Can you imagine the Australian government providing a public holiday to celebrate the dead, sound a bit far fetched? Well, not in Mexico. In the James Bond movie “Spectre”, the opening scene starts with a Day of the Dead Street parade in Mexico City. Possibly one of the most remarkable facts of this scene is that no such procession had ever taken place in the city before this film scene. Whilst the day of the Dead festivities were common place the parade was not. However, from October 2016 the street parade became an annual feature of Mexico City Life. Yet, whilst the street parade is relatively new, Day of The Dead is not.
“Dia de los Muertos”, (Day of the Dead) coincides with Allhallowstide, encompassing the Western Christian observance of all Saints Eve (Halloween). Celebrated from October 31st to November 2nd it encompasses All Saints and All Souls Day. This multi day holiday focusing on the gathering of family and friends to pray for and remember the dead and help support their spiritual journey. Revellers believe the the spirits of the dead return to take part in the festivities alongside the living. despite Day of the Dead falling on Halloween, it is not Halloween and its not supposed to scare anyone. Those celebrating truly believe that death is something that should be celebrated in a lively way and should not be something to be afraid of.
Perhaps, the most striking features of the day of the dead festivals are the vibrant colours, haunting makeup, images of of skeletons and skulls, food, dance, parties and carnival atmosphere. The brightly painted skills are understood to be a remnant of an ancient Aztec tradition. The skulls were used during rituals to symbolise death and rebirth.
In Melbourne a number of Mexican restaurants celebrate and special food is often on offer for this unique festivity.
Whilst in Australia Halloween has grown, in the United States Halloween is big business. According to the National Retail Federation, it is estimated that Americans spent over $6 billion dollars on candy , costumes and decor during the 2013 season. It is easy to be carried away with the commercialism and fun surrounding Halloween, yet it is a significant time in the churches liturgical year, dedicated to remembering the dead and all the faithful departed.
This time of year is not just restricted to the celebration of the dead by christians.
The “Bon” or Obon, a traditional Japanese festival (held around 15th August) is often referred to as “The Japanese day of the dead” commemorates lost ancestors whose spirits are believed to come back to visit relatives during the festival. Many People return home during he festival to spend time around family and friends. In Kyoto giant bonfires surrounding the hills are spectacularly lit to publicly mark the end of Obon.
Somewhat similar to the “Bon” or Obon festival, The Ghost Festival is celebrated by Chinese, who believe during this time that the gates of hell are opened up to allow the ghosts to roam free on earth where they can seek food and entertainment. Balanced with fear and festivity , celebrations begin with parades culminating in lanterns being released onto the water. Similarly as with other death festivals, food and ritual play a significant part in these events. Family members may offer prayers to the deceased as well as offerings of food and drink in addition to burning hell money and joss paper. It is believed the joss has some value in the after life. Some burn paper houses, cars and televisions to appease the gods.
In multi cultural Australia we are fortunate that some of these traditions are also celebrated here. Yet, our own values and the way in which we tread carefully around death are quite reserved and easily symbolised in the colours we choose to wear and associate with death are quite dark and austere.
So what can we learn from these unique festivals? In diversity we often find our own relevance and meaning to ways in which we deal with death and remembrance of our ancestors. Perhaps knowing and understanding of these diverse cultures and festivities allows us to formulate our own views and meaning to death and dying. Whilst many might suggest it would be very politically incorrect to “celebrate the dead” just maybe there is something we can learn.
It is clear in Australian funerals there has been a marked change in what occurs at funerals, once for people to have clapped at a funeral it would have been seen as highly inappropriate, yet today its common and seen as highly appropriate thing to do. There are also many other things that are also changing at these events and maybe thats a story for another time.
So as we move move forward our cultures blend and our views change, I don’t expect we will see any public street parades celebrating death any time soon, but I just wonder how we will celebrate the dead in the future.
Robert Nelson has listened and worked with clients since 1983 and created ceremonies that are designed around the needs and desires of grieving families. Robert Nelson Funerals, knowledge, experience and understanding makes him the preferred choice for Melbourne families.
For more information on any of these services, please contact Robert Nelson at firstname.lastname@example.org or ph (03) 9532 2111