Days of death and why we celebrate them
October 29, 2021 – Autumn is a time of preparation: it is a time of harvest before scarcity, collecting seeds before the snow, crispness before the cold and bright colors before the gray monotony. Hence, it is not surprising that many cultures celebrate the season by celebrating life in abundance in parallel with inevitable death and remembering those who came before. But these vacations in different regions of the world are a study of contrasts.
One of the most commercialized festivals is the US custom of Halloween. It’s a carnival atmosphere where “feasts, chaos, and possibly scary things can just run amok,” says Sojin Kim, PhD, curator at the Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage. The day (or night) is about breaking down inhibitions and making fun of the terrible. Halloween nods to mortality with images of skeletons and murderous dolls, but the focus is on decorations, costumes, and candy. Absent is a sober pause to remember the finality of life.
“American Halloween is such a perfect representation of what American culture did to death,” says Erica Buist, author of This party is dead, a book about feasts of the dead around the world.
“Halloween – Samhain – was a [Celtic] The feast of death, and the Americans took it and made it scary, ”she says. “It’s a way to deal with it without the actual commitment.”
Religious holidays like Catholic All Souls Day create space for more forward-looking recognition of mortality by visiting the graves of lost loved ones. But such opportunities are rare in secular US society. Maybe that’s because in American culture, “death is scary. Death is disgusting, ”says Kim.
Halloween may be a way to push back – to make death extravagantly or even somberly funny.
“Death is not only a terrifying prospect, but also a very abstract one because we cannot imagine what it is like not to exist,” says Dimitris Xygalatas, PhD, anthropologist and cognitive scientist at the University of Connecticut.
But in non-US cultures, “people have a different relationship with death, where it is recognized much more as something we deal with every day,” says Kim.
Day of the Dead, which occurred shortly after Halloween in many Latin American countries, was derived from South American indigenous celebrations. Legend has it that on this day the ancestors are brought back to life to feast, drink and dance with their living relatives. In return, the living treat the dead as guests of honor and leave favorite foods and gifts such as sugar skulls on shrines or graves.
It’s a day of celebration, “not to be afraid of death, but to really see that death is a part of life,” says Kim.
The Sicilian Day of the Dead is similarly festive. Families bring flowers to beautify graves and parents hide “gifts from the dead” so their children can find in the morning to strengthen the bond between the generations. Marzipan fruits and bone-like biscuits brighten up the shops. These practices teach children that “You can mention these people, talk about them,” says Buist.
Then there is the Japanese Buddhist celebration of Obon, which usually takes place in August and which also focuses on the ancestors. For Obon, people will clean graves and maybe share a meal, but most of the public opinion takes place in the temples. People hang or float lanterns with the names of those who died that year and the community comes together to dance. Music accompanied by the roar of live drums is common, and whether the songs are traditional or contemporary, “The idea really is that you dance without ego. You dance without caring about how you look. And you dance to remember the ancestors. ” who gave you your life and this moment, “says Kim.
Similar celebrations take place in China, Nepal, Thailand, Madagascar, Spain, Ireland, India, Haiti and the Philippines. Death vacations appear as human as language. Its meaning centers on “that idea of continuum towards the end,” says Kim.
Emphasizing this cyclical view, death holidays promote an ongoing relationship with the dead, Buist says. “Have you ever heard the phrase, ‘Grief is love that goes nowhere?’” She asks. “It’s this thing we’re saying here, and I feel like they went everywhere else: ‘Then give it somewhere.’” Across cultures, many of the traditions of these holidays are “like taking care of someone , ”She notes.
Death vacations give love a place to go, and they give us the time and place to do it.
“When these things underline the calendar, it means we get that particular time and space,” Kim says, noting that they allow us to deal with death in a common room. These practices ensure that we do not grieve, consider our legacies, remember the lost family, and face our mortality alone.
The death holiday ritual, says Xygalatas, “makes the prospect of our own death a little less terrifying.”
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