including a cob of maize in the deceased person’s mouth, symbolizing heavenly rebirth. In the Prehispanic world, writes Dr. María Teresa Uriarte, the bird and serpent joined to make the god Quetzalcoatl (“the feathered serpent”). Both creatures are born from an egg, representing a twice-born being, or a double birth. The Aztecs believed in thirteen heavens, various realms where people would end up in their afterlife, where “women who died in childbirth were considered just as courageous and honorable as warriors” (source: Christi Center). In the Andean worldview, the cycles of nature and human life were considered to be in constant similar movement. A spiral often represents the infinite dynamic between the “three planes” (worlds). In the underworld, the dead were said to be not only active, but vital. They believed “the ancestor who dwelt in the underworld (...) is capable of emitting semen to fertilize the earth” (source: Google Arts & Culture).
The Pacific Ocean island continent of Oceania—including New Guinea, New Zealand, and parts of Australia, Melanesia, Micronesia, and Polynesia—may be the smallest continent on the planet, but many of its end of life ceremonies have been said to last up to several years. To this day, the continent’s aboriginal peoples maintain the ancient burial rituals that are of such great importance that they involve entire communities. The timeless continuum of past, present, and future is referred to as the “Dreaming” (source: Artlandish). According to scholars at Emory University, some aboriginal mortuary rituals in Australia begin with a smoking ceremony to “drive away the deceased’s spirit” and “smoke in the deceased home”. For the aboriginal Yanyuwa people in Australia’s southern Gulf of Carpentaria, the body has three spirits—one “from the land of one’s paternal ancestors”, which begins the process of pregnancy; another shadow spirit represented in the body by the heartbeat/pulse; and a third (“wuwarr”) that manifests as a person’s ghost upon their death (source: Encyclopedia).