Grief, joy and spilled rum at the World’s death festivals

Erica Buist is the author of the book, 'This Party's Dead.' Here, she talks about how she attended different death festivals to understand how different societies deal with grief.

By Erica Buist · January 19, 2021

It is the strangest of times to say the words, “I travelled the world visiting festivals for the dead”. After four years of research, interviews, travel writing, I landed in the UK after visiting the last of seven death festivals, just three months before the first case of coronavirus was recorded in China.

The seed of the project was, of course, grief. My then-fiancé and I found his father dead in his house after eight days (which I wrote about for Guardian Weekend). After a mental health episode which involved a period of agoraphobia, I realised this was as much to do with heightened death anxiety as it was my own loss, and I became interested in how people all over the world live day to day with the knowledge that they’re going to die. I am absolutely certain that the claim that we’re “more afraid” of death in the west is nonsense: we’re all afraid, by virtue of being human. But some of us are dealing with it well, and some are dealing with it badly.

Visiting the World’s Death Festivals

I used to live in Mexico, so I’d seen many Day of the Dead celebrations, and I wondered if anyone else responds to their mortal terror by throwing a party. It turns out so many do. I started the journey by returning to Mexico, after which I went to Nepal for Gai Jatra, which is a procession of everyone who has lost someone that year. It’s a joyful celebration with drums, music, dancing in the streets. The effect is incredible – the main lie grief tells you is that you’re alone, that no one understands what you’re feeling. But that’s impossible to believe when you’re looking at a crowd of people who are going through the exact same thing.

I then went to Sicily for the Festa dei Morti, one of the only death festivals I found in Europe. Sicilian children wake up to gifts left not by Santa Claus, but by their dead relatives. What’s more, the gifts are hidden, so when they think of their dead loved ones, they associate them with a treasure hunt. It makes conversations about the dead happen in a joyful way, and normalises mentioning the dead.

In Thailand, I celebrated a Chinese festival for the dead called Cheng Meng, or Qing Ming. My father has lived in Thailand for 20 years and his wife X (pronounced ‘Ek’) is half Chinese, so I went with my extended family to picnic in the cemetery and to burn paper money for the dead – though these days people also burn paper suits, clothes, houses and iPhones. X’s mother was very upset the first time they burned a paper mobile phone for her dead husband, complaining, “Your father never called me from Heaven.” X told her, “Oh no! It must be because we forgot to burn him a charger!”

The Turning of the Bones in Madagascar involves exhuming corpses from the family tomb, re-wrapping them in a fresh shroud, and dancing them on their shoulders as the sun sets. This was the first festival I’d been to that involved the dead people themselves – this seems more likely to happen in cultures where dying is associated with a gain in power rather than a loss. In the Malagasy tradition, the ancestors are the intermediary between people and God, and they are who people pray to for good harvests, health and happiness.

After the astonishing practices in Madagascar, I wasn’t expecting to be much moved by the Obon festival in Japan. Much like in Mexico, the spirits are invited to visit and food and drink is left out for them – and the invitation is good for a week. But Obon puts the emphasis on a goodbye ritual. The mountains surrounding Kyoto are lit with fires in the shape of giant Chinese characters so the spirits can hitch a ride back to Heaven on bonfire smoke. I found myself crying, saying goodbye to my father-in-law again – and I realised the point of the death festivals, and what it is they’ve noticed in Japan that we seem to have missed. That grief doesn’t heal like a cut, and that the death festivals are about carving out a moment to say goodbye again, and again, and again.

In Tana Toraja, Indonesia, the economy runs almost entirely on death. Torajans disrespect the ancestors at their peril; everyone has a story about the dead taking swift revenge, as well as giving generous rewards. People are not regarded as dead until they’ve had their funerals, which are huge, festival-like affairs that can take months or years to save up for. Until that day they are treated as “ill”, their corpses are brought meals and clothes and spoken to daily. The festival, Ma’nene, involves exhuming the corpses from the tombs, dressing them in brand new clothes, and walking them around. They are posed for photos and involved in FaceTime calls for family members who couldn’t make it.
Every death festival taught me something about grief and death anxiety, but Ma’nene highlighted one of the most brutal ways we’re getting death wrong. I realised that in Tana Toraja, people remain part of the community long after their physical deaths, whereas here in the west people die their social deaths first – the dying are abandoned because people “don’t know what to say” or “want to remember them as they were.”

The book, This Party’s Dead, is out on 18th February and is available to preorder from a number of different outlets. (a website that supports local bookshops)
Ebook only: Unbound