Death is often viewed as something to fear or a taboo subject most would rather avoid talking about. But in cultures around the world, there are specific holidays and observances to celebrate and honor the dead. While celebrations are as diverse as life itself, all pay tribute to lost loved ones with rich cultural customs. We’ll explore four prominent festivals that celebrate the dead, explaining their origin, traditions and more.
1. Obon Festival
Known as Obon or Bon, this festival is one of the most important celebrations in Japanese culture. During this three-day festival, the souls of dead ancestors are invited by the living to revisit their homes. Families come together to welcome them by celebrating their life, spirit and legacy. The holiday, which takes place on July 15 or August 15, depending on the region, is joyful with beautiful displays of light, singing and dancing.
Some of the unique traditions that accompany Obon include:
Obon Lights: On the first day of the festival, it’s common for families to light-up small paper lanterns outside entryways to guide the spirits of ancestors toward their homes.
Obon Odori Dance: Communities come together to perform the elaborate Obon Odori dance with joyful choreography celebrating their ancestors’ freedom from suffering.
Grave Visits: Families travel to the resting place of loved ones with a pail of water and ladle for a ritual cleaning of the gravestone. Brushes are used to clear debris on headstones.
Food Offerings: Special delicacies, known as ozen, are prepared and shared with the dead. Offerings include fish, rice, tea, fruit and sweet treats usually served on lotus leaves.
Chuseok is celebrated in North and South Korea in early fall. While it primarily celebrates the harvest, it includes many traditions that honor the dead. This three-day holiday begins with a pilgrimage from large cities to smaller, rural hometowns, where families pay respects to the spirits of their lost loved ones.
Families visit the tombs of their immediate ancestors to clean the gravesite and trim plants, followed by a symbolic bow and ceremonial offering to the dead. Offerings vary with the departed’s preference and include their favorite food and drinks, usually meats, rice and wine. In addition to celebrating past loved ones, whose spirits are believed to be present for four generations, Koreans celebrate Chuseok to receive the blessings of their ancestors for a bountiful harvest.
3. Pitru Paksha
Pitru Paksha is a 16-day Hindu holiday where families pay homage to ancestors who have departed from the material world. The weeks-long observance is filled with prayer offerings and charitable donations to those in need – all in honor of lost loved ones.
The holiday is an opportunity to express gratitude to the generations who came before, specifically the three generations preceding, who, according to Hindu texts, wander the realm between heaven and Earth. It is believed that the rituals performed during the holiday, which include lifestyle restrictions, can help ancestors reach moksha or salvation.
4. El Dia de Los Muertos
El Día de Los Muertos, or The Day of the Dead, is traditionally celebrated on November 1 and 2, although other regions observe the holiday on October 31 and November 6. While often confused with Halloween, the holiday is a Mexican tradition where families welcome back the souls of dead loved ones for a 24-hour reunion celebration.
During El Día de Los Muertos, it is believed that the gates of heaven are opened at midnight, and the spirits of loved ones can rejoin their families for 24 hours. Departed children return on the first day, with departed adults returning on the second.
Traditions include costumes, parades and other festive celebrations centered around feasts with drinking, dancing and music where the deceased are honored guests. Families prepare their favorite foods and drinks at gravesites or offrendas, homemade altars built inside the home. Offrendas are often elaborately decorated with candles, marigold flowers, candy skulls and pan de muerto, a traditional sweet bread.
Celebrating the Life of Your Lost Loved Ones
Taking time to remember lost loved ones and family members throughout the year can help you and others grieve and mourn while keeping their memory alive. Whether it’s a religious or cultural observance or a more personal tribute like celebrating a birthday or anniversary, there are many ways to honor deceased loved ones. Learn more ways to celebrate life in death and how you can plan a celebration of life.
At The Love Always Project, we know how difficult it can be to talk about death or say goodbye to a loved one. If you or someone you know recently lost someone, our grief, loss and bereavement resources can help. We believe that healing can begin when we’re ready to acknowledge the complex emotions we’re feeling. Learn more about our mission to help others cope with loss and discuss end-of-life issues: Join the movement.