How we respond to death can be deeply affected by our culture. While many of us respond to death with feelings of grief, some cultures choose to see death as an opportunity to celebrate. Depending on a culture’s beliefs about life after death, they may choose to celebrate their loved one’s reincarnation or passage into the afterlife.
Other cultures may celebrate their loved one’s legacy or honor their ancestors in hopes of some familial blessings or provisions. Feelings around the topic of death are heavily influenced by cultural beliefs about death. Here you will read about cultures around the world that celebrate death through various festivals and celebrations.
1. Mexico: Dia de Los Muertos
Dia de Los Muertos — or Day of the Dead — is a ceremony in Mexico that is celebrated on November 1 and 2. The Day of the Dead is a time of celebration when families welcome back the souls of their departed loved ones.
At midnight on October 31st, the gates of heaven are supposedly opened for the souls of children to reunite with their families. On November 2, the souls of adults reunite with their families for 24 hours. It is believed that the border between the living and the dead disappears during this holiday.
The celebration is alive with music, dancing, and decadent food and drinks. Since family members welcome their deceased loved ones as guests, families prepare their loved ones' favorite foods for the reunion.
During this Mexican holiday, the streets are populated with parades and people dressed in costume. The most common symbol associated with the Day of the Dead is the sugar skeleton.
For this reason, individuals will dress in skeleton masks or paint their faces to display a skeleton face. People will also adorn themselves and the streets with bright colors that each have a significant meaning.
Vital to this celebration is the ofrenda (altar) decorated with pictures of deceased ancestors and their favorite foods and drinks. Ofrendas are often garnished with marigolds, the Day of the Dead’s symbolic flower. Decorating the ofrenda with pictures of deceased family members is believed to guide the ancestors' souls back to their families.
2. Ghana: Fantasy Coffins
Another culture that celebrates death is communities in Ghana, Africa. Ghana fantasy coffins are a way to honor the life and profession of loved ones who have passed away.
These coffins are constructed to represent the profession that individuals held during their lifetime. From an airplane coffin for a deceased pilot to a truck-shaped coffin for a driver, these fantasy coffins leave plenty of room for imagination.
Families may also choose coffins to represent different attributes of their lost loved one or animals they feel embody characteristics of their loved one. Owl coffins could be created to signify the wisdom of the deceased, or a lion could represent fearless leadership. This is where the fantasy comes into play — the coffins can be anything the family thinks their loved one would want.
For over five decades, fantasy coffins have been a way that Ghanaians celebrate their dead. Funerals in Ghana often consist of music and dancing as well as dining. During these celebrations, fantasy coffins are carried to the funeral. Pallbearers carry fantasy coffins on their shoulders while dancing to music and wearing brightly colored clothing.
3. Madagascar: Famadihana
Famadihana is a celebration of the dead that happens every five to seven years in Madagascar. Famadihana means “the turning of the bones” and is a time when deceased loved ones are unearthed and their burial cloths are removed and replaced with fresh shrouds.
The celebration exists so that family members can meet their deceased relatives. It is also a time for family members who knew their ancestors to share memories and stories in their honor. It also exists to bring living family members together to strengthen familial bonds.
During this celebration, family members will eat a meal of rice and pork together and share stories of ancestors with younger generations. This day is called the entry day. The next day is wrapping day, which is a time for family members to visit their loved one’s tomb together and replace their old burial shrouds with new ones.
4. Bali: Ngaben
In Bali, death is a time of celebration because it is believed to be the soul’s entry into reincarnation. Balinese people believe the body to have no significance except for providing a shell or temporary dwelling place for the soul.
Ngaben is a cremation ceremony where family members and friends will gather for their loved one’s cremation. Ngaben ceremonies are a time without weeping and mourning because families believe their loved one has returned to God.
When preparing a Ngaben ceremony, families must consult a spiritual advisor to determine the day of cremation because not all days are acceptable. Families must then have a casket made. These caskets are constructed in the form of various animals such as a bull, cow, or lion. A cremation tower must also be constructed for this occasion.
The Ngaben ceremony is an all-day celebration. The departed loved one’s village gathers early in the morning to hear music and watch dancers partake in a sacred dance. Once the body is cremated, their ashes are sent to sea as a way of returning them to nature.
5. New Orleans: Jazz Funeral
While many death celebrations occur on international soil, communities in New Orleans, Louisiana know a thing or two about celebrating death. The Jazz Funeral is a New Orleans tradition that celebrates life. Known as the birthplace of Jazz, New Orleans is known for parades and celebrations that include lively music and dancing.
Jazz Funerals gained popularity in the 19th century as funeral attendees engaged in a procession. Mourners would follow a jazz band to the church or funeral location as the band played somber music. After the ceremony, the music would change as the band began to play more lively and upbeat jazz music.
The upbeat music at the close of the ceremony is an intentional celebration of the person’s life. These ceremonies encapsulate the conflicting emotions that arise when we lose a remarkable loved one. Family members and friends grieve the loss of those they love while celebrating their life and the ways they impacted those around them.
6. China: Qingming
Qingming is known as tomb-sweeping day, a day dedicated to ancestral worship. Families visit the tombs of their deceased family members to bring food, drinks, and money as offerings. Families may even cultivate new soil for their ancestors' graves as well as sweep the tomb and remove weeds.
This festival typically involves the use of willow tree branches to ward off evil spirits. Families will place these branches on gates or their front doors to protect them from spirits they believe may be wandering during the festival. Families may also plant willow trees by their ancestors' graves.
Kite flying is another custom that is important to the Qingming celebration. Families will fly kites during the day and into the evening. Often, lanterns are even tied to kites to illuminate the night sky. Kites are sometimes cut and released into the sky, a practice that is believed to bring good luck and ward off disease.
The Qingming festival can be traced back over 2,500 years ago to the Zhou Dynasty. Royal families would offer sacrifices to their ancestors in hopes of receiving wealth, peace, and a good harvest in return. Today, this tradition has been carried on as a way to pay respects to lost loved ones.
7. Japan: Obon Festival
Similar to Qingming, the Obon festival is a time to pay respects to the dead and honor ancestral spirits. The Obon festival is a three-day celebration that has been observed for over 500 years.
The Obon festival originated from a Buddhist myth that told of a disciple of Buddha who was able to free his deceased mother from anguish in the afterlife by offering sacrifices. During this three-day festival, it is believed that the spirits of the ancestors return to reunite with the living.
During Obon, families will visit their ancestors' graves to tidy as well as offer food and drink sacrifices. They will also participate in various celebratory acts such as attending carnivals and eating festival foods. Traditional dances are also performed to the sound of taiko drums.
While death is a universal experience for humanity, the ways in which we respond to death may vary based on cultural or religious beliefs. There exists a long list of cultures across the world that celebrate death, this list here being just a few.
For many around the world, death represents a passage from this life to the next. It is also seen as an opportunity to celebrate the life of a deceased loved one. No matter how you choose to celebrate your loved one’s remarkable life, honoring their memory can be an important aspect of your healing journey.