10 Ways to Honor the Dead Around the World

Traditional day of the dead altar with pan de muerto and candles
Traditional day of the dead altar with pan de muerto and candles | © AGCuesta/Shutterstock
Ethel Dilouambaka

We may speak different languages, have different skin tones, pray to different deities (or none at all), and dress in totally different ways, but one thing we all have in common is death. Here is a tour around the world to learn about the interesting ways in which people honor their deceased.

Chuseok

Native to South Korea, Chuseok is a major holiday celebrated to give thanks to ancestors for a good harvest. While this festival may not celebrate the dead per se, it is the occasion for Koreans to pay their respects to their ancestors, either by visiting their homes and performing rituals or by visiting and cleaning the tombs of deceased family members. The festivities are also celebrated in North Korea, although to a lesser extent.

Plate of Songpyeon, a Korean rice cake, served at Chusoek

All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day

Gaijatra

In Nepal, Gaijatra (or Gai Jatra), is a celebration that lasts for eight days in August and September. Also called the Festival of the Cows, this is the occasion to commemorate the death of people during the previous year. The festival includes a procession of cows through the center of town, led by family members who have lost a loved one in the preceding year. Cows have a sacred status in Hinduism and are therefore thought to help guide the recently deceased to the afterlife. The festival is a light-hearted celebration and is meant to help people accept death and ease the passing of loved ones.

Gai Jatra is celebrated mainly in the Kathmandu Valley to commemorate the death of loved ones

Ari Muyang

Mostly celebrated by the Mah Meri, an aboriginal ethnic group on Carey Island (an island roughly 140km/90mi from the Malaysian capital, Kuala Lumpur), Ari Muyang is a festival intended to celebrate ancestors. On that day, locals don beautiful, intricate costumes and masks and offer prayers and blessings to their forefathers, and thank them for good fortune, asking them for prosperity in the future.

A member of Malaysia’s Mah Meri tribe participates in a Ari Muyang ritual

El Día de los Muertos

The Latin American equivalent to All Saint’s Day and All Souls’ Day, El Día de los Muertos, which means The Day of the Dead, is observed on the first and second days of November. Widely celebrated in Mexico, the holiday originates from an Aztec harvest celebration, during which a celebration dedicated to the goddess Mictecacihuatl, the Lady of the Dead. During the lively celebrations, families and friends gather and pray for those who have died. Convinced that mourning or signs of sadness would offend the departed, El Dia de los Muertos is actually a celebration of the life of those who died. The day includes much food and drink, as well as partaking in activities that the dead enjoyed in life.

People at a cemetery during The Day of the Dead in Oaxaca, Mexico

Famadihana

Famadihana (Turning of the Bones) is perhaps, to outsiders, one of the most unusual celebrations for the dead. Famadihana is a time of the year when Malagasy people remove corpses from their graves or crypts, spray them with perfume or drench them in wine, before wrapping them in silk and carried around the tomb with music and songs. This unique tradition comes from the belief that, until a body is fully decomposed, spirits of the dead can come and go between their world and ours. As such, the ritual is performed every seven years. While the tradition has declined in recent years, the celebration is one of the few occasions for entire families to come together.

Bon Festival

Celebrated for over 500 years in Japan, the Bon (or Obon) Festival was established to commemorate deceased ancestors. Lasting over three days, this Buddhist-Confucian tradition is not a solemn celebration, and often includes feasts with fireworks, games and dances, including the Bon Odori, a dance performed to welcome the spirits of the dead.

Bon festval at Higashiyama Onsen, Japan

Pitru Paksha

A Hindu tradition lasting fifteen days during the month of Ashwin, Pitru Paksha (Fortnight of the Ancestors) is the time during which people remember their ancestors, particularly through food offerings. Stemming from a Hindu myth (which tells of the soul of a deceased warrior couldn’t find any food in heaven because he had never honored his ancestors with food offerings) the festival includes several ceremonies and rituals, which are performed in order for departed souls to attain peace.

The Hungry Ghost Festival

The Hungry Ghost Festival, celebrated on the fifteenth night of the seventh lunar month (the ‘Ghost Month’) in the Chinese calendar, when spirits and ghosts are believed to leave the underworld and wander the living world. As such, this is a time to alleviate the sufferings of the dead. The festivities last the whole month, though the fifteenth day is given special attention and offerings are made on it. In addition, many people set an extra seat at the table for the deceased. At the end of the festival, people light flower-shaped water lanterns and place them on lakes or rivers to lead spirits back to the lower realms.

This is not the only time in Chinese culture to celebrate the dead, however. Qingming, also known as Ancestors Day or Tomb-Sweeping Day, is celebrated in early April, and is a time when families go to the tombs of their ancestors and clean them. The ritual includes the offering of food and tea, as well as joss paper (sheets of paper that are burned during traditional Chinese ceremonies that honour the deities or ancestors).

A ceremony table prepared for The Hungry Ghost Festival

Pchum Ben

One of the most important festivals in Khmer culture, Pchum Ben is celebrated each year around mid-September and mid-October, and stretches for fifteen days. During this time Cambodians gather together to fill pagodas (temples) with food and drink offerings to ease the deceased’s sufferings.

Buddhist monks during Pchum Ben (“Ancestors’ Day”), Wat Krom, Sihanoukville, Cambodia
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