Beyond Hong Kong: How 5 Other Countries Celebrate the Festival of the Dead

The Chung Yeung Festival, or Double Ninth Festival, is held on the ninth day of the ninth lunar month every year. This year, the date fell yesterday, on October 4.

Like other Chinese festivals, the event stems from a legend dating back thousands of years ago. This time, was during the Han Dynasty era 2,000 years ago. While there are several versions of the origin story, the most popular one in Hong Kong is about a man named Huan Jing.

The story goes, there was a plague devil that lived in Henan province’s Ru River, which spread diseases and caused death across nearby towns.

Some of its victims were Huan Jing’s parents.

To avenge their death, Huan trained under Fei Changfang, a powerful swordmaster, such that he could learn how to kill the demon. Then, one day, Fei told Huan that the demon would emerge on the ninth day of the ninth month, giving his student a Zhuyu plant and chrysanthemum wine for protection.

When the day came, he led fellow villagers up a mountain and advised them to wear the leaves and drink the wine for defense purposes. And when the demon appeared, Huan killed it with his sword.

Since then, the Chinese would commemorate this event by hiking mountains and drinking chrysanthemum-infused wine, which is said to promote life’s longevity.

In addition, people would take this time to visit and sweep their ancestors’ graves, placing various food offerings like fruits, roasted pork, and steamed rice flour cakes to pay their respects. They would often burn joss sticks and fly kites as well.

An old man lighting joss sticks in front of a tomb. Roasted pork, mandarins and cake rolls are placed as food offerings too. (Photo: Getty Images)

On the other hand, different cultures have their way of remembering those who have passed away. Let’s take a look into how five other countries celebrate the Festival of the Dead.


A woman’s face painted with the Calaveras skull looking into the distance in Mexico City. (Photo: Salvador Altamirano)

Día de los Muertos, otherwise known as Mexico’s Day of the Dead, is typically celebrated on November 1 and 2 of each year, wherein families honour departed loved ones by throwing massive feasts and colourful decorations along the streets.

Instead of mourning one’s passing, Mexicans believe that the dead are still members of the community, who will temporarily reunite with their loved ones on Día de los Muertos. To encourage their visit, people would prepare ofrendas, or offerings, filled with the deceased’s favourite foods, drinks, and photos, topped with bright yellow marigold flowers.

In Spanish, these native Mexican flowers are called Flor de Muerto, Flower of the Dead, as they are believed to guide spirits back to their families.

Mexican marigold flowers with decorative Calaveras. (Photo: Getty Images)

The Calavera (skull in Spanish) is a ubiquitous symbol of this event, and thus, its imagery can be found in sugar candies, handmade clay decorations, and face paintings. These decorative skulls are curated with flowers and smiling features — a playful commentary on death itself.

Multi-colored skulls for sale in Mexico City during Día de los Muertos. (Photo: Jeremy Lwanga)

Some people even try to dress like the Calavera while performing, dancing and playing lively music on the streets during the festival, which insinuate Mexico’s upbeat, lively take towards the Festival of the Dead.

The Philippines

Candles surrounding a gravestone in The Philippines during Undas on October 31, 2011. (Photo: dimlakarlen on Flickr)

Similar to Mexico, The Philippines’s Undas consists of expansive food and celebrations to honour departed family members — at least on November 2. As for November 1, Filipinos typically go to churches and pray for the lost and restless souls who are still in the purgatory stage waiting to enter Heaven.

Adopted from a fusion of colonial Spanish culture and Roman Catholicism, the event is viewed as a religious practice as well as a time to reunite with the living — some of which might be working overseas or reside in other parts of The Philippines.

Therefore, everyone would often come back to their hometowns and visit gravesites for Undas. During this time, they would buy flowers, light candles, bring all sorts of food and in classic Filipino manner, sing karaoke songs. Priests would also circulate cemeteries to offer prayers and bless graves.

In terms of food, families would usually prepare pancit (vermicelli rice noodles with pork or chicken), lumpia (spring rolls), barbecued skewers, and rice.

A table of barbecued skewers, pancit, squid and rice on banana leaves. (Photo: Getty Images)

While eating, adults would do a round-table sharing of stories and memories about those who have passed.


The Japanese float lanterns to honour spirits of deceased ancestors in Fukui, Japan on August 21, 2011. (Photo: Getty Images)

Two months ago, the Japanese celebrated the annual Obon Festival from August 13 to 16, marking the return of their ancestors to Earth. Based on historical records, the first traces of such an event were in the ancient Asuka period.

According to Buddhist scriptures, one of Buddha’s disciples saw his mother suffering in the Realm of Hungry Ghosts — a place where spirits experience insatiable hunger and thirst in the afterlife. However, when he gave her rice, it burst into flames. After seeking help from Buddha, he was instructed to prepare food and drink offerings for his deceased parents and monks on the 15th day of the seventh moon.

The gesture was said to liberate their souls from torment.

From then on, families would create two shōryō-dana — altars of fruit, incense, and flowers —, one for their ancestors and the second for other restless spirits. Other rituals consist of cleaning and decorating ancestral tombs and praying services at temples.

A woman lights a candle in front of a grave in Jizoji Buddhist Temple in Oganomachi, Japan on August 13, 2018. (Photo: Getty Images)

For performances, Japanese communities would organise simple region-specific folk dances, in which dancers would dress up as popular folklore characters.

On the final night, people would then light bonfires and set off floating lanterns to bid the spirits farewell.


A woman dressed in a traditional Hanbok dress positions a white flower on an altar with offerings on September 21, 2021. (Photo: Getty Images)

Chuseok is essentially a three-day, all-in-one Korean Day of the Dead, Thanksgiving and Memorial Day. This is when locals thank their ancestors’ spirits for watching over and protecting them.

This year, it was held from September 9 to 12.

Aside from usual practices among most Festivals of the Dead, such as visiting and cleaning family tombs, bringing flowers and food, Koreans have other unique rituals for Chuseok.

Charye involves arranging fresh fruits, vegetables, joss sticks, and candles on the altar. More importantly, it is done in a particular order — rice and soup are in the north, fruit, and vegetables in the south, meat is served in the west and rice cakes and alcohol are in the east.

Chuseok altar. (Photo: Kate on Flickr)

They do this ritual in the morning of the main day, which fell on September 10 this year.

As for special food, they usually eat Songpyeon — an oval-shaped rice cake typically filled with chestnut and red bean paste.

Green and white Songpyeon rice cakes placed on a wooden board.
(Photo: Nhi Pham on Flickr)

With that said, people also perform the Ganggangsullae dance under the full moon. Traditionally, there were only women performers who did this without music and singing. Nowadays, the dance is accompanied by musical instruments and everyone is welcome to join.

Women dance the Ganggangsullae for a performance. (Video: Arirang Culture on Youtube)

Other activities include tug-of-war competitions and card games by adults and children.


Locals participate in a Voodoo ritual in honour of the spirit of Baron Samedi and Gede at the national cemetery of Port-au-Prince, Haiti on November 1, 2021. (Photo: Getty Images)

Just like all these countries, Haitian Voodou believers conduct a series of singing, dancing, and offerings to honour the dead during Fèt Gede, more commonly known as the Festival of the Sacred Dead. Aside from celebrating departed loved ones, however, certain practices are done to attract the Iwa spirits of death and fertility.

The festival is officially held on November 1 and 2 but celebrations can last for the entire month.

As of 2003, Vodou was proclaimed as a state religion in Haiti. To pay respects to the deceased, they believe that permission must be obtained from Baron Samedi, or Papa Gede, who is said to be the first man who ever died.

According to legend, he is a cunning psychopomp who stands at the crossroads between life and death. Holding the knowledge of the dead and the outside world, he often wears sunglasses when venturing outside the underworld with the right glass removed, such that he may view both worlds simultaneously.

Samedi is believed to dress formally in a top hat, tailcoat, and long black cane — all-encompassing black, purple and white colour palettes. He is a trickster notorious for smoking cigarettes and drinking hard liquors like vodka and gin. Hence, locals would station themselves in the main Port-au-Prince cemetery and manifest his presence by embodying his appearance.

A man dressed like Baron Samedi at the national cemetery of Port-au-Prince, Haiti on November 1, 2021. (Photo: Getty images)

Moreover, they would present offerings, such as homemade beeswax candles, flowers, food, and bottles of rum stuffed with chilli peppers. Besides that, some would even carry out sacred dances, polyrhythmic drumming, animal sacrifices, and possessions by the spirits themselves.

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