An aerial view of the grave yard in Mexico lit with candles, surrounded by flower arrangements and people praying for the souls of the departed late at night.

Day of the Dead: Traditions Across Cultures Around the World

Día de Los Muertos, Mexico’s Day of the Dead, is a worldwide marvel that honours the departed.

Across the world, other cultures pay respect to the dead through their own traditions. Whether it is to help them move from the material plain or as a show of respect, each tradition projects remembrance.

The Festival of the Hungry Ghosts – China

A large figure of a hungry ghost lit on fire, surrounded by burning clothes and money in the middle of the night as China celebrates its Day of the Dead.
image source: southeastasiaglobe.com

In China, this festival is a month-long traditional holiday with religious significance to Buddhists and Taoists. However, this isn’t as joyous of a day. It is more of a threatening Day of the Dead.

During this one month, the gates of Hell open and ghosts are free to walk the Earth. The main concern is ‘hungry ghosts’, ghosts who left no descendants or have a family with no knowledge of their death. They could also be restless ghosts of strangers, uncared-for deceased or those who did not receive a proper burial, were murdered or committed suicide.

They are depicted as having long and skinny necks because their living descendants provided no food for them.

These are mischievous and wicked ghosts that seek worldly pleasures. It’s highly possible they seek revenge on those that harmed them when they lived. Only when the ghosts are content will they not cause any trouble to the faithful living.

The day of the festival is based on the Chinese lunar calendar, from the 15th day of the seventh month till the last day of the month.

Origin

The festival has an unknown origin. Between the Buddhists and Taoists, the story differs.

The Taoists focus on appeasing the wandering souls and the Buddhists emphasize the virtue of respect for one’s parents, elders and ancestors (filial piety).

Taoists

Taoists believe three deities control mankind’s fate:

  • Tian Guan Da Di, the ruler of Heaven who grants happiness.
  • Di Guan Da Di, the ruler of Earth who pardons sins.
  • Shui Guan Da Di, the ruler of water who alleviates dangers.

The 15th day of the seventh month is the birthday of Di Guan Da Di. He descends to Earth and records the good and evil deeds of each human being.

When the gates of Hell open, hungry ghosts search for food. Priests perform rites and make good offerings and devotees repent their sins. They pray for happiness and avoidance of disasters. Thus, the Zhongyuan Festival (中元節).

Buddhists

Buddhists celebrate the month as the Yu Lau Pan Festival (盂蘭盆節). It refers to a container filled with offerings to save one’s ancestors from the suffering of purgatory.

Its origin is from the legend of Mu Lian, a disciple of Buddha, who saved his mother from Hell.

His mother, a vegetarian, unknowingly consumed a meat soup. This act condemned her to Hell. After finding his mother, Mu Lian saw she was among the hungry ghosts and tried to save her with food offerings. Unfortunately, it did not end well because of two possible occurrences:

  • The other hungry ghosts grabbed the food.
  • The food turned into flaming coals before it reached her mouth.

Mu Lian sought help from Buddha, who taught Mu Lian to make offerings through special prayer and food. After the offering, his mother ascended from a hungry ghost. Hence, the emphasis on filial piety.

Traditions

The Chinese burn faux money outside of their homes and businesses, alongside roads and fields or in temples. It gives the ghosts money they might need during their special month.

Wearing outside made entirely of red, black or white is unlucky. Women do not wear heels, on flat shoes. High-heeled shoes leave the heels exposed, making women vulnerable to spirit possession through the energy point below the ankles.

On the First Day…

After lighting incense, food sacrifices are offered to the ghosts. By eating the sacrifices and holding the money, the ghosts will not commit any terrible acts or curse the followers.

Street and market ceremonies are where people gather to celebrate the festival. The monks organize festive activities during Temple ceremonies.

On the Last Day…

The gates of Hell close.

The burned paper money and clothing are for the ghosts to use in the afterlife, and pictures and templates of ancestors are put away.

To drive away the ghosts, Taoist monks chant and, because the ghosts hate the sound, they scream and wail.

In the evening, a Chinese opera holds impromptu performances on temporary stages. The front row seats are reserved for the ghosts. Then, the lit lanterns on little boats float down a river for the ghosts to follow.

Taboos

With traditions comes warnings.

Stay away from the water to prevent an evil ghost from drowning you.

