Festival of the dead

Festival of the dead

Even in its secular and commercial form, Halloween ritualizes our inescapable destination.

Patricia Montley
18th-century New England gravestone

Massachusetts gravestone (detail), 1725 (© Dan Harper, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

© Dan Harper (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)


Although in the minds of most modern people who celebrate it, Halloween is now a secular holiday that has lost its religious association with saints and souls of the beloved dead, there are still many people around the globe who celebrate festivals of the dead, many of them at this time of year.

Wiccans around the world regard the feast of Samhain (October 31-November 1) as the most important of their four quarter days. A common ritual is the Dumb Supper, which Anne Lafferty describes in “A Seeker’s Guide to Modern Witchcraft and Paganism.”

The table is laden with potluck dishes. There is a place setting for each person present, as well as one in front of an empty chair. This place is for the Beloved Dead, who are being honored by this meal. The first plate filled is given to them. The living eat in silence, thinking about their ancestors and others they cared about who have passed on. When the meal is over, the leftover food, including the food that was on the plate for the spirits of the dead, is taken outside and placed on the ground.

Participants might then tell stories and share memories about their beloved dead or sing a song honoring them. Sometimes the food prepared for the supper includes favorite dishes of the departed in whose honor the ritual is observed.

Since the late Middle Ages, the dead have been remembered in Christian countries in Europe and elsewhere around the globe in formal church services on All Souls’ Day. Although fear of “roaming spirits” was officially declared superstition, pagan beliefs and practices persisted. In Germany, for example, when peasant farmers harvested the hay and brought it to the barn, they broke the first straw and offered it as food for the dead. Even today in Latvia, after the Fall Equinox festival of Mikeli, a quiet shadow period begins. “At this time,” according to Mara Mellena of the Latvian Institute, “the shadows—spirits of the dead—visit the farmsteads to look over the life of the household,” and to bring blessings for future life and work.

One of the most elaborate festivals at this time of year is el Día de los Muertos, the Day of the Dead, observed on November 1 and 2 in Mexico and other Latin American countries. Typically infants and children are remembered on the first day and adults on the second. Here the dead are not feared but welcomed. Combining Roman Catholic rituals of All Saints’ and All Souls’ Days with millennia-old Mexican Indian traditions, the holiday includes solemn religious rites such as masses and prayers for the dead in church.

There is also feasting in the home, where scattered petals and burning incense invite the spirits to enter and partake of their favorite foods and special bread, hojaldra, which have been set out on tables or home altars decorated with flowers and photos of departed family members. What is not consumed by the dead provides a festal meal for the living. The leftovers from that meal may be taken to the cemetery and laid on the graves of ancestors or distributed in the community. The event includes processions, pageantry, elaborate food, bright decorations, and even fireworks. While this is a time of mourning for the beloved dead, the pervading atmosphere is one of fiesta. Cakes and candies in the shape of skulls, skeletons, coffins, and gravestones “sweeten” the concept of death, perhaps reminding those who eat them of the sweetness of living in heaven as well as in the memories of one’s descendants. Some families keep candlelight vigils through the night at the gravesites of their dead and attend open-air memorial masses.

While “sophisticated” North Americans are tempted to view some of these practices as primitively morbid at worst or quaint at best, Peter Morales cautions us in “Bringing the Dead to Life,”

If we dismiss the Day of the Dead as pure superstition, we can easily miss the profound spiritual and psychological insight that makes this tradition powerful. A Mexican boy spending the night at his uncle’s grave has a connection across time with his forebears that our children do not. While we dwellers in a technological age are connected to the World Wide Web, cellular phones, and cable TV, [while we] have message machines, voice mail, pagers and call waiting, we have cut ourselves off from the web of time. Traditional cultures, with their mediums and ghosts and reincarnations, have understood intuitively something we’ve repressed: the dead don’t die; they live on.

For Hindus, the dead live on when their souls are reincarnated in other bodies. One of the major festivals of Hinduism, and possibly the only one that is truly pan-Indian, is Diwali, the Festival of Lights (from the Sanskrit dipavali, or “row of lights”), which is observed with temple services that include singing and recitations from sacred texts. Celebrated on dates in the lunar calendar that correspond to late October and early November in our Gregorian calendar, it marks the official end of autumn and the beginning of winter. In upper India, Diwali also marks the beginning of the commercial New Year. People clean their homes, light oil lamps, and set them in rows along the parapets of houses and temples or float them in rivers. They invoke Lakshmi, goddess of fortune and prosperity, to bless their homes and businesses as they open new account books. They wear new clothes, visit friends and family members to exchange gifts, and set off fireworks.

But in Bengal Diwali honors the goddess Kali, the five-millennia-old Creator-Preserver-Destroyer of the Universe, the womb-and-tomb primal mother found in so many ancient religions. Her breathing is the pulse of the universe, for she is at once the menstrual sea of blood that gives birth to the world and the fierce, emaciated hag whose primordial hunger must feast on animals and humans to replenish the energy that drives the cosmos. Thus she is often depicted wearing a necklace of skulls, her hair wild, her tongue red with blood, dancing ecstatically on cremation grounds, gathering up souls to be seeds for new life. In this destroyer mode, Kali may well be our worst nightmare—the nightmare we must come to grips with, for in facing her, we face our own terror of annihilation.

As Monica Sjöö and Barbara Mor remind us in The Great Cosmic Mother, primitive peoples seemed to understand that life and death are the same. It was a paradox they strove to be conscious of—just as we strive to escape it:

Moderns who neither kill nor grow their own food nor bury their own dead would seem to have solved the problem by avoiding it; but in fact the resolution is simply delegated, nowadays, to nightmare, slaughterhouses, torture rooms, death squads, and “snuff” films, in which criminal priests perform obscene sacrifices to the gods of displaced responsibility.

For early peoples, the paradox was somehow made bearable through ritual expression of their fury, which often took the form of bloody sacrifices to the death deity. For us, the paradox remains unbearable and yet, despite our best efforts, inescapable. So we try to trivialize it. The hags of our Halloween cards and costumes are domesticated reminders of the Wiccan wise women who served as midwives and morticians, who themselves represented the hallowed and harrowing goddess of womb and tomb, of life and death. The ghosts and goblins and grim reapers who people our parties and parades are fun versions of the very serious destination that we know deep down we cannot escape.

Such trivialization may put the paradox at arm’s length, but it does not resolve it. Yet perhaps it is not too late for us to return to ritual for that resolution. We cannot, to be sure, revert to the bloody sacrifices practiced by some of our ancient ancestors, but perhaps we can embrace other kinds of rituals that will, whether we believe in a personal afterlife or not, enable us to find comfort in the understanding that life and death are one.

Excerpted with permission from “Samhain, All Souls and Day of the Dead,” In Nature’s Honor: Myths and Rituals Celebrating the Earth (Skinner House), copyright 2005 by Patricia Montley. The chapter includes a variety of seasonal rituals for personal, family, and congregational use.