For two weeks after September 27 this year, one of the world’s most unusual festivals of the dead will be celebrated here in Cambodia. Pchum Ben has been described as a kind of “Buddhist Lent” and its traditions can be traced back to Cambodia’s animist culture which predate the Angkor era. However, as a festival during which the boundaries between the living and the dead retreat, it bears more in common with the festivals of the dead that are a vital, vibrant part of cultures the world over.
A culture’s relationship with its dead plays a fundamental role in how the living process grief and manage uncertainty. In Latin America, during one of the most ‘celebrated’ celebrations of the dead — Dia de los Muertos — death is derided, taken down a peg, and starved of its power to instil fear. As with Cambodia’s festival, the Dia de los Muertos is a blend of traditions, with a mix of ancient pagan Aztec practices which were later absorbed by Spanish conquistadors into their All Saints or All Souls Day, celebrated on November 1 and 2 each year.
As it happens, most festivals of the dead around the world are celebrated at this time of year, a time of harvest and changing of the seasons. The celebration the world calls Halloween first started in Ireland, where it is called Samhain (pronounced sow-one). There, Samhain marked the beginning winter, when the veil separating the living and the dead was lifted and the dead would come and destroy the landscape with their breath, leaving behind the wasted fields. Eventually, this pagan tradition was absorbed by the church, and Samhain became All Saint’s Day, or All Hallows, and All Hallows Eve became Halloween. As the dead roamed the earth, the people took to wearing costumes and masks so that the dead would leave them unharmed.
In China, the boundary between the living and the dead is also blurred during the Hungry Ghost Festival which takes place over a month. During this time, in a reflection of Cambodia’s version of this festival, elaborate feasts are set during which spaces at the table are kept free for the deceased. During the festival, paper lanterns are lit and released in order to guide wandering spirits home.
Japan’s Obon, or Bon, Festival is also Buddhist and also celebrates by releasing floating lanterns. Like all of the festivals above, there is also fun to be had and games to be played. If you take death too seriously after all, it’ll only kill you. The Russian Orthodox celebration of Radonitsa, at around Easter time, involves visits to graveyards for a joyful moment of feasting and gift giving.
Joyousness is a feature of many festivals of the dead, but in Germany, the Protestant Totensonntag (‘Dead Sunday’) is a day of remembrance that is considered a very serious occasion and dancing and music are forbidden in some places.
Food is key to all festivals, but especially so during festivals of the dead. As the name suggests, Pchum Ben is all about the food, which also plays a central role in Korea’s Chuseok Festival, where rice cakes called songpyeon are given to deceased ancestors in thanks for providing a good harvest. In India, the festival of Pitru Pasksha also focuses on prayers and offering food for deceased relatives to release their souls from purgatory, as with Pchum Ben. Festivals of the dead are a unique reflection of human nature, fears and resilience. They symbolise our extraordinary capacity for joy and kinship in the face of adversity and how we all have the power to look death in the eye and calmly say “see you later” before going about our day.