Roaming ghosts are strongest at night, so its best not to stay out late. If you do, there is a higher chance of being possessed by a ghost or falling ill. Whistling at night only attracts ghosts.

Cameras trap ghosts. Taking pictures, including selfies, is a way of asking ghosts to stay longer.

If there is a wedding during the month, bitter ghosts will curse it and the marriage is destined to fail. Additionally, the ghosts will occupy temporary empty places at the wedding.

Obon (お盆) – Japans

The lanterns are lit in Japan, high above the ground as people dressed in kimonos dance on the floor in celebration.
image source: allabout-japan.com

From the Sanskrit word ullambana, meaning ‘to hand upside down’, Obon is a Japanese Buddhist custom to honour ancestral spirits. Ullambana implied unbearable pain and suffering. The festival is to free the ancestors’ spirits of their pain.

The festival lasts three days, but the dates vary in different regions of Japan. At the beginning of the Meiji era, the lunar calendar changed to the Gregorian. The locals showed different reactions to the change and, as a result, three different days came for one festival:

  • Shichigatsu Bon (Bon in July) – around July 15th in Eastern Japan.
  • Hachigatsu Bon (Bon in August) – on August 15th, the most common day to celebrate.
  • Kyu Bon (Old Bon) – the 15th day of the seventh month of the lunar calendar.

Although a special occasion, these days are not public holidays. It’s customary that people are given leave to return to their hometowns.

It is an invitation for the dead to return, a time for spirits to revisit the material world.

Legend

The ritual is based on the Sâkyamuni Buddhist teachings in the Urabon Sutra.

The legend in the Sutra is about Monkuren Sonja. Sonja was a disciple and priest known for his supernatural powers. He used his supernatural powers when meditating with his mother as she was tormented by hungry ghosts.

Taking the advice from Sâkyamuni, Soja gave an offering to fellow priests who completed their summer retreat. It freed his mother and they danced joyously.

Traditions

Houses are cleaned before the holiday starts. A variety of food offerings are placed at the butsudan, a Buddhist altar.

A yukata is an informal cotton kimono, usually worn in the summer. Men and women wear the yukata for the festival, but it is more common to see women wear it.

Day One

Chochin (paper lanterns) are lit and brought to family gravesites to call the ancestors back home, also known as mukae-ban.

In some regions, mukae-bi (fires) are lit at the entrances of homes to guide the spirits.

Lanterns and flower arrangements are placed as another offering at the altar.

Day Two

A folk-dance called Bon Odori takes place. The styles of the dance vary among regions with Japanese taiko drums keeping the rhythm. Typically, it takes place in parks, gardens, shrines or temples.

The dance is done wearing a yukata and anyone can take part.

Toro nagashia (floating lanterns) have a lit candle inside. The lanterns float down a river that runs to the ocean. This is a symbolic send off to the ancestors’ spirits to the sky in a beautiful display.

Day Three

Families assist in returning their ancestors’ spirits to the grave. They hang lanterns, painted with the family crest, to guide the souls to their eternal resting place.

The third day is the last day of Japan’s Day of the Dead.

Chuseok (추석) – Korea

A Korean family paying respect to the food they prepared for their ancestors spirits, following the rituals of Korea's Day of the Dead in South Korea.
image source: cea.uanl.mx

Meaning ‘Autumn Eve’, it is one of the biggest and most significant celebrations in North and South Korea. Equivalent to a Korean Thanksgiving, it’s a three-day harvest festival. People leave the cities and head towards the home of their upbringing. Families gather to share food and stories, spend time with each other and give thanks to their ancestors for their blessings.

Korea’s Day of the Dead is near the end of summer and the beginning of autumn. It takes place on the 15th day of the eighth month of the Korean lunar calendar.

Traditions

On the morning of the celebrations, people father for the charye services. Families prepare offerings for their ancestors, such as sangpyeou (half-moon rice cakes), alcohol and freshly harvested rice.

After the memorial services, the family gathers and enjoys the food.

Seongmyo is the visiting of ancestral graves. It shows appreciation and respect to one’s ancestors. Weeds are removed around the graves and after, a simple memorial service.

This is a celebration of abundance and harvest. People engage in various folk games and entertainment, such as two famous dances:

  • Talchum, a masked dance.
  • Ganggangsullae, a circle dance where women dressed in hanbok join hands and sing together.

