Festivals of the Dead

Celebrations to honor the dead are common throughout the world.

By Dmitri KesselLIFE Photo Collection

Connecting to Dead

Throughout history, humans have sought to honor and speak to the dead. Many cultures, past and present, hold festivals to venerate their family and friends who have passed on.  

Page from the Book of the Dead of Hunefer (-1285/-1285)British Museum

The Wag Festival

Such traditions date all the way back to the ancient Egyptians, who celebrated the Wag festival. Dedicated to Osiris, the god of the dead, afterlife, and resurrection, the festival honored those who passed on.

A feast for Nebamun, the top half of a scene from the tomb-chapel of Nebamun (-1370/-1370)British Museum

Afterlife Journey

During the festival, people would construct papyrus boats and put them on the graves of loved ones facing West, or float papyrus shrines down the Nile River, symbolizing their journey to the afterlife.  

The Ghost Festival

Paper offerings are also an important part of Ghost Festival in East Asia, also known as the Zhongyuan Festival in Taoism and Yulanpen Festival in Buddhism. This is a full month when the souls of the dead are free to roam the Earth.

Closing the Doors of Hell

People make offerings, including burning paper money and food, to appease and show respect to the dead. At the end of the festival, boats or lanterns are set afloat in the water to guide spirits back as the doors of hell close behind them.

Seung Moon Street, Canton (about 1870) by Chan, A.The J. Paul Getty Museum

Rules for Survival

During this festival, there are important rules to remember to keep yourself safe from menacing ghosts including: don’t take pictures at night, don’t touch another person’s shoulder, and don’t wear red or black. 

Perilous Time

People also avoid making big life changes during this month, so avoid getting married, buying new cars, or moving houses. 

The Obon Festival

Also known as the Bon festival, this Japanese Buddhist celebration commemorates dead ancestors. Families gather together and hang lanterns to guide the spirits home to visit their families.

Bon Odori

As part of the traditions, people place food offerings on graves or family altars. The celebrations also include special dances, known as Bon Odori, which are specific to each region. 

Day of the Dead

You may be familiar with one of the most famous festivals of the dead, Día de Muertos, which originated in Mexico. Like the Obon Festival, it is a time for family and friends to honor the dead.

Ma'nene

Some traditions focus on not just the soul of the deceased, but also their physical bodies. The Torajan culture of Indonesia views death as a gradual process of transition into the afterlife. The deceased body is kept in the house, sometimes for years, until the funeral.

Every year, or few years, the bodies are exhumed to be cleaned and redressed before returning them to their burial place. 

Famadihana

Madagascar has a similar tradition, known as the turning of the bones. During this celebration, families reunite with their deceased loved ones. People remove the dead from their crypts, rewrap them in fresh cloth, and write their names on the outside of the cloth to ensure their memory lives on. 

By Alfred EisenstaedtLIFE Photo Collection

Many Traditions, One Purpose

All these celebrations are unique, but they share one purpose: venerating the dead and honoring those who have passed on, ensuring the dead live on in the memories of their loved ones. 

Credits: Story

Story by Tessa Litecky

This story was created in association with a museum exhibition and academic conference titled Exalted Spirits: The Veneration of the Dead in Egypt through the Ages, jointly organized by The American Research Center in Egypt (ARCE), The American University in Cairo (AUC), and the Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities (MoTA) in Egypt. 

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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