How the World Honours the Dead

Dancing, opening graves and feeding crows: an illustrated guide to appeasing the spirits.  
Halloween pumpkins
The Halloween pumpkin has its roots in the Irish festival of Samhain. Illustration: Surabhi Thakker

In the spirit of celebrating the souls of the dead, we’ve rustled up seven ways that cultures around the world honour those who’ve passed on. Some rituals may seem spooky at first glance; others are more familiar to the world at large, such as donning a guise for Halloween. But the intentions of all are to pay respects to those on the other side, in turn dispelling fears often associated with death. From interceding with monks in Cambodia to trading pastries for prayers in Ireland, here’s how to keep the souls of your ancestors happy.

Obon, Japan

Obon, Japan

Chochin are floated down rivers in Japan at the end of Obon. Illustration: Surabhi Thakker

Also known as Bon-Odori, this Japanese Buddhist custom occurs on the 15th day of the seventh lunar month (July-August) and honours ancestral spirits. The period marks a time when spirits come back to be reunited with their loved ones. Families congregate to welcome their ancestral spirits. People clean their houses, food is offered on a butsudan (Buddhist altar), and flowers and chochin (paper lanterns) are placed around this altar. According to legend, one of the Buddha’s followers, Mokuren, asked the Buddha how he could release his dead mother, who was suffering in the realm of “hungry ghosts” (cursed spirits that plague the jealous or greedy). The Buddha advised that he make offerings to monks on this particular day in the lunar calendar. Soon after, he witnessed his mother’s release and was filled with such joy that he broke into dance, now known as the Bon Odori or Bon Dance. These dances to the beat of drums continue today. At the end of the festival, a toro nagashi – where floating paper lanterns are sent down rivers – is done as a send-off for these spirits. While Obon is specific to Japan, the Hungry Ghost Festival – based on the same story – is celebrated across East Asia during this time.

Pitru Paksha, India

Every year, for 16 days in the Bhadrapada month of the Hindu calendar (September-October), Hindus pay homage to their ancestors. Pitru Paksha literally translates to “fortnight of the ancestors”. One of the legends that trace the origin of this event is from the Mahabharata. Karna, one of the great warriors in the epic, was renowned for his acts of charity. After his death, in heaven, he was given jewels and gold to eat, instead of real food. Perplexed, he approached Indra who explained that he was being given what he had donated – gold and jewels. To remedy this, he was allowed back on earth for 16 days where he performed shraddh (a ritual to honour one’s ancestors). Hindus also believe that their ancestors visit them during this solemn period with blessings. Food is offered, and often regarded as accepted only when eaten by a crow, a creature believed to be closely associated with ancestors in the next realm.

Dia De Los Muertos, Mexico

La Calaveras Catrina, Mexico

“La Calaveras Catrina”, first illustrated by Jose Guadalupe Posada, was meant to be a satirical comment on the impending death of the privileged classes. Now it’s a recurring motif in Dia De Los Muertos celebrations. Illustration: Surabhi Thakker

Dia de los Muertos (or the Day of the Dead) is observed by Mexicans from October 31 to November 2, to honour and celebrate their ancestors. The practice encourages an affinity with the afterlife. It is believed that departed souls revisit their earthly pasts on these days. Traditionally, November 1 is dedicated to the souls of little children (Dia de los Angelitos) while the next day is when the adult souls appear. Calaveras (skulls) and calacas (skeletons) are recurrent motifs seen on everything from candies to costumes, and in keeping with the idea of the celebration, are far more festive than haunting. Altars to the departed are decorated with sugar skulls, the deceased’s favourite foods are offered on these altars and floral arrangements are placed on graves. Some families gather in the graveyard to listen to funny stories about their loved ones who’ve passed on; there may also be musicians patrolling these areas, playing an ancestor’s favourite songs.

Samhain, Ireland

This Gaelic festival is at the root of modern-day Halloween. The festival marks the end of the harvest season and the beginning of winter (or the “darker” quarter of the year). According to Irish mythology, Samhain is a liminal time when the veil between life and death is thin, allowing spirits to wander freely over from the other side. Traditionally celebrated by pagans and Wiccans, the event centres around bonfires, dancing and thanksgiving. Halloween’s pumpkins – as well as a number of its rituals – are said to find their origins here. The bonfires were supposed to ward away spirits. Gradually, scary-faced carvings on lit-up pumpkins replaced the huge fires. Food and wine were also left outside homes to appease the ghosts, and people who ventured outside went in costume – often dressed up as ghosts – to go unnoticed. The poor also visited wealthy homes, exchanging their prayers for pastries (known as “soul cakes”) – a tradition that is said to have inspired Halloween’s trick or treating. A similar event in Wales is Calan Gaeaf. Signifying the first day of winter (on November 1), people avoid churchyards and crossroads – places where spirits are thought to gather.

Chuseok, Korea

This festival is commonly referred to as Korean Thanksgiving. Celebrated on the brightest full moon of the year – also the 15th day of the eighth month of the lunar calendar (September-October) – Chuseok is a major harvest festival and a three-day holiday in Korea. Locals head back to their ancestral hometowns for feasts and rituals. Tradition dictates three such rituals: Bulcho, where weeds grown around graves must be pulled up. Neglected graves are a bad sign, enough to taint a family’s reputation. Sungmyo has Koreans visiting ancestral grave sites to pay their respects, frequently with food offerings. Another ritual, Charye, involves preparing a special meal for the ancestors, each component of which has its designated position on the table. Songpyeon (small rice cakes), a local speciality, is made for this traditional festival.

Pchum Ben, Cambodia

Pchum Ben, Cambodia

On the last day of Pchum Ben, food offered to the monks is presented to the visiting ancestors. Illustration: Surabhi Thakker

On the 15th day of the 10th month of the Khmer calendar (September-October), Cambodian Buddhists celebrate Pchum Ben as a reminder to respect and revere their ancestors. For the preceding 14 days – each day is known as Kan Ben – people take turns giving food (Ben refers to the balls of rice given as offerings) to monks at their local pagoda. The hope is that these offerings will reach the souls of their ancestors through the intercession of the monks. On the final day of Pchum Ben, every pagoda in the country dedicates the offerings to the souls of the ancestors. Devotees dress in their traditional attire and visit the pagoda with candles, incense and food. A common belief is that if this religious duty is ignored, the ancestral soul is cursed and will haunt its descendants for the remainder of the year.

Famadihana, Madagascar

Famadihana isn’t a festival but a funerary tradition vital to Malagasy culture. Every winter, between June and September, families gather to open up family tombs. Each corpse is exhumed and rewrapped every seven years, unless there’s a crisis – in which case, the practice takes place at an earlier date. Corpses are placed on the laps of women for the presenting of offerings, wrapped in new cloths by the men, and then danced with around the tomb. This “turning of the bones” is based on the belief that the spirits of the dead join the ancestors only after complete decomposition of the body and appropriate ceremonies. The practice is thought to invite the blessings rather than the wrath of the dead. The ceremony is followed by a huge party organised by the family.


    Fabiola Monteiro is Features Writer on National Geographic Traveller India's web team. She loves beaches, blue skies, and baking, and is most centred while trying a new cake recipe. She tweets as @thefabmonteiro.


    Surabhi Thakker was Art intern with National Geographic Traveller India. She's always been in love with wildlife and nature and is passionate about graphic design and travel. She enjoys both illustration and photography.

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