For the festival, the clothes worn are traditional hanbok or appropriate dressing. This is respectful form of dressing, especially when visiting a parents’ home with gifts. Children bow before their parents and wish them a healthy and prosperous life.

The first son of each household sets and prepares the table for the family’s ancestors. The family prepares three to five rows of dishes that include rice, hot soup, Korean dishes and soup, chestnuts, beef, fish and traditional drinks and desserts.

In South Korea, modesty is key to gift-giving. Locals feel obligated to reciprocate with a gift of similar value. Therefore, it’s in poor taste to give expensive gifts. Knives and scissors are not acceptable gifts because they symbolize the end of a relationship. Items with red writing and in sets of four are associated with death.

The idea is to show appreciation through meaning and modest gifts.

North Korea

Celebrating traditional holidays in North Korea only began in the mid-1980s.

Most people don’t have family gatherings. Some try to visit their ancestors’ gravesites, especially the working class. However, social and economic issues often prevent these visits.

Due to the bad infrastructure of public transport, it’s close to impossible to visit gravesites and families. Only the middle and elite class enjoy the holiday as they want and travel freely. They celebrate the Day of the Dead as intended.

Pitru Paksha (पितृ पक्ष) – India

Oldest sons of the households in the river in India, with the priest pouring water on to them as part of their ritual for India's Day of the Dead.
image source: indiadivine.org

This is the ‘fortnight of the ancestors’ and celebrated among Hindus.

Their Day of the Dead lasts for 16 days during the Indian lunar month of Asvina (corresponds with September and October).

Based on India’s oldest scripture, the Rig Veda, this is a powerful occasion for honouring the dead. People show them gratitude for their legacies of wisdom, protection, love and material wealth.

According to Vedic tradition, ‘ancestors’ are specific to parents, grandparents and great-grandparents, but they do honour departed family members, relatives and friends.

This is a time to reflect on Sidda Yoga teachings:

  • The value of human birth.
  • The bond that exists among all living things.
  • Recognition that life is not limited to the body.
  • Our connection to our loved ones transcends this physical realm.

Karta

A family member, usually the eldest son or daughter, performs vital rituals. The exception is on matamata, a specific day out of the 16 days where the eldest daughter performs the rituals.

Purifying Bath

The family member performing the rituals must take part in the purifying bath before doing so. After, they wear ceremonial clothing to perform the rituals and make offerings. This shows respect to the ancestors and current priests and ensures the offerings are pure.

Brahmin Bhoj

Brahmin is a priest, spirited teacher or protector of learning. They are the highest class in the Indian caste system. Hindus offer Brahmin food and drink to show honour and collect blessings.

Pind Daan

A post-death ceremony that is a crucial, mandatory part of Hindu death rites. This is based on the Hindu belief that a human’s soul remains in the material world after death and stops it from reaching peace.

Family members, usually a son or daughter, offer sesame seeds mixed with rice and water to their ancestors. This is a wish for the soul to move on from the material plain and final salvation, a final goodbye.

Worshipping the gods

After Pind Daan, Hindus pray to Vishnu, the Preservers, and Yama, the God of Death and King of the Ancestors.

The Karta offers food on the roof of a home or building. If a crow, which represents the Gods’ messenger, arrives and eats the food, the gods have accepted the gift. Cows and dogs also receive offerings.

Reciting names

Savapitri Amavasya, where the Karta recites the names of all deceased family members within three generations. It reinforces familial and ancestral ties throughout history.

Food and Drink

The food prepared is what the departed once enjoyed, along with additional and traditional offerings. The karta prepares the traditional foods that they serve on banana leaves or other dried leaves. Hindus only eat after a cow, dog, Brahmin (if present) and a crow eat.

Rules

There are various rules for India’s Day of the Dead, such as:

  • No auspicious work.
  • Do not indulge in bad practices, such as smoking or consuming alcohol.
  • Any creature at your door should be welcomed and given food.

 

The Significance of ‘Day of the Dead’

At night, people are lighting candles near the graves of their departed, with the graves surrounded by ornate flower arrangements as part of Mexico's Day of the Dead.
image source: history.com

The Day of the Dead is celebrated in remembrance and gratitude for the path laid by the ancestors. People are able to understand an array of cultures and beliefs and how their traditions came to be.

“Tradition is not the worship of ashes, but the preservation of fire.”

-Gustav Mahler.

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