Festivals of the Dead Around the World

In the United States, Halloween is mostly about candy, but elsewhere in the world celebrations honoring the departed have a spiritual meaning

Hungry Ghost Festival
Throwing money into the air during the celebration of the Hungry Ghost Festival.

In the United States, Halloween is big business: The National Retail Federation estimates that Americans spent over 6 billion dollars on candy, costumes and ghoulish decor during the 2013 holiday. But what has become a commercial feast for candy producers and pumpkin farmers actually has its roots in an ancient Celtic festival, Samhain, which marked the beginning of winter. The Celts believed that the night before Samhain, spirits from the other world came and destroyed vegetation with their breath, leaving the land barren for winter. People would leave food and wine on their doorsteps to appease the spirits, and wear masks when they left the house to blend in with them. Eventually, the pagan tradition was co-opted by the Christian church in the eighth century, and Samhain became All Saint's Day—or All Hallows. The night before became Hallows Eve (later Halloween for short).

Halloween retained its spiritual and macabre nature through many centuries, thanks to traditions like souling, where the poor would beg for pastries on November 2 (All Souls Day) in exchange for prayers for deceased relatives. In the 19th century, Irish and Scottish immigrants in America began to revive these traditions—with more of an emphasis on trick-or-treating than religious introspection—and by 2013, more than 150 million consumers participated in the modern American iteration of Halloween.

Around the world, many cultures have festivals intended to honor the dead. Like Samhain, some of them are linked to the change of seasons and the harvest, while others mirror the influence of Christianity, spread by missionaries throughout the world. If you're interested in checking out holidays for the dead—without fun-sized candy bars and jack-o'-lanterns—consider taking a trip to one of these seven festivals. But note that while many feature jubilant celebrations replete with dancing and music, they're meant first and foremost as a way to honor dead relatives and ancestors, and should be approached with respect.

Obon Festival

(Japanese Buddhist worshippers place one thousand floating paper lanterns in a river in Ichinomiya city. Credit: © EVERETT KENNEDY BROWN/epa/Corbis)

A traditional Buddhist festival, Obon commemorates lost ancestors, whose spirits are believed to come back during Obon to visit relatives. Sometimes called the Japanese Day of the Dead, Obon was traditionally celebrated during the seventh lunar month, around the 15th day. Today that roughly translates to August 15, and most festivals throughout Japan are held from August 13 to 16 (though in some areas of Tokoya, Obon is celebrated around July 15).

Since Obon commemorates the spirits of ancestors, many people return to their hometowns, and spend the holiday surrounded by family and friends. In Kyoto residents publicly mark the end of Obon by lighting giant bonfires in the hills surrounding the city; the fires are thought to guide spirits back to the world of the dead.

If you want to experience Obon, consider making a trip to Kyoto to see the fires and witness the bon-odori, a traditional dance meant to welcome spirits of the dead into the world of the living (catch a glimpse of these dances at public parks or temples). People also honor the deceased through toro nagashi, or floating lanterns, which are sent down rivers to the ocean. 

Día de los Muertos

Like Halloween, El Día de los Muertos is the product of ancient ritual mixed with Christian doctrine. Celebrated throughout Latin America—and by Mexican-Americans in the United States—it's most heavily associated with Mexico, where it began. Día de los Muertos actually takes place over two days, All Saints Day on November 1 and All Souls Day on November 2. The celebration emphasizes celebrating the lives of the deceased, complete with food, parades, dances and parties. Revelers believe that on Día de los Muertos, the spirits of the dead return to take part in the celebrations alongside the living.

To celebrate, people also decorate and clean the graves of deceased family members, removing weeds and debris and placing things that the deceased enjoyed while alive—food, drink and other offerings—at the grave site. A photo of the deceased is also added to the grave, creating a kind of altar. Pan de muerto, a sweet "bread of the dead," is another important part of the holiday—families bake loaves, meant to look like a pile of bones, to place on graves as well. The holiday is marked with bright, vivid colors, as well as images of skeletons and skulls, a remnant of an Aztec tradition where skulls were used during rituals to symbolize death and rebirth.

One of the best places to experience the vibrant holiday is Mixquic, a community southwest of Mexico City's center. The area—which retains strong ties to its indigenous history—is famous for its Día de los Muertos celebrations, with vendors setting up stalls in the streets days before November 1. During the holiday, Mixquic's cemetery comes alive with vibrant colors as residents create beautiful altars, using flowers and other decorations, around the graves.

Chuseok

Chuseok, often compared to American Thanksgiving, is Korea's largest national holiday, and is celebrated throughout both North and South Korea. Marked with dancing, games and food, Chuseok is also a time for Koreans to honor their ancestors. The holiday is celebrated on the 15th day of the eighth lunar calendar month (which translates to sometime in September or October). Traditionally, the celebration coincides with the fall harvest—and during the three-day festival, the living give thanks to the dead for their part in providing bountiful crops.

Families celebrate Chuseok by sharing the harvest with others, so the holiday is food-centric, with food prepared from the harvest and traditional Korean rice cakes enjoyed in the morning. Throughout the day, Koreans visit and clean the graves of their ancestors. At night, under the full moon, they participate in folk games and traditional dances. 

If you want to get a true sense of this ancient holiday, consider heading to any of South Korea's well-preserved ancient villages, such as the Namsangol Hanok Village or the Korean Folk Village, which host special celebrations for the holiday.

Hungry Ghost Festival

For Buddhists and Taoists, an entire month is spent each year honoring their ancestors. The month—known as Hungry Ghost Month—culminates in the Hungry Ghost Festival, when the gates to the netherworld are said to be most open to the world of the living. Often, people avoid going out at night for fear that ghosts who have passed through the gates will haunt them.

Like Halloween, however, the Hungry Ghost Festival balances fear with frivolity. Celebrations begin with a parade, which culminates with lanterns being placed on floats and released onto bodies of water. Families believe that the further the lantern travels before catching fire, the luckier the family will be in the coming year.

During the Hungry Ghost Festival, families place food on altars to appease hungry spirits. They also place paper offerings—fake money, cut-out cars, paper watches—into metal bins; the paper in the bins is then set on fire, and the offerings are meant to provide for the ancestors in their afterlife. 

Held on the 15th day of the seventh lunar month (July or August by Gregorian standards), Hungry Ghost Day is celebrated throughout China, but for the biggest celebrations, stick to the cities.

Gai Jatra

Gai Jatra, or festival of the cows, is one of the most popular holidays in Nepal and is held each year in August or September. Families who lost a relative in the last year lead a cow (or a child dressed as a cow, if a cow can't be procured) down the village street in a procession. The cow is one of the most revered animals in Hinduism, and participants believe that the animal will help lead the deceased family member into the afterlife. 

The festival is believed to have begun in the 17th century, when Nepal's King Pratap Malla invited people to dress in costume and perform plays and stunts in front of the palace, in the hopes of making his wife happy again after the couple lost their young son. The queen did indeed smile at the sight of the celebration, and the parade has continued ever since. Today, participants still dress in costume to celebrate the procession. Nepal's cities celebrate Gai Jatra with verve, so consider a trip to Kathmandu if you want to witness the festivities. 

Pchum Ben

Sometime between mid-September and mid-October each year, Cambodian life slows down in observance of Pchum Ben, one of the most important holidays in the Khmer religious calendar. The holiday lasts for fifteen days, during which time Cambodians gather at pagodas (wearing white, the Cambodian color of mourning) to remember ancestors. During the 15 days of Pchum Ben, the line between the living and dead is thought to be at its thinnest—Cambodians believe that during Pchum Ben, spirits come back in search of living relatives, hoping to atone for sins from their past life. 

Like in China, the spirits who wander through the world of the living are thought of as "hungry ghosts," and as such, are offered food and drink to help placate their otherworldly suffering. Cambodians carry food to pagodas, which Buddhist monks then offer to the souls of the deceased. 

Because Pchum Ben is such an important holiday—one that nearly every Cambodian participates in—visitors can see rituals and festivities in any Cambodian city. But since Pchum Ben is first and foremost a religious holiday, it's important to observe certain requirements, such as wearing white and avoiding tank tops, shorts or clothing that might be deemed disrespectful.