The Living Dead

grayscale photography of trees

Why do all cultures around the world celebrate death and have rituals in each of their faiths and beliefs to commemorate the trespassed? Christian, Muslims, Jews, Hindus, Animists and more have in their tradition a specific time in the calendar for commemoration and acknowledgement of death, mostly (not all) placed between what we know as October/November, a tradition lost in the mists of time. 

The purpose of this can be multiple, honour the ancestors, a reminder of the transitional and temporary presence in this world,  a contemplation of life-death cycle, a specific time for the community to stop looking at its origin and celebrate today’s life while honouring the legacy of those who lived before us. Could well be that each answer is right. 

In many cultures this remembrance ritual occurs in the period between Equinox and Solstice, marking the end of the harvest season and the start of the darker and colder months. The ancient Greeks had Anthesteria, associated with Dyonisos – God of merriment and wine. Romans had Lemuralia a day used to exorcise bad spirits from their homes, and worship ancestors, Celts had Samhain the day to honour ancestors and thinning of the threshold with the spirit world. Aztecs, Navajos ad Hopis had rituals of sacrifice and food offering to the souls of the departed, and in many cultures these are still celebrated. 

What about today? The catholic this ritual includes prayers and sacrifice to purify the souls of the deceased and help them be free of the guilt of past mistakes so they can move on to Heaven, Hindus the Pitri Paksha offering messages to the afterlife conveyed by water. All have common threads, passage, remembrance, heritage, roots and ancestry and community. Embedded with a belief that on this day the souls of the dead revisit the world. In some Islamic traditions the Thursday of the Dead (or of Sweetness is celebrated) to celebrate the visit of the deceased dear ones to their homes of origin, and offered sweets. As well trending today… Halloween. 

Each of these rituals involves the concept that these souls are alive, just on another plain of existence, Heaven? Elysium? Valhalla? And other names for the afterlife, which implies that something immortal lives within us, a concept existing since the dawn of times all over human communities, defining the soul as something immortal, transcendent or even trapped in a material world freed by death, which is seen as stepping stone to the continuation of the purpose of the soul. 

The Ritual of the Dead, discarding its macabre and sinister name is a most important natural ritual that actually celebrates life, in every culture, the tradition of faith this time of the year celebrates a sense of community and belonging, honours the people who in the past contributed to building those families, communities, towns etc. and now are gone. Moreover, this ritual confronts people with the one of the biggest fears of humanity, death, and generates a sense of belonging that goes beyond here-and-now, a purpose-making, acknowledgement celebration. 


Fun Fact: 
In Mexico the “Dia de Los Muertos” sees a mixture between Christian and Aztec traditions meant to honour ancestors and life, and in some local aspects the communities and families set up altars at home, pretending that the living members are actually dead, and in turn everybody says some nice words for the trespassed who are actually alive and well and listen to what close relatives and friends say about them. 

Published by Lorenzo Nava

Consultant, Trainer and Coach, on participatory learning processes, experiential learning dynamics, non formal education and NLP certified practitioner

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