Our colleague Dr. Rung died this weekend. He was a kind and gentle man, a Christian leader, an educator of theological students, and a Thai-Chinese Presbyterian. As his death was announced messages began to pour in, most of which wished him now to rest in peace. We were also informed of memorial services to come, coincidentally, on Halloween, All Saints Day, and All Souls Day.
These announcements caused me to reminisce about what we are doing when we do these things. Of course, we are honoring the one who has died and comforting ones left behind, but there is more to it than that. The penetrating questions, I submit, are two: what do our departed ancestors need from us? Why do we need to do these strange things?
First, let’s separate two sets of actions. Funerals are conducted to bring about closure and healing. Funerals come at times of acute loss. The sense of loss, remorse, and grief can go on for a long time. But sooner or later those rituals are over and a generation comes who never knew those who “went long before.” The rituals and festivals for those long gone are what I want us to consider as I ask, “What do those ancestors need?” And, “Why are we doing things that are so disconnected?”
Every culture that we know of has some form of ancestor remembrance.
The Celts had Samhain at this transition season between summer and winter. Christians super-imposed All Saints and All Souls Day on that, which was morphed in Latin America and elsewhere into Dia de Muertos, the day of the dead. The Hindu festival of Pitru Paksha, in mid-September “to keep the souls of our ancestors at rest” is related to our northern Thai Sip-song Beng festival and the Japanese Bon festival.
It seems there are four general concepts about what those ancestors might need:
They need food. The folk-narrative behind this says that the ghosts of the dead are tormented by terrible hunger. It is helpful for us to offer it. It’s the least we can do, even though the way these deceased, hungry spirits actually feel hunger and get benefit from our offering is shrouded in mystery.
They need rest. This life is one of travail that inevitably comes to an unfortunate end. Some deaths are agonizing and other lives pass peacefully away, but all life is a journey, and journeys are tiring. It would be too bad if the after-life were also restless. Serene peace is one’s best hope.
They need to be remembered. “One is not utterly dead until no one remembers us,” says the aphorism. Even when all the details of one’s life have been erased from memory and one’s name has been eroded from the tombstone, some need is fulfilled if there is at least a festival where the host of ancestors is honored.
They need nothing. The dead cease to exist. Their egos are extinguished (e.g. Nirvana), their bodies decompose back into atoms or stardust. Only ripples of influence remain to be merged into the vast sea of effect. Even for modern materialists, however, cultural heroes and heroic metaphors are enshrined in obelisks, street names, and Mount Rushmore.
There is a predictable pattern for the progression of ancestor festivals: they tend to evolve from veneration to entertainment.
All Saints Eve (All Hallows Eve / Halloween) is an example. Samhain and related festivals were perilous times when things were turning dangerous. The fertile season was ending and the cattle were returning from summer pasture. The transition was a liminal time when boundaries could be crossed. The Aos Si (spirits / fairies [don’t imagine Disney fairies here]) could cross the thin barrier at this time. At the transition from winter to spring, the festival of Walpurgisnacht was (and still is) observed on May 1 with large bonfires to keep away the witches as they flew toward revels with the devil. Bonfires are also lit on Halloween for the same reason. Mummers and folks dressed in disguise to confuse and deceive the witches and demons dared to come out and beg for food. A similar time was celebrated in every culture from Polynesia to Siberia. Halloween is the de-terrified residue of these customs, insisting “we are not afraid” or at least “this fear is fun.” Halloween is about enjoyment.
Another way ancestor festivals have been transformed is by holding them as cultural festivals. The Japanese Bon Festival is an example. I saw a Bon Festival in a park in New York City on the eve before my first flight to Japan on my way to Thailand in August 1965. What I was looking at was a set of dances in which all the dancers in elaborate Japanese dress on a central bamboo platform and the crowd below were doing movements simultaneously that echoed such traditional peasant harvest activities as cutting rice, thrashing the grain, and winnowing the chaff. The ancestors who did these things to live were venerated in shrines no doubt, but remembrance had melted into something less solemn and more about enjoyment. It was a combination of harvest and ancestor festival.
In addition to the movement from placating fear to playing, there is a predictable appropriation of the cultural activities to enhance socio-political consciousness. Bon dancing becomes a celebration of Japanese-ness. Dia de Muertos is patriotically Mexican. Halloween is particularly American – so much so that religious groups have sometimes deplored the way Halloween erodes religion.
By the time the fall festival has moved from being about protection from supernatural danger to veneration of ancestors, and then from sacred rites to enjoyable entertainment, and finally into celebration of cultural identity as well – by that time it takes mental discipline to see the overlap between harvest, ancestors, and heroes. In fact, it is probably best not to look for it at all and just be content that Halloween, All Saints Day, and Thanksgiving are three separate holidays. Here in Thailand so are Sip-song Beng (where wandering ancestors are fed to make them as happy as possible), Wan Pi-ya Maha Raj (the remembrance day for King Chulalongkorn, Oct. 23), and Loy Kratong (a festival of lights that also honors the Mother of Waters and the environment). Then comes Christmas [the mid-winter festival], Christmas [the family festival with gift giving], and Christmas [the observance of the Nativity of Jesus Christ].
[This completes our 7th year of weekly blog-essays. We have signed onto our domain for another year. We average about 2000 visitors a week, my website manager tells us. The fact that this number is fairly constant is what keeps me writing. Thanks, readers.]
Rev. Dr. Kenneth Dobson posts his weekly reflections on this blog.