In Some Cultures, Death Can Be a Picnic


Images of death festoon windows and walls. Skeletons hang loose-limbed in the wind. Mock graveyards rise from front lawns, alluding to ghosts unleashed in a vaporous cloud to harass those who wronged them in life.

It must be Halloween.

But different cultures and religions deal with death in many different ways. While the ghoulish fright fare of Halloween exploits Americans’ almost pathological fear of mortality, those same images are jocular mementos mori, or reminders of death, to the many Mexicans and other Latin Americans who will celebrate Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) on Nov. 2.

The Jews honor their departed with Yizkor, a solemn commemoration service held four times each year; the Irish drink a toast to the deceased at a wake, a days-long party held after a funeral.


Chinese and Koreans venerate their ancestors several times a year in joyous, elaborate graveside feasts, making offerings to help the dead survive in the afterlife.

“Other cultures approach death with much less dread,” says Herman Feifel, clinical professor emeritus of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at USC School of Medicine.

“We are a culture of avoidance on death . . . [believing that] death is obscene, the great enemy . . . and we have no rituals to deal with it,” says Feifel, referring to mainstream American attitudes. “We used to have more religious and philosophic beliefs that enabled us to integrate the idea that death was not the end. One reason we put those heavy headstones on the grave is so the dead can’t get out of the grave and take vengeance on the living.”

But during Dia de los Muertos, headstones are lovingly cleaned and decorated and grave sites weeded so that living relatives can picnic or camp overnight there.

“We love the bones of our ancestors,” says Linda Vallejos, artist and owner of Galleria Las Americas in Santa Monica. “It is good luck to give someone in Mexico a sugar calavera [skull] with their name on it whereas it would be macabre to give it to someone here. Day of the Dead colors are pastels and white but Halloween is black and orange.”

Tamales and the deceased’s favorite foods are prepared for graveside picnics. Ofrendas, or offerings, of tobacco, liquor or flowers are made at altars adorned with paper cutouts of merry skeletons, angels, crosses and skulls bearing the names of dead relatives. “Trees of life” are decked with candy skulls (many inscribed with the names of the living) and other edibles. Photographs of the deceased, who are invited to return to Earth for the festivities and are sometimes shown the way with a fiery trail of marigold petals leading from the street to the door, are displayed.

“We are the only culture that mocks death,” says Guillermo Carreon, a professor of Chicano studies at East Los Angeles Community College. “We don’t see it as a morbid thing. We talk about the dead as if they are still around. It’s a very merry tradition. At the same time it has deep meaning . . . you honor the dead and let them know you love them.”


While spooky images are not used in Korean and Chinese traditions that commemorate the dead, the grave site is not a place to be feared but a place where one can spend quality time with the dead.

Chusok, the 2,000-year-old Autumn Moon Festival celebrated by Koreans most recently in late September (the date changes every year as it falls on the lunar calendar) has ancient Confucian roots and is linked to a belief that ancestors helped spiritually with the harvest--or, for urbanites, the family fortune.

In Korea, people return to their native villages for the holiday, which is a lot like Thanksgiving. Offerings of wine, fruits, fish and songpyon, half-moon-shaped rice cakes filled with chestnuts, dates, dried beans and sometimes powdered sesame seeds, are made. A picnic feast takes place at the grave site after there is a ritual cleaning and repainting of the headstone.

“That ritual is what connects us from this world to the other world and gives us meaning to something that is ambiguous [death],” says Young Lee Hertig, a professor of cross-cultural ministry at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena who still visits the grave of her grandparents every year on Chusok. “One of the reasons we have ancestor veneration is that the spirit still comes down and affects the lives of relatives. The living are not separated from the dead. They live side by side.”

Such beliefs also drive the practice of ancestor veneration among Chinese, some of whom memorialize their dead for 30 generations, says James L. Watson, an anthropology professor at Harvard University and author of “Death Ritual in Late Imperial and Modern China” (University of California Press, 1988). These beliefs “are not any less sophisticated than the high beliefs of religious literati.” Elaborate burials, ritualistic painting and sweeping of the tomb, and even caring for lost souls are all a part of the complex web of Chinese death and commemoration rituals aimed at bridging the land of the living with the nether world of the dead.

“If you bury them and honor them right, your dead become benevolent,” Watson says. “Chinese believe in a literal connection between the grave and the soul. Cleaning up the grave and offering up food, incense and burning paper money, paper TVs and paper cellular phones is a way of keeping them happy. They need money in the afterlife, which in a sense is a mirror image of this life. These rituals are all a metaphor for memory, it is how you remember the dead individual.”


Neglect the deceased and there may be hell to pay, Watson says. The Hungry Ghost Festival, a celebration he calls a distant parallel to Halloween, is when the gates of the underworld are open and all kinds of “hungry ghosts” who did not have a proper burial or died a bad death wander about looking for sustenance. They are known for crashing weddings and other happy celebrations.

“Hungry ghosts are very dangerous,” Watson says. “They can repossess the spirits of children and cause illness or misfortune. They are like the beggar who comes to your door. So you feed him to get him to pass on. The festival is an occasion when all the ghosts are packed up and sent back to what would be like purgatory.”

The value of ritual and myth, social anthropologist and mythology scholar Joseph Campbell once said, is that it tells us who we are. He warned that much of modern ritual in America is dead, forcing young people into a kind of precarious self-invention, subject to an ever-changing tide of influences.

“I have a photo montage of my great grandparents, grandparents, aunts and uncles who have passed on that I keep on an altar year round,” says Vallejos, whose art gallery will be celebrating Dia de los Muertos on Nov. 1 and 2. “We put out their favorite foods and light candles on the Day of the Dead. I answer questions my children have about them. I tell them one day your picture will be on this altar too. It is beautiful to know that you will also be remembered someday.”