Friday, 4 April 2014

Day of the Dead

As our current callout aims to produce a collection of haunting histories written in the style of the nineteenth century ghost story authors, it seems appropriate to include a blog which focuses on the dead.

Whichever your viewpoint, October 31st appears to be a common day chosen for ancestor reverence from around the world, be it as Halloween, Samhain, Day of the dead or otherwise.

The 'Day of the dead' is one of the best known forms of ancestry reverence in the Western world and is a national holiday in Mexico. Similarly themed observances which may be celebrated on alternative dates occur around the world. Despite its name, day of the dead often involves up to three days of celebration and is derived from Aztec and indigenous observances. According to Frances Ann Day, the day of the dead celebrations commence on October 31 (All Hallows Eve) with the construction of altars to the deceased, often containing favourite foods and beverages alongside photographs or possessions, all designed to invite the spirits of the dead to return for a visit. This is followed by November 1st (All Saints Day) which is celebrated as the day when adult spirits return to visit the living, and finally November 2nd (All Souls Day) which is celebrated by families visiting the graves and tombs of their relatives. Alternatively, November 1st is chosen to honour deceased children and infants whilst November 2nd is taken for veneration of deceased adults. Veneration of the dead can take many forms, including sharing of anecdotes about the departed through to spending the night by the graves of their relatives. Some even write short poems, known as calaveras (skulls), about the dead. Common symbols of the holiday include decorative skulls, sweet breads and marigolds, a flower traditionally used to honour the dead.

Similarly, Samhain, is a Gaelic festival celebrated from sunset on October 31st until sunset November 1st. As Samhain was viewed as a liminal time when spirits could more easily enter the world of the living, the souls of the dead were thought to revisit their homes. To entice the dead to join in celebrations, places would be set for them alongside the living at the tables of feasts. A similar example of 'dining with the dead' is illustrated by  catacombs in Malta which contain carved dining benches located around subterranean tombs which have been proposed as locations where the living could dine with the dead.

An alternative form of ancestor reverence is demonstrated in Hallstatt Austria. Famous for salt mines, Hallstatt is also famous for its beinhaus (bone house) which dates to the twelfth century. The beinhaus contains over 1200 skulls, many of which have been elaborately painted for decoration. Due to space limitations in the village for internment of the deceased, graves were opened 10-15 years following burial and the skulls were removed, cleaned and reverentially placed in the beinhaus to venerate the dead.

Similarly, ancestry reverence and belief in ghosts is common in Chinese culture and beliefs. Even Confucius is reported to have said, 'Respect ghosts and gods, but keep away from them'(1). According to the Chinese calender, the seventh lunar month is the ghost month, during which the gate of hell remains open allowing suffering spirits to return to visit their families on earth. The highlight of the ghost month is the Chung-Yuan Festival, also known as the hungry ghost festival, which occurs mid-month. During this festival, food is prepared as a treat for spirits and homeless ghosts and water lanterns are lit to welcome spirits to our world to join in the feast. In 2014, the ghost month will commence July 27th and finish on the 24th of August. Elders list behaviors which are discouraged during this month as they are thought to ill-advised. Note, the hungry ghost festival is separate from the Qingming and Chung Yeung festivals (occurring in Spring and Fall respectively), during which living descendants pay homage to their deceased relatives.

Whatever your beliefs, ancestor reverence and suitable respect for the dead may serve you well and appease the spirits. 

1.  "Chinese Ghost Culture". Ministry of Culture, P.R.China. Retrieved 23 Mar 2014.

Further reading:
The Chinese ghost month


This blog post was written in the spirit of the April 2014 A-Z Challenge whereby a post is written every day during the month of April (with the exception of Sunday). The theme of each post is meant to correspond with a letter of the alphabet in sequential order. Tomorrow's post will be on E. For details and to visit the A-Z Challenge website, click here.

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