“I want to die like my father, peacefully and in his sleep, not screaming and terrified like his passengers” – Bob Monkhouse
As Halloween approaches, I think we can all agree that nothing is more annoying than the restless dead. Now we shouldn’t judge all the dead on the basis of a few bad apples, so if you’re properly dead, I’m not talking about you. Some of my best friends are quietly dead. Unfortunately for the living, because a few of the unmannerly deceased want to make a fuss, humanity has had to come up with a number of special days designed to propitiate those who are both undead and unruly. I mean, you’re dead. Get over yourself. Alas, few people bother to tell this to the dis-satisfied dead, as we’re generally too busy running in fear from them. They need to know. Voltaire said it best, commenting, “To the living we owe respect, but to the dead we owe only the truth.” And the truth is we have spent thousands of years trying to figure out why some people refuse to shuffle sedately off this mortal coil, and what exactly we should do about it.
Many cultures celebrate festivals of the dead including the Buddhist/Taoist Bon Festival, the Mexican Dia de Muertos, Gaelic Samhain, the Muslim “Thursday of the Dead”, the Malagasy Famadinhana (“The Turning of the Bones”), and the Teutonic Totensonntag, but these celebrations are regarded as times to memorialize and appreciate the honored dead, rather than exorcise or drive away resentful ghosts. And really, isn’t it the resentful ghosts that cause most of our supernatural trouble? What do we do, as a species, about those dead people that we didn’t like when they were alive?
The Romans had the ancient tradition of Lemuralia (or Lemuria, no relation to the mythical continent), three feast days in May dedicated to placating malignant spirits that were lurking about the house. Modern malignant spirits may or may not include Jack Daniels and Jose Cuervo, but in this particular instance, the Romans were more concerned with unwholesome specters called lemures (who incidentally, had lemurs named after them due to the fact that they are nocturnal beasties with big, ghostly eyes). Lemures were regarded as vengeful spirits, angry over failing to receive appropriate funeral rights, or given the rampant ancestor reverence of the day, lacked an adequately affectionate group of relatives to keep their memory alive and offer up the odd sacrifice in remembrance. If you liked your ancestors, you celebrated them during the February holiday of Paternalia, whereas Lemuralia was concerned with the malevolent dead. Roman poet Publius Ovidius Naso (43 B.C.-18 A.D.), or Ovid to his drinking buddies, thought that the origins of the Lemuria dated to an early ritual called “the Remuria” linked to the origins of Rome. Legend has it that brothers Romulus and Remus, raised by wolves, went on to found the city of Rome, and quarreled violently over which hill to build on, resulting in the murder of Remus. Henceforth, Romulus felt he needed to spend some time each year apologizing the ghost of Remus.
On the 9th, 11th, and 13th of May occurs the Lemuria, a ceremony of a strikingly different order. Once again temples are shut and marriages forbidden, but the ritual is of a very different nature. The Lemures or Larvae—for there seems to be little distinction between the two names—are regarded no longer as members of the family to be welcomed back to their place, but as hostile spirits to be exorcised. The head of the house rises from bed at midnight, washes, and walks barefoot through the house, making signs for the aversion of evil spirits. In his mouth he carries black beans — always a chthonic symbol—which he spits out nine times without looking round, saying, as he does so, ‘With these I redeem me and mine’: he washes again, and clanks brass vessels together; nine times he repeats the formula, ‘depart, Manes of our fathers’ (no doubt using the dignified title Manes euphemistically), and then finally turns round. Here we have in a quite unmistakable manner the feeling of the hostility of the spirits of the dead: they must be given their appropriate food and got out of the place as quickly as possible. Some scholars have attempted to explain the difference between these two festivals on the assumption that the Parentalia represents the commemoration of the duly buried dead, the Lemuria the apotropaic right for the aversion of the unburied, and therefore hostile spirits; but Ovid has given a far more significant hint, when he tells us that the Lemuria was the more ancient festival of the two (Bailey, 1907, p54-54).
Scholars have hypothesized a distant connection between Lemuralia and Halloween. Modern Halloween has more of the flavor of Gaelic Samhain or Celtic harvest festivals, with a little bit of Christianity thrown in for good measure. The original date of the Roman Catholic All Saints Day (also referred to as “All Hallows Day” or “Hallowmas”) was May 13th, but was switched in 835 A.D., after about 200 years of observance, to November 1st (the same date as Samhain), presumably so all the little Gaelic kids didn’t feel left out. That of course made the night before All Saints Day into All Hallow’s Eve, or Halloween (from the Scottish). Interestingly, the original May 13th date falls on precisely the last day of Lemuralia. Lemuralia first starts in Rome. All Saints Day first starts in Rome. Coincidence? Of course, the point isn’t who came up with the idea of Halloween, rather the fact that across time and culture, we tend to be concerned with those restless dead, so much so that we invent holidays to deal with them.
The Buddhist/Taoist Hungry Ghost Festival (“Yu Lan”), celebrated in a number of variations throughout East Asia happens in the seventh month of the lunar Chinese calendar (during what would have typically been the Fall harvest). The gates of Hell swing wide open and ghosts are free to roam the earth looking for a party. The mythology behind this is that if you die and do not receive proper funerary treatment or did something particularly heinous in life, you wind up a “hungry ghost”, that is a ghost who can’t swallow and is consequently starving to death, which just seems like an overabundant addition of insult to injury in light of the fact that you are already a rotting corpse. Now, obviously you would be especially concerned about your own ancestors (particularly if you’re lack of observance of proper rituals for the dead landed them in this situation in the first place. Consequently, the Ghost Festival involves a lot of offerings of food and libations to the departed, as well as the custom of burning “hell bank notes” (simulated paper money). Standard practice is to also provide some sustenance from wandering, lonely ghosts that have nobody to remember to feed them, since it is these unattached spirits that are thought to bring misfortune. This of course explains the traditional heavy emphasis on filial piety.
More than death itself the Chinaman fears to die without leaving male progeny to worship at his shrine; for, if he should die childless, he leaves behind him no provision for his support in heaven, but wanders there a hungry ghost, forlorn and forsaken—an “orphan” because he has no children. “If one has plenty of money,” says the Chinese proverb, “but no children, he cannot be reckoned rich; if one has children, but no money, he cannot be considered poor.” To have sons is a foremost virtue in China”; the greatest of the three unfilial things,” says Mencius, ” is to have no children” (Morrison, 1902, p197-198).
The notion of the hungry ghost is rooted in Hinduism, and carried on more metaphorically in Buddhism, but they are in general agreement that there is a category of restless dead that needs to be appeased.
In Buddhist beliefs, the hunger of ghosts represents a more metaphorical