festivals of the dead

The after parties of the after life

31st October 2019


To some, Halloween might seem like a celebration of the macabre, the terrifying, or the downright evil…

But it hasn’t always been that way. Once upon a time this Christian holiday was the eve of All Hallows’ Day, a time to remember loved ones, Saints and martyrs who have passed on. There are theories that some of our Halloween traditions originated from Celtic Festivals, with some pagan roots, but those traditions have certainly evolved as they've spread throughout the western world.

It’s no surprise that a holiday like this can be misinterpreted, as death tends to be a more of a taboo subject in certain countries. But there are some traditions around the world that don’t shy away from death, accepting it as a part of life, where rituals and festivals have long persisted.

We’ve summed up some of the most interesting celebrations of death around the world:

Mexico’s Day of the Dead

Mexico’s famous holiday is mainly celebrated in the Central and South regions and dates back hundreds of years to an Aztec festival. The three-day observance, which runs from October 31st to the 2nd November, is a time to remember loved ones and celebrate them, welcoming them back from the afterlife to visit.

During the festival, a private alter is often built in the home for the deceased and decorated with food, drink, Mexican marigold flowers (associated with the dead and thought to entice their spirits back) and some of their favourite things. Family will pray at these personal alters, called ofrendas, and reminisce about the good times they had with their loved ones in the hopes that they will hear. Sometimes, families will even pay a visit to the graves, hold picnics there, and in some parts of Mexico, even spend the night, decorating their families resting place and leaving gifts of food and drink.

Death is viewed as a natural part of the journey of life in Mexican culture and so it isn’t a time for mourning so much as a time to encourage the souls of their dearly departed to join in the celebration of life and death.

Indonesia's Torajan Funeral Ritual

Photo credit: https://www.99inspiration.com/2016/10/living-with-dead-bodies-for-weeks-or-years-is-tradition/

The Torajan people of South Sulawesi have an interesting relationship with death. They hold both Christian beliefs, introduced by Dutch colonists and their traditional animistic beliefs called Aluk To Dolo which means ‘way of the ancestors’. When a person passes away, the Torajan believe them to be ‘sick’, in the sense that it is an early stage of death, a process which takes some time, and that the persons spirit lingers on nearby and still requires being taken care of. So, food, water and sometimes even cigarettes are still offered to the ‘sick’, known as toma kula, daily.

This period can last a significant amount of time, usually until the family can afford to give their loved one a proper send off. They can be incredibly expensive affairs, with families expecting to buy at least one water buffalo (up to $40,000 USD each) required to safely get the toma kula to heaven. The more buffalo, the better their heavenly favour. When the first buffalo is sacrificed, the death of the toma kula becomes official and so begins the funeral, which will take up to five days.

But that’s not the last time they’ll see their deceased loved ones. They’ll be exhumed from their mausoleum or grave for a ritual known as ma’nene up to every three years. The deceased will be cleaned, given a new set of clothes and reunited with their family.

Bolivia’s Fiesta de las Natitas

Photo cred: https://www.atlasobscura.com/articles/inside-bolivias-skull-festival-where-the-dead-get-diamonds-and-sunglasses

Originating with the Aymara people of the Altiplano region of the Andes, Fiesta de la Natitas is celebrated roughly a week after All Saints Day, and is a day of gratitude and celebration of one of their most honoured possessions thought to bring good luck, protection and help with fertility: the human skull.

The skulls, known as natitas, do not need to have belonged to a loved one and not just any skull can be a natitas as there needs to be some kind of spiritual connection. The bond between human and the natitas is never guaranteed as they may not be a good ‘personality fit,’ after all, they are believed to be the vessels housing the souls of the living person they once were. In some cases, the skulls are family heirlooms, passed down through generations.

On the day of the festival, crowds with their natitas gather at graveyards, adorn their skulls in decoration to make them look good and offerings are made, to their own natitas or other peoples. As the natitas are kept and cared for every day of the year, bringing good favour in life, this day is aimed at celebrating them bestowing their blessings with food, alcohol, cigarettes, Catholic masses and huge parties.

Nepal’s Gai Jatra

The ‘Festival of the Cows’ is a popular holiday in Nepal and celebrated every August or September. In Hinduism, the cow is a hugely revered animal (even cow excrement is often used in ritual) and is believed to guide the spirits of the deceased into the afterlife. So on this day, those who have experienced the death of a loved one in the past year will lead a cow, or in some cases, as child dressed as a cow, in a procession intended to help lead the spirits safely to heaven.

The festival originated from 17th century, when the King of Nepal, Pratap Malla, lost his young son which devastated his wife. In order to cheer her up, he called upon the community who had also suffered loss to sing, joke around and dance in costume, despite their grief, outside the palace walls for his Queen to see, hoping to make her smile once again and realise the universal experience of death. The Queen smiled and laughed, and the King was so happy that he made the Gai Jatra an annual tradition.

Gai (cow) Jatra (festival) is actual more like April Fool’s Day than Halloween, as humour and satire is encouraged, and people are free to broach bigger issues, like socio-political problems, even in publications, as long as it’s through humour.


Hayley Cleeter

Hayley would have to thank the multi-culturalism of London for first sparking her interest in travel. She remembers dressing up in saris from India, e…

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