In the second of our three-part Spooktober special, we will take a look at some rituals around the world that celebrate death. It may seem strange at first but as the greatest wizard of all time once said, “To the well-organized mind, death is but the next great adventure.” (Psst, his name rhymes with “dumb old door.”) Also, make sure you sprinkle some salt over your shoulder after reading.
1) Mexico – Dia de los Muertos
In Mexico, dead ancestors are honoured during Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead). It is a three-day event running from 31st October through 2nd November every year, following the Catholic celebrations of All Hallows Eve, All Saints Day and All Souls Day. During this period, altars, shrines and tombs of dead ancestors are decorated with marigold, sugar skulls and ofrendas or offerings of the dead’s favourite things. People dress up as Catrina, a famous Mexican illustration of a female skeleton or Catrins, the male version. The origins of this ritual can actually be traced back 3000 years ago to the days of the Aztecs and was initially held on different dates.
2) Haiti – Fete Gede
The Haitian Festival of the Ancestors or Fete Gede is quite similar to the Mexicans’ Day of the Dead, with a voodoo twist. Falling on 2nd November (the same date as All Souls Day), Haitians make offerings at dead ancestors’ altars and shrines as well as visit their tombstones. Unlike in Mexico, however, practitioners of Fete Gede wear black, purple or white. They gather in the Haitian capital’s main cemetery to make offerings to Baron Samedi, the spirit whom practitioners believe is the father of all spirits. The day is commemorated with a lot of wild dancing and alcohol, believed to call out the dead. Some even believe the spirits may possess them during the celebrations.
3) India – Pitru Paksha
Pitru Paksha or Fortnight of the Ancestors is a ritual practiced by the Hindus. Depending on where you are in India, it falls on either the Hindu lunar month of Bhadrapada or Ashvin. Legend has it that when Karna the brave warrior died in the Mahabharata war, his soul went to heaven. However, instead of food, he was given gold and jewelry to eat. Indra, the lord of heaven, told him the reason is because though he had donated gold all his life, he had never donated food to his ancestors. To make up for his lack of awareness of his ancestors, Karna was sent back down to earth for 15 days to donate food and water. It is compulsory for men to perform the rite of Shraddha to invoke the ancestors and give them the offerings. If a crow arrives and eats the food, it is considered that the offerings are then accepted.
4) Nepal – Gai Jatra
Gai Jatra or the Festival of the Cows is a festival celebrated in Nepal by the Newar and Tharu community. It is held during the Nepalese month of Bhadra (August – September). In Hinduism, cows are considered the most sacred. Hindus believe that the cow will help guide the deceased ancestor to heaven. As such, families of those who have died in the year must take part in a procession through the streets of Kathmandu leading a cow. If a cow cannot be found, a boy dressed as a cow represents a good enough alternative. After the procession, everyone dresses up and wears masks. They break out in songs and crack jokes about one another. This tradition started when King Pratap Malla’s son died and his wife was distraught. In order to bring back her smile, the king would give a handsome reward to anyone who could make her laugh. In response, the people started making fun of the high-ranking people of society, which did the trick and made the queen smile again. This tradition of mockery, jokes and songs is upheld till today.
5) Madagascar – Famadihana
The Famadihana or the Turning of the Bones is a ritual practiced by the Malagasy people of Madagascar. It involves the exhumation of their ancestors from their family tomb and covering of a new burial shroud made of silk around their corpses. They then remember and thank their ancestors in a mournful reunion. What follows that is a celebratory parade around the tomb, the shrouded corpses on top of their family’s shoulders and live music playing in the background. It may sound quite macabre but to the Malagasy people this is a norm. They highly respect their ancestors and they believe that this ritual allows the living to come to terms with the death of their loved ones and to appreciate all they had done for them in the past. The ritual usually occurs during winter, between the months of June and September and only happens every seven years after their ancestors’ deaths.
Watch an Al Jazeera coverage of this ritual.
6) Ancient Egypt Funerary Practices
The veneration of the dead has existed in human history even thousands of years ago and none is more prominent than in the ancient Egyptian culture. The Egyptians were obsessed with the afterlife. Tombs were decorated elaborately with scripts from the Book of the Dead, bodies were embalmed to be preserved for as long as possible and all sorts of goods (and sometimes even people!) were buried along with the dead. The richer and higher in status you are, the more expensive and bigger your tomb.
The Egyptians believed that everyone should strive to get into the Land of Two Fields, which is, to them, what heaven is to us. In order to get there, the god Ra will take them on his boat. However, only those with a light heart are allowed entry, which the goddess Maat measures. The more good deeds you did in life, the lighter your heart. If your heart is too heavy, you will be stuck in your tomb forever.
To find out more about the ancient Egyptian civilizations watch John Green’s Crash Course World History here.
Reading about the different practices of honouring the dead from around the world, we realize that many people associate death with the afterlife and that the dead never truly leave us. Though the practices and rituals are all different, at the bottom of it all are the basic human feelings of fear, grief and acceptance in the face of death that cross cultures and time.
Stay tuned next week for the last part of our Spooktober Special! And in case you missed last week’s article about the Scariest Places on Earth, read it here!