Among all the ways by which humankind celebrates its existence, the funeral rite may be the most symbolic of all. The mythical and arcane nature of the rite ensures its place as a ritual linking states of being; life and death. Ceremonies and processions consecrate this most universal of procedures, as well as the protective deities surrounding the event. Funeral rites have existed since humankind first understood these two fundamental concepts: consciousness and impermanence. Every rite is an initiation. And in this sense, the death cult emerged from the traditional practice of releasing participants from fear of mystery, from latent uncertainty, and to offer up a sense of liberty and detachment, (and all in an unedited, possibly absolute, manifestation). An unavoidable, and often involuntary, part of all of this is the preparation for death that has itself gestated all manner of cults: psycho-dramatic techniques and performative rituals that elevate one to the point of ecstasy and harmony. Then, too, there are proverbial thoughts, enunciated over the centuries: he who fears death will never enjoy life.
Mahalaya; Day of the Spirits
Mahalaya is an ancient Hindu ceremony celebrated during October in India. From earliest times, men and women visited the Ganges River
to bath but also to recite litanies and chants devoted to the dead. Back at home, people recite the “Chandipath,” one of the oldest mantras uttered for the reincarnation of the goddess, Durga. This was often prayed at nightfall to scare away demons. The frequency with which these songs are recited is said to increase the fecundity of the magic. During the same day, the idyllic “Chakku dan” ritual often takes place. In this, the eyes of the goddess are drawn.
The Festival of the Hungry Ghosts
In Buddhism and Taoism, the “Festival of the Hungry Ghosts” provides an opportunity to help the souls of the underworld ascend and transmute their suffering. Like many traditions that make offerings to the dead, this ceremony is based on the ancient belief that the dead are granted a day to visit the world of the living–in this case, during the seventh month of the lunisolar calendar, the ghost month. But the festival also honors their presence with offerings and mostly vegetarian banquets. The dead are then routed onto barges with lanterns on the rivers to prevent their straying along the way.
The Procession of the Cows (Gai Jatra)
In Nepal, it’s believed that death is an everyday occurrence. In this way, the concept is introduced in preparation for the acceptance of fate
and the inevitable. In Hindu belief, life is only a vehicle of initiation and purification from a world to which we don’t truly belong. Based on these premises, the procession (Ghinta Ghisi), refers to death and the dead. But it’s celebrated with special joy and a beautiful parade of masks, makeup, costumes and other elements during a season of beatitude each August. The name, Gai Jatra, literally refers to the procession led by the cattle, sacred animals with the ability to guide spirits back to the kingdom of Yama.
Día de los Muertos
(Mexican Day of the Dead)
Death itself is a cult of a most primitive cosmogony, and it’s one of the most common ways to connect with divinity and the mysteries thereof
in Mexico. As unlikely as it is to smile at death, or to even laugh in death’s face, that is rather the point of the Day of the Dead. Here, death is honored through colors, sugary skulls and marigold flowers for those dead who dare visit the earthly planes during the first days of November. The mortuary ritual has transmuted over time into a joyous celebration, the origins of which begin in ancient pre-Columbian civilizations where the dead would, each year, head off for a distant and different existence.
Records bear mention of a number of underworlds known to the ancients, but Mictlán, an underworld guarded by the gods, Mictlantecuhtli
and Mictecacíhuatl, was most commonly understood as the land of the dead. An underworld beneath the earth, like a seed awaiting resurrection, it remains a poetry of eternal return.