Must-Know Festivals That Honor the Dead

Posted August 16, 2017

5 min read

“Throughout our history, we’ve mourned and honored the dead in many different ways,” says Jacob Terranova, a content writer for Frazer Consultants. (Frazer Consultants is a company that helps funeral professionals reimagine the funeral experience for their families through websites, stationery, videos, and many more offerings.)

“And still today, festivals around the world honor the dead,” explains Terranova—even though when many people (mostly outside the funeral profession) hear the idea of a “festival of the dead” they aren’t sure what to make of it.

“Many times, when you hear ‘Festival of the Dead,’ it is thought of as morbid,” says Terranova. “But many of the festivals aren’t somber or gloomy—they’re the opposite,” he explains. They’re actually meant to celebrate the memories and lives of those lost. It’s another way that people honor and create a sense of connection with their loved ones.

We sat down with Terranova to continue to uncover more about how different cultures are honoring the dead today. Here we break down 4 highlights from our conversation.

Traditions of Honoring the Dead

Let’s look deeper at 4 of the largest and most relevant festivals honoring the dead.

1. Día de los Muertos - celebrated throughout Mexico, especially in the Central and South regions, but also celebrated elsewhere

Día de los Muertos (also known as the “Day of the Dead”) is probably the most recognized festival of the dead—in fact many would at least recognize the name when hearing it.

This Latin American celebration is a mix of both ancient cultural rituals and Christianity. “The holiday focuses on the celebration of the deceased. And, people celebrate the memories of loved ones in different ways, such as parades, dances, food, parties, and leaving offerings at the gravesite,” says Terranova.

Look for it: October 31-November 2

2. Obon – celebrated primarily in Japan

Obon (also referred to just as “Bon”) is a traditional Buddhist-Confucian festival, and like other festivals, it’s about remembering and honoring our deceased relatives, says Terranova.

“The official date varies annually, as do the types of ways people celebrate. One of the most famous examples of the holiday take place in Kyoto.” In Kyoto, two customs include a giant public bonfire and traditional dancing to celebrate those who have passed.

Look for it: 15th day of the 7th lunar month

3. The Hungry Ghost Festival – celebrated in China, Vietnam, Taiwan, Korea, Japan, Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia and beyond

The Hungry Ghost Festival is another Buddhist (and Taoist) festival that is a month long. “It bears a lot of similarity with our Halloween, but instead of handing out candy to kids in costumes, offerings are left on alters to appease the spirits.” Also called the Zhongyuan Festival or Yulan Festival, it’s believed that during this festival, the deceased visit the living.

It’s part of a greater celebration, Ghost Month, where descendants honor family members who have died. Customs include preparing certain food offerings, burning incense, and more.

Look for it: In late August or early September

4. Qingming – celebrated primarily in China

Qingming is a festival similar to the Day of the Dead celebrated in China. The literal translation of Qingmin is “Pure Brightness Festival.”

The festival originated from the Cold Food Festival by Chong’er, Duke Wen of Jin, who had started the festival to celebrate and memorialize his retainer, Jie ZItui.

Another story also exists: that Emperor Xuanzong wanted to change how people were celebrating their deceased loves ones, believing that—at the time—the celebrations were getting all too extravagant. He reportedly made a proclamation that people should only pay respects once a year, on Qingmin. This action only further solidified the celebration into society years ago (1).

“The festival lasts three days. Families spend time visiting the gravesite of the deceased, bringing offerings such as flowers, wine, and food,” says Terranova. They also take the time to clean tombs, removing any overgrown weeds—tidying them up in the process, explains Terranova.

Look for it: In early April

The Evolution of Halloween

While other regions throughout the world have larger, more common festivals and customs that celebrate the dead, in America, of course there is Halloween. “The historical evolution of Halloween is definitely an interesting one. It’s been influenced by so many things, from Celtic festivals to Christianity,” says Terranova. “It’s interesting to see how it’s grown from a festival of the dead into a secular holiday today.”

Aside from the historical origins of Halloween, today, the Halloween holiday we experience in the states isn’t about death or remembering the deceased. “Again, it’s a very secular holiday. Those that adhere to a certain faith will have their own specific days set aside for veneration of the departed.”

While these are just brief descriptions of four notable festivals found around the world, Terranova encourages funeral professionals to learn more about major festivals that occur around the world. “These celebrations tend to focus on spiritual or emotional connections [people have] with the departed, and in many cases, it’s something we don’t typically see in American culture, where death is often treated as a taboo topic.”

Terranova likes the idea of creating a US-based festival that could focus solely on not just remembering, but celebrating those who have passed

“It would not only help us keep and sustain a stronger connection with their memories, but also maybe help us overcome our own fears about death,” says Terranova. “We have a lot of hesitation when it comes to discussing death, but perhaps by adopting our own festival, we could find it easier to think about how we want to be remembered when we are gone.”

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