A Cultural Acknowledgement of Death through History

The Halloween season in October is a symbol of our society’s fascination with life and death. Dressing up in costumes, stocking up on candy and leaving the porch light on for trick-or-treaters has become a widespread American tradition. For some, the darker, more sinister associations of Halloween may be viewed as taboo. Others see it as a way to acknowledge death as a normal part of our life cycle, or simply as an excuse to host a costume party.

Many of the ways we celebrate Halloween today can be traced back to ancient, native cultures. The Mexican tradition, Day of the Dead, shows strong parallels to the holiday that we call Halloween. Buddhists throughout Asia have yearly festivals to show respect for the dead and mercy for those who have passed on. During the Easter holiday, Christians celebrate life after death, telling the story of the resurrection, along with a sense of hope, a message of forgiveness and a promise of renewal. Across virtually every culture, continent and time period, humans have developed different ways to symbolize, revere or celebrate death.

The Day of the Dead

Many modern-day Halloween rituals can be linked to the ancient Mexican holiday known as The Day of the Dead, or Dia de los Muertos. This is a multi-day celebration where families believe that their ancestors awaken to visit them once again. It’s a time of gathering, prayer and remembrance. The Day of the Dead was originally celebrated by the Aztecs at the beginning of the summer. As a pagan holiday from over 3,000 years ago, Day of the Dead was meant to avoid insulting the dead with mourning or sadness. Instead, the Aztecs hosted lively festivals and parties to welcome their return.

After the Spanish colonization in the 16th century, the date was pushed to October/November to coincide more closely with the Catholic holiday, All Souls Day. Currently an official public holiday in Mexico, families can be seen building private altars and visiting gravesites of loved ones bearing gifts. The three-day observance is filled with marigolds, tamales, incense and other traditional foods, decorations and music. It is a chance for people to come together joyously and celebrate the people they miss.

The Hungry Ghost Festival of China

The seventh month of the Chinese calendar marks “Ghost Month.” During this time, it is believed that unrested spirits are released to roam the Earth seeking entertainment and food. The wandering ghosts belong to those whose families did not pay tribute or provide a proper ritual send-off. On the 14th day, a large feast is held to satisfy them.

Throughout the month, people burn paper houses, cars and items which represent material goods to please the ghosts. This practice is said to provide value to them in the afterlife. To guide lost souls peacefully back to the underworld, lotus-shaped lanterns are lit and set to float down seas and rivers. Once the burning light goes out, the soul has returned to rest.

Ghost Month is a time where live public performances are common. It is tradition to leave the first row of seating open for the ghost attendants. Night shows are put on at high volumes to attract audiences, both living and dead. Similar celebrations are held throughout Asia, incorporating their own local traditions and religious beliefs.

The Buddhist Festival, Ullambana

Buddhists following the Mahayana tradition hold an annual festival that runs from August 1st – 15th. It is the celebration of “Ullambana,” translated as Ancestor’s Day. In Sanskrit, the term “Ullambana” means “deliverance from suffering.” The story behind the festival goes that a disciple of Buddha, named Maudgalyayana, discovered through meditation that his late mother was in suffering. He wanted to relieve her of her distress in Hades. When he asked the Buddha for advice on how to do this, he was told to provide an offering of food and goods for the dead. This advice not only worked for Maudgalyayana’s mother, but also eased the suffering of other souls as well.

Versions of this festival are common throughout Asia, particularly with the Therevada Buddhists of Lao, Cambodia and Thailand. It serves as a scheduled reminder for Buddhists to pray for their departed loved ones and elders. Offerings of clothing, medicine and food are commonly made to monks and nuns in monasteries during this time. It is believed that these good deeds provide spiritual merit for both the person committing them and their ancestors who have passed away.

Japan’s Bon Festival

The same festival is celebrated a little bit differently in Japan. For over 500 years, Japan has held the Urabon-e (a translation of Ullambana), also knowns an Obon or the Bon Festival. In the western region, this three-day celebration takes place during the month of August. In the eastern region, it is celebrated in July. Paper lanterns decorate homes, illuminating the night. These are also placed in rivers and on gravesites to light the path for souls to return to the underworld at the end of the festival. Food offerings are set out in temples and in homes for wandering, unrested spirits.

During the festival, a dance called the Bon Odori welcomes the spirits of the dead through music. The dance is done in a way specific to the region, oftentimes depicting scenes from the local history. Small decorative towels, fans or wooden clappers may be used in some versions of the dance. Kid tunes and modern hits are also incorporated into this musical dance party.

Christianity and the Resurrection

Christians all over the world celebrate the resurrection of Jesus Christ during Eastertime, as an opportunity to reflect on the belief in life after death. Observance of the 40-day period preceding Easter is known as Lent. During Lent, it’s common to uphold various rules of fasting, which vary widely by culture and religion. For Greek and Russian Orthodox practitioners, Easter is considered the most sacred and important holiday of the year. The rules of fasting are very strict (though not necessarily obeyed by everyone). Abstinence from meat, liquor, sugar, among other specific foods is called for, ending with a feast on Easter Sunday.

For Greek Orthodox Christians, a lamb is roasted on a spit for Easter Sunday. This signifies the references to lamb as a symbol of sacrifice in both the Old and New Testaments. Jews in the Old Testament used lamb as a guilt sacrifice to atone for their sins. After Jesus died on the cross, the belief is that He served as a sacrificial lamb, which is symbolized on Easter. Dyeing Easter eggs red is another tradition on Greek Easter. Red symbolizes the blood shed on the cross, and the egg signifies rebirth. A game is played on Easter Sunday to see whose red egg can withstand a whack from another’s egg.

Across the Globe of Time and Space

For as long as time has existed, death has been a shared aspect of humanity. This post doesn’t even scratch the surface of the many ways that humans have represented and acknowledged death among their communities and cultures. While different groups vary widely in the traditions and beliefs that they associate with mortality, it is almost impossible to find a society that does not have some sort of collective traditions related to death. People have been coming together for centuries to pay homage to loved ones who have passed on, celebrate memories and gather more closely with those still living.

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