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Death Holidays and Why We Celebrate Them

Oct. 29, 2021 — Autumn is a season of preparation: It is a time of harvest before scarcity, gathering seeds before snow, crispness before cold, and vibrant color before grey monotony. With that, it’s not surprising that many cultures mark the season by celebrating abundant life in parallel with inevitable death and remembering those who came before. But these holidays in different regions around the world are a study in contrasts.

Among the most commercialized of these celebrations is the U.S. custom of Halloween. It has a carnival atmosphere in which, “revelry, 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 losing inhibitions and poking fun at the horrifying. Halloween nods at mortality with imagery 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 just such a perfect representation of what American culture does to death,” says Erica Buist, author of This Party’s Dead, a book about death festivals around the world.

“Halloween — Samhain — was a [Celtic] death festival, and the Americans have taken it and they’ve made it spooky,” she says. “It’s a way of engaging with it, without any of the actual engagement.”

Religious holidays like Catholic All Souls’ Day make space for a more eyes-forward recognition of mortality through visiting the gravesites of lost loved ones. But in secular U.S. society, such opportunities are few. Perhaps that is because in U.S. culture, “Death is scary. Death is gross,” Kim says.

Halloween is perhaps a way to push back — to make death flamboyant or even darkly funny.

“Death is not only a terrifying prospect, but also a very abstract one, because we cannot imagine what it is like to not exist,” says Dimitris Xygalatas, PhD, an anthropologist and cognitive scientist at the University of Connecticut.

But in non-U.S. cultures, “people have a different relationship to death, where it is much more acknowledged as something that we deal with every day,” Kim says.

Occurring just after Halloween in many Latin countries, the Day of the Dead descended from South American indigenous celebrations. According to legend, on this day, ancestors come back to life to feast, drink, and dance with their living relatives. In turn, the living treat the dead as honored guests, leaving favorite foods and gifts such as sugar skulls on shrines or gravesites.

It is a day of celebration, “not being fearful of death, but really seeing that death is a part of life,” Kim says.

The Sicilian Day of the Dead is similarly festive. Families bring flowers to brighten gravesites, and parents hide “gifts from the dead” for their children to find in the morning, strengthening the bond between generations. Shops are brightened by marzipan fruits and cookies that resemble bones. These practices teach children that, “you can mention these people, you are supposed to talk about them,” Buist says.

Then there’s the Japanese Buddhist celebration of Obon, which typically takes place in August and also focuses on ancestors. For Obon, people will clean gravesites and perhaps share a meal, but the biggest public expression happens at the temples. People hang or float lanterns with names of those who have died that year, and the community comes together to dance. Music accompanied by the booms of live drums is customary and whether the songs are traditional or contemporary, “the idea really is that you are dancing without ego. You are dancing without caring about what you look like. And you are dancing to remember the ancestors who gave you your life and this moment,” Kim says.

Similar celebrations are held in China, Nepal, Thailand, Madagascar, Spain, Ireland, India, Haiti, and the Philippines. Death holidays seem as human as language. Their importance centers on “this idea of continuum versus end,” Kim says.

Emphasizing this cyclical view, death holidays encourage a continued relationship with the dead, Buist says. “Have you ever heard that phrase, ‘Grief is love with nowhere to go?'” she asks. “It’s this thing that we say here, and I feel like everywhere else they’ve gone, ‘well give it somewhere to go then.'” Across cultures, many of the traditions of these holidays are “just like taking care of somebody,” she notes.

Death holidays give love somewhere to go, and they give us a time and place to do it.

“Having these things punctuate the calendar means that we get this designated time and space,” says Kim, noting that they enable our coping with death in a community space. These practices ensure that we do not have to grieve, consider our legacies, commemorate lost family and face our mortality alone.

The ritual of death holidays, Xygalatas says, “makes the prospect of our own death just a little less terrifying.”

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