Leaves falling and temperature shifts provide a natural time to think about transitions and change. As we move through the seasons, we pause to look back on the year so far and look forward to the memories we’ll make with friends and family in the coming months.
The transitional period of fall also marks a window of time when many cultures around the world stop to remember those who have passed. You may be familiar with Día de Los Muertos, the Mexican holiday of remembrance. But did you know that from October to the start of November, cultures and religions around the world have rituals, traditions, and ceremonies to remember loved ones?
Below we’ll dive into some of the different customs around the globe, and the striking commonalities they share.
Candles and marigolds on a Día de Los Muertos altar
Lighting fires to call loved ones home
Día de Los Muertos is a Mexican holiday that honors the deceased over a two-day celebration of life. During the first two days of November, Mexicans erect candlelit altars honoring the deceased so that the spirits of the dead may return to the living world to be with their loved ones. It’s the candles on these altars that guide them back home.
During Obon, a Buddhist custom practiced in early autumn, Japanese communities hold welcoming fires and hang small flames or lanterns outside their homes. Like with Día de Los Muertos, these flames are believed to guide ancestors home where they can be reunited with their family.
It’s the fire in these rituals that bring departed loved ones back to the living world to reconnect with their family and loved ones.
Obon celebration in the town of Nagano, Japan
Erecting altars to honor and aid the return home
Many cultures erect altars to honor their loved ones. Día de Los Muertos is known for its colorful altars, with each level carrying a symbolic meaning. People place salt on their altars to stop the souls of the deceased from being corrupted by earthly temptations, and glasses of water nearby to quench their thirst and prepare them for their return journey. During Día de Los Muertos, symbolic offerings with photos and personal items are presented to the dead on an altar, or ofrenda, to help them find their way home — from Uncle Victor’s favorite album to Grandma’s preferred dessert.
But this isn’t the only culture to present altars to their dead; from traditional symbolic offerings to special holiday delicacies, to favorite meals and drinks, people cook to connect with those that have passed and tempt them to return home with the promise of a good meal.
A traditional Korean feast during Chuseok
During Chuseok, a major harvest festival and holiday in Korea, families practice Charye, where they hold a memorial and erect a shrine with traditional and favorite food for the deceased at the table. Koreans place a shinwi, or memorial tablet, that symbolizes the spiritual presence of the ancestor.
In Japan, spirits also visit the altars erected for them in their family’s home during Obon.
Sprucing up graves to pave a clear passage
In order for the deceased to return to their loved ones, their gravestones must be cleaned to give them a clear passage home. Before Chuseok, Koreans will prepare with Beolcho; family members cut weeds and tidy the area surrounding their ancestral graves, as well as the paths that lead to them.
This custom is not exclusive to the autumn holidays. One of the most important Chinese holidays is the Qingming Festival in April, which recognizes the traditional reverence of one’s ancestors in Chinese culture. During Qingming, many Chinese families visit gravesites and participate in tomb-sweeping to show respect for one’s ancestors and to uphold Chinese traditions of filial piety and ancestral worship.
Pausing and reflecting during this time
While different cultures honor their ancestors in their own ways, one similarity clearly comes through: our loved ones can return to us when we consciously create space for them. Whether through celebration, communication, or simply calling up memories, when we take the time to honor our loved ones, we’re able to bring a piece of them back.