Gaining Perspectives On Death From Cultural Traditions

In the Mexican and Mexican-American communities, they have a celebratory holiday known as The Day of the Dead (“Día de los Muertos”). Lasting over a couple of days, Mexican families and friends gather to celebrate and remember loved ones who have passed on. Just as how they believed that the dead are back in the realm of the living for just this period of time, the Chinese support the very same belief through their Qing Ming Festival. Also known as Tomb-Sweeping Day in English, this traditional Chinese festival observes families who visit the gravesites of their ancestors to pay respects and make ritual offerings. Their offerings could be made through various means, such as lighting incense and joss sticks. Similarly, the Mexicans would make altars for the departed and offer food and meals. Families would congregate in cemeteries to dine with ancestors and loved ones that have already left them.

Across the globe, many cultures shared this ritualistic relationship with the afterlife and death. Some honoured it; some embraced it and turned it into a festive time for bonding and camaraderie. In several parts of Asia, people would light up lanterns (e.g. Toro Nagashi in Japan, Loi Krathong in Thailand, etc.) to drift down a river, as a form of spiritual procession to send off the dead. The similarities in festivals highlighted a universal experience with death. That none of us were alone in this. Communities could grieve and mourn together, without being haunted or frightened by the concept of death.

In the Western world, many of such cultural practices and rituals linked to death and remembering the departed were lost over the years. As society advanced and death started to be perceived by the general public through a medical lens, death was turned into something dreadful and horrifying. It became a statistic that would instil fear into people. Charts about survival rates and successful medical procedures would always harp on the notion of death and dying. In the quest for immortality, science made death out to be something unknown and something that could not be comprehended by typical logic. Members of modern civilisation began to lose touch with death, as a result. Without these rituals and practices, it became easy for people to fall deep into depression and grief when someone they know is taken away by death. What these traditional and cultural rituals and processions teach us is to not approach the topic of death as something to be feared. Likewise, grief is an experience that applies to all of humanity. Loss and mourning is part of the human experience.

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