Hello and happy Thursday, dear readers!
As some of you may know, it’s All Saint’s Day, or the Day of the Dead. And so, I had a thought: why not write on death ceremonies from different cultures around the world? I’m very excited for this post!
To begin, we’ll travel to Mexico, where today is called Dia de los Muertos, or The Day of the Dead. If you’ve recently seen Disney’s Coco or Guillermo del Toro’s The Book of Life you may already be familiar with some traditions of this holiday. Dia de Muertos is a day of honoring the dead. Family gathers and sets photos on an alter of the loved ones who have parted. Food is baked and decorations are hung, there are even parades. In Mexico, it seems mourning the dead is paired with a celebration of life. It may be seen –or actually practiced– as a mockery of death by the living, to show that they aren’t going to live their lives in fear, even though they may be afraid. Because of this tradition, however, death has become accepted as a part of life. Children carry marigolds and music and dancing fill the cemeteries. Death is laughed at and made fun of, a common joke being, “La muerte es flaca y no puede conmigo,” or “Death is skinny and she can’t carry me.” The living accept death, but they don’t let the inevitability of death guide their lives. The best way to fight your fears is to laugh at them after all!
In Japan, on the fifteenth day of the seventh lunar month (what we may consider today to be August fifteenth) the buddhist festival of Obon is celebrated. Colloquially known as the Japanese Day of the Dead, Obon is celebrated throughout Japan, although the dates may differ depending on the region. It is believed on this day –or days, as the case may be– the spirits of the dead return for a visit. People will return to their hometown during this time, homes will be cleaned, and fruits and vegetables will be placed in front of their ancestors on an altar, called a butsudan. Chochin lanterns and flowers may also be placed on the butsudan. The chochin lanterns are lit in houses and on family’s grave sites to guide the spirits back home. This is called mukae-bon. In some regions, fires are lit in front of homes to guide the spirits, this is called mukae-bi. On the final day of Obon, lanterns or fires are lit again, to return the spirits back to the spirit world. This is called okuri-bon or okuri-bi. Senko incense can be smelled in homes and cemeteries during this time. Floating lanterns, or toro nagashi, are also used during this ceremony to symbolically send off the ancestor’s spirits. The lanterns are lit and set in a river to float away, toward the afterlife. This tradition can be seen in the film, Kubo and the Two Strings. Another tradition is the Bon Odori folk dance, which varies from region to region, but taiko drums and yukata (summer kimonos) are common. The Bon Odori can be seen in parks, temples, or shrines.
We’ll end our journey in India. Pitru Paksha is a time of sixteen inauspicious days, practiced only by the men in the family, and in reverence for the son of the sun god, Karna. When king Karna died, he was fed gold. The gods told him this was due to his charity of giving only gold and gems. Karna realized his mistake. He may have been charitable in some regards, but in others he was a bit ignorant. He didn’t give food and water to the poor, nor to his ancestors. Karna realized his mistake and asked the gods to let him go back to earth to correct it. The gods granted him sixteen days known as the Pitru Paksha. It is believed that during these sixteen days nothing new, nor no good task should be done. In the Hindu tradition, prayers are offered to the gods and food to the ancestors. This ensures the pitru dosha is finished and the family is blessed. Pitru Paksha begins on a full moon day and ends on a new moon day. Men bathe in rivers and streams during the first sixteen days, and honor ancestors as far as seven generations back. Naturally, practices vary from region to region, however. You may ask why it is people honor their ancestors even though they are dead. It is believed that if the ancestors haven’t found peace in the afterlife, then the living, when they die, won’t find peace either and the family will have disputes. Each day during the Pitru Paksha has its own name, for the sake of overwhelming the reader, I’ll just mention that fact, haha.
There are many more cultures around the world who have death ceremonies, I’ve included some links below in the comments that have a nice summary of some other celebrations around the world. Take a look, maybe your ancestors practiced one of these ceremonies.
Like what you’ve read? Check out these posts for more death myths and ceremonies.
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