The ways people honor and grieve the deceased around the world provide important insights into cultural values, traditions, and religious beliefs. By studying how various cultures treat death and mourning, you can open up the world to your students and give them a greater understanding of global perspectives.
In many countries, honoring the dead coincides with autumn, or harvest times, during the year. Now that fall is here in the Northern Hemisphere, studying these festivals and rituals can make for a timely lesson or activity. You may want to share traditions you’ve observed in your home country, or align a lesson to a country or continent you have been studying with your students.
Here are a few examples to discuss in your classroom of how people honor the deceased from around the world. As you and your students are learning, keep in mind some customs are celebratory in nature, while others are more solemn. Help students respect the traditions you are learning about and honor the ways they are observed.
Día de los Muertos
Día de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead, is a two-day holiday celebrated primarily in Mexico and by Mexican-Americans in the US. People celebrate the lives of loved ones who have died through special foods, parades, festivals, and dancing.
Many people visit the graves of loved ones, cleaning the gravesite and offering food and drinks their loved ones enjoyed during their life. They also set up ofrendas in their homes with flowers, candles, pictures, and food to honor the dead.
It is believed that during Día de los Muertos, the souls of the deceased return to this world to visit the living. Learn more about this holiday and activity ideas for your classroom here.
All Saints’ Day
All Saints’ Day is celebrated around the world, mostly by Christians in Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Churches, on November 1. Many people observe this day by visiting graves of loved ones, cleaning tombstones, laying flowers, and lighting candles to honor those who have passed.
Not only do people remember deceased loved ones, but it is also a day to commemorate martyrs and saints of the church. Christians have been observing All Saints’ Day in one form or another for more than 1,600 years.
Qing Ming Festival
The Qing Ming Festival, also called Tomb-Sweeping Day, can literally be translated as “Pure Brightness Festival.” Traditions have roots in Confucianism, and have been observed in Chinese culture for more than 2,500 years.
Each spring, people visit gravesites of lost loved ones to pay their respects and make offerings like paper money and food. Families will often bring a picnic to the grave and burn incense for deceased relatives.
To get a firsthand account of the festival, you and your students can read about one woman’s experience honoring her grandparents during Qing Ming and how it made her feel more connected to them and her entire family.
The Buddhist traditions of Obon are celebrated throughout Japan in late summer, when it is believed that ancestors come back to visit the living. People often travel to their hometowns to spend time with family and pay respects to the deceased.
Obon is observed by visiting graves or cemeteries, traditional dances, such as Bon Odori, and lighting lanterns. In Kyoto, huge bonfires are lit on the outskirts of the city at the end of Obon to guide spirits back to the afterlife.
Gai Jatra, or festival of the cows, is celebrated annually in Nepal, mostly in the Kathmandu Valley. Cows are sacred animals in Hinduism and are believed to guide the deceased to the afterlife. People who have lost family members in the last year observe the day by leading cows through street processions. If a cow can’t be procured, a child dressed as a cow will take part in the festival. Parades, comedy, and brightly colored costumes are part of the festival to celebrate those who have passed.
Do you and your students plan to learn about or observe any of these traditions? Let us know what you have planned by sharing on social media using #UnitingOurWorld.