The Japanese and Mexicans have similar rituals like the Chinese Hungry Ghost Festival. By commemorating death, we are in fact celebrating life.
I went to my first Hungry Ghost Festival last Monday. Amidst all the incense filling my nose and burning my eyes, my friend-cum-tour guide explained what each item means and represent.
“This is gold and money, for the departed souls,” she said, pointing to a large ship made out of paper gold and money. As we walked around, she explained how each item is donated by a family from a particular community or by companies.
The items are arranged in a particular way, beginning with essential items such as cooking oil and rice to sacrificial food such as ducks, goats and pigs. There were also Chinese opera and finger puppets, telling tales of Chinese folklore in Hokkien.
“It’s to entertain the ghosts,” she said. “Back in Melaka, they will always leave the front row empty for the ghosts to occupy.”
The festival concludes with the burning of the “Ghost King” effigy, made out of paper and bamboo, along with other decorative items in a massive bonfire at midnight. They will also burn paper money, gold and gifts for the spirits to use in the afterlife. The food offerings are then distributed back to the community so they do not go to waste.
I learned that there are many versions of how the Hungry Ghost Festival is celebrated, what the offerings are and how they vary from one country to another.
Often times in explaining what things are for, my friend will continue with: “There’s another version....” Indeed, the festival is infused with Buddhist and Taoist beliefs, whilst at the same time keeping up to date with the times. Among the more traditional paper offerings, there was also a miniature World Cup football stadium! The dead can’t possibly miss out on the World Cup. But this is exactly how traditions survive modernity – by embracing it.
To the uninitiated, the Hungry Ghost Festival is celebrated on the 15th day of the 7th month in the Chinese lunar calendar.
The 7th month is known as the Ghost Month when the gates of hell are opened and spirits roam the world of the living – the 15th day is believed to be when the ghosts are the most active.
During this month, spirits of the deceased are believed to visit living relatives. But there are also wandering spirits of those without families, and to avoid them from doing harm to the living, they too are given offerings and prayers to ease their suffering.
Hence it is believed that this is a dangerous time when it is a taboo to do risky things such as travelling, swimming or wandering around late at night lest the bad spirits come and get you. This period is also believed to be inauspicious, and joyous celebrations such as weddings or hosting events are avoided during this month.
The Ghost Month reminds me of the Japanese folklore, Night Parade of a Hundred Demons. On summer nights, the Japanese believe 100 demons take to the streets of Japan in a massive parade. Humans who come across this procession will die or have misfortune befall them. So on certain nights, it is advisable to stay indoors so as to not get caught up in the parade.
The Night Parade is widely depicted in Japanese folk art. However, the Japanese version of the Hungry Ghost Festival is Obon or the Lantern Festival. Obon is celebrated at three different times throughout the year (depending on where you are in Japan), but largely celebrated on Aug 15.
On top of making food offerings and prayers to the deceased, Obon is celebrated by lighting lanterns inside houses to guide the spirits back home, and towards the end of the festival, they bring the spirits back to the underworld by hanging the lanterns on their graves. The festival culminates with toro nagashi; floating lanterns down a river as a final send off for the spirits.
The Mexicans also celebrate the dead on Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead), Mexico’s most important holiday. The celebration spans three days beginning Oct 31 (Halloween), Nov 1 (All Saints’ Day) and ends on Nov 2 (All Souls’ Day).
Family members and friends gather to pray for and remember those who have parted.
They will hold vigils at the graveyards and tell stories about the deceased as a way of remembering them. They clean the graves of loved ones (much like Qingming), and decorate them with flowers.
They too give offerings of food and beverages for the deceased. For us outside of Mexico, we would probably be more familiar with images of Dia de los Muertos’s vibrant street festivals and parades.
It’s a grand festival bursting with colours, grinning skeletons, face painting and enticing sweet sugar skulls. It is described on a National Geographic site, “Assured that the dead would be insulted by mourning or sadness, Dia de los Muertos celebrates the lives of the deceased with food, drink, parties and activities the dead enjoyed in life.”
While these festivals are celebrated out of filial piety and to remember and honour loved ones who have passed, they are essentially about dealing with death and loss. It is a way for the living to retain a connection with the dead. They are with us and among us, aided by rituals that help bridge our world with theirs.
It reminds us that life does not end at death and that the living have to continue looking after the souls by offering prayers, food and material things.
And that when we too, progress into the world of the dead, our souls will be looked after by those we leave behind.
These festivals remind us that by commemorating death we are in fact celebrating life. It allows us to reflect on the impermanence of life and to appreciate families and friends, both living and departed.
After all, life and death is the natural cycle of existence.