The Land of Hungry Ghosts

October 24th, 2013


It is no coincidence that rituals and celebrations commemorating those that have passed on, of honoring the dead, have a direct connection to the rituals and the seasons that sustain the living. Times of seasonal change, such as autumn harvest festivals, prepare us for and acknowledge the physical change of moving from the light, into the darker days of winter, from warmth into cold, and become a metaphor for death itself.

As the care-fee joys of the summer months are short, life too is brief, filled with both joy and pain, and the uncertainty of this duality and transition is unsettling for the human heart. To try and ease the pain and the grief of loss, many similarities and traditions have developed around the world to commemorate and accept the inevitable.

Between the eighth and eleventh centuries the Christian Church had already converted the ancient Celtic Samhain, the feasts of the harvest and the dead, and set them to coincide with both the Feast of All Saints (All Hallows Eve), on the first of November, and All Souls Day on November second.

All Saints Day, is observed by Christians, in many countries around the world. In Spain, Portugal, Romania, Croatia, France, Italy the Philippines and, Mexico, cemeteries are crowded with people who come to clean and decorate family graves with flowers, offerings and candles.

When the conquering Spanish arrived in the New World, they brought Christianity, forcing the native people to convert. The Christian Church used images depicting death, memento mori-(remember that you die,) in the form of skulls and bones, already quite familiar to the native people, who accepted death as a part of life.

The skull is used in many cultures on All Souls Day, fashioned out of both sugar and chocolate. In Mexico, the sugar skulls and skulls of papier maché are everywhere on Dias de los Muertos. In Italy on Il Giorno dei Morti, they make bean shaped cakes called Fave dei Mort, beans of the dead, and in Sicily they make crunchy cookies called, “Bones of the Dead.” Taking it a step further, in Rome some young people announce their engagements on All Souls’ Day. Life and death intertwined.

How does the way we view death affect how we live our lives?

The ancient Aztecs believed that life on earth was a dream, and only in death did they become fully awake. This belief is rooted in the acceptance that death, is a continuation of life, therefore, instead of fearing death, they embraced it. As such, death was not viewed as a tragedy, even when it occurs early in life or through unfortunate circumstances. Death was seen as a natural process. Death, like life, has meaning, and is part of a divine plan.

Similarly, Muslims accept death and are resigned to what is believed as one’s “appointed time,” which in Islam is inescapable and fated. For instance, surviving a grave illness, or a serous accident, is often remarked by the thought that, “ones appointed or pre-destined time has not come yet.” Muhammad advised,” Introduce into your gatherings some mention of death to keep things in perspective.”

That perspective, also infoms how Buddhists lead their lives. Buddhists believe that death is not the end of life, and as such, strive for connection to spirit, allowing for the peaceful belief that death is not to be feared as it will lead to rebirth. It emphasizes the impermanence of life and includes lives beyond the present one. What those future lives will be is determined by cumulative actions, both positive and negative, cause and effect, or karma.

In the sacred Hindu scriptures is stated that, “death is certain for the one who is born, and birth is certain for the one who dies.” As such, the sole purpose of life from birth to death is to engage the physical body as an instrument of conscious action, sadhana, and the spiritual engagement with the divine. Thus, one prepares for the time of death in a lifelong relationship to the divine.

The Hindu faith believes that death is only one part of life, and as such marks the end as well as the beginning. Hindus belive that although the body has a limited lifespan, the supreme spirit, the atman is eternal and that it is beyond emotional suffering, pleasure and pain––it is pure consciousness.

Hungry Ghosts

Most of the rituals associated with ancestor worship around the world are based on the belief that the spirits of the dead continue to dwell in the natural world and have the power in some way to influence the fortune and fate of the living. To consider a persons death, is to in effect consider their life, and in doing so, reconnect us to the divine, by connecting us to our transcendent self.

Funeral arrangements, preparing a feast, offering the deceased their favorite objects and earthly possessions to accompany them on their journey to the hereafter, calling upon the spirits, saints and gods to help guide them and ensure a smooth transition.

Dios de los Muertos is celebrated by creating exuberant and opulent altars for the dead, full of flowers, food, drink and favorite possessions of the dead during their lives. They are lured back home with trails of marigold flowers, Cempoalxochitl the flower of the dead, and fed warm meals in their honor. It is a time of celebration, humor and love, not at all a morbid affair.

In Celtic lands, Samhain was celebrated by lighting fires to illuminate the darkness, but these fires were also considered to be cleansing and healing as well. And like the Mexicans, they believed that it was a special time when spirits, or fairies could easily pass between the world of the living and the dead, partaking in feasts set out to welcome them. However, great care was also taken to ward off evil spirits, as they were on the move as well. Traditions evolved in order to fend off these evil spirits such as wearing your clothes inside out, disguising yourself with masks and costumes, carrying salt, or sprinkling salt around your bed while sleeping.

In China, the seventh lunar month in the traditional Chinese calendar is called Ghost Month. On the first day of the month, the Gates of Hell are sprung open to allow ghosts and spirits access to the world of the living. The spirits spend the month visiting their families, feasting and looking for victims. The 15th day of the month is Ghost Festival, sometimes called Hungry Ghost Festival. The Mandarin name of this festival is zhōng yuán jié. A rather superstitious time, it is considered a bad time to take evening walks, travel, start a new business, and many avoid swimming, as it is believed that many spirits dwell in water which might try to drown you. For more information, see:

Rituals help us to recognize the interconnectedness in life, as well as in death. And in the words of Jack Skellington, the Pumpkin King in the movie, The Nightmare Before Christmas,” Just because I cannot see it, doesn’t mean I can’t believe it.

Happy Halloween!

Jeannie Winston Nogai
Owner / Winston Nogai Design / E:


Filed under Education, festival, History, Human Interest, Travel

3 responses to “The Land of Hungry Ghosts

  1. 10/24/2013
    Really enjoyed reading this…Thanks for showing us how embracing death is really a celebration of life…Your post did a great job of balancing both the historical and cultural perspectives as it relates to this phenomenon…

  2. Diana Everman

    Wow! Thank you for sharing this! It is amazing how many cultures are like our own culture. 🙂 Different, yet still the same. Enjoyed both the history and the culture in the post.

  3. Hi Dianna,

    I’m glad you enjoyed it. Finding how interconnected we all are is a great passion of mine. It is a never-ending journey! 🙂

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