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Cultures all over the world have celebrations for the dead. Halloween started with similar roots. While the American adaptation may no longer represent its origins, plenty of cultures still hold on to traditions that celebrate or honor the dead in different ways.

The language of a nation is indicative of its culture, and the way nations talk about their dead can vary greatly. So, let’s explore some of the biggest death-related holidays across the world. And discuss their language say about the countries that celebrate them.

Obon, Japan

Obon is a three-day holiday that occurs in August. Considered a national holiday, people are given those days off to travel and be with their families. Festivities begin and end with a small fire or lanterns being lit outside of a family home. These fires direct the spirits of their ancestors and guide them into the homes of their families. This tradition brings ancestors and living relatives together under one roof and eliminates the distance between them. “盆” or “bon” actually means household or family, and the O in front of it is an honorific. Obon’s best translation is “honored household” though the honor is implied in Japanese. Japan’s celebration of the dead isn’t really a celebration of the dead. Instead, it’s a celebration of the household extending beyond the grave, and reaffirms an emphasis on family for Japanese people.


Dia De Los Muertos, Latin America

We would be hard-pressed to find someone who has yet to hear about Dia De Los Muertos. It may be one of the most well-known after Halloween and is celebrated in many countries in Latin America. With films like “Coco” and “The Book of Life” having popularized the holiday, its themes and traditions have already been explored.

Jose Guadalupe Posada, who created the symbolic La Catrina, once said “Todos somos calaveras” or “we are all skeletons”. This emphasizes an important truth in the celebration of Dia De Los Muertos, that everyone will die, and that everyone is the same underneath. It is sayings like this that place a strong emphasis on the idea of Legacy. In Latin America, Dia De Los Muertos does celebrate the dead, and family too, but is also a tool to help pass on the legacy that each individual has.

Pchum Ben, Cambodia

Pchum Ben (pronounce Pyum Ben) is a Cambodian holiday that celebrates the dead. Though many in Cambodia now are Buddhist, this holiday can trace its roots back to a time when Animism was the predominant religion of the area. Today though, it has been coopted into Buddhism and is celebrated in Pagodas throughout Cambodia. Pchum means gathering, and Ben is a type of rice ball made with sesame seeds. On the day of Pchum Ben, citizens will gather and give these Ben as an offering to Buddhist monks, who are thought to be able to deliver this food to ghosts. It is said that only ghosts who have been absolved of their sins are able to eat, and only those who possess the 8 moral values can give them this food.

The central idea of Pchum Ben has developed over time to be something of a worthiness test. It becomes a reminder that to enjoy the next life, you must rid yourself of sin in this one. Though the holiday is centered around the dead, interaction with them is minimal. With a sole focus on making and offering ben, Cambodians remember the importance of their mortal actions, knowing that they will die eventually, and their decisions will impact their afterlife.

It Always Has to End

There are many cultures and countries that celebrate their dead, but they do it for different reasons. For some, it is a celebration of family, for others a celebration of legacy, and for others still, a reminder of the life to come. In the end, everyone is going to eventually die, a sad reality. Despite this though, many cultures have created happy and beautiful celebrations around it. In this season when Halloween is so commercialized, it can be refreshing to take a step back and look at the other cultures around us. As you do, you may find that we all have a lot in common and that we will play an important role in the lives of those we meet, even after we die.


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