Written by Jacob Terranova
Throughout our history, we’ve mourned and honored the dead in many different ways.
In ancient Egypt, the Wag Festival honored the souls of recently deceased and their journey toward the afterlife. Ancient Egyptians would make small papyrus boats and shrines, and let them float along the Nile.
Other festivals of the dead have been observed in ancient cultures from Rome, Japan, Pacific Islands, and northern nations of Europe. These ancient festivals typically took place after the harvest, in the early fall months of September, October, and early November.
Still today, festivals around the world honor the dead. Let’s look at the different cultural festivals that honor the lives of those we’ve lost.
Allhallowtide encompasses the three days that honor the souls of the departed within the Catholic Church. They include All Saints’ Eve (or Halloween), All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day. These observances take place from October 31 to November 2. Vigils, prayer services, visits to gravesites of loved ones, masses, and candle lighting ceremonies are all common during the three-day period.
Día de Los Muertos (Day of the Dead)
The Day of the Dead is a traditional Mexican festival of the dead celebrated on November 1st.
The holiday is a mix of ancient Aztec rituals in addition to Catholic traditions. The belief is that the deceased would be upset or insulted by excessive sadness or mourning. Instead, families celebrate the lives of the deceased and their memories.
The traditions differ in different parts of Mexico and Latin America. But common themes include decorating an altar, attending parties with special foods and drinks, and participating in activities that that deceased would have enjoyed while alive.
The elaborately decorated skull is another important aspect of the festival. The skull symbol is commonly seen throughout the festival. It appears on things like candies, altars, and other decorations.
The Obon Festival is a traditional Buddhist festival. This festival takes place over three days. However, the dates vary depending on where you are in Japan. It typically takes place in either July or August.
The festival is a time for families to remember their ancestors. Many families return to their hometown and spend the three days surrounded by family and friends. In some places, such as Kyoto, communities celebrate with a large bonfire. The bonfire is a symbol of guiding the spirits of loved ones to the afterlife.
Other celebrations include dancing, and each region has their own special dance style for the festival. The video below shows an example of the local dance style.
Hungry Ghost Festival
Another festival of the dead is Hungry Ghost Festival. The traditional Buddhist and Taoist festival is held in many Asian countries. The month-long festival honors ancestors through offerings and gifts. Over the course of the month, families honor ancestors with large feasts and other celebrations.
Gai Jatra is celebrated in Nepal, and translates to the “festival of cows.” The festival honors the lives of those who have died during the year.
One of the central celebrations includes the procession of cows. Families who lost a loved one will lead a cow (or someone dressed like a cow) down a procession line.
Some traditions from the Gai Jatra parade began when the King of Nepal lost a son. The king’s wife remained fraught with grief. The king desperately searched for a way to cheer up his wife and offered a reward to whoever could make his wife smile.
Some of the citizens began to dress up in elaborate masks, perform plays, and tell jokes. It was during the procession that the queen finally smiled again. And the elaborate costumes and celebrations have been a part of Gai Jatra ever since. View photos from the procession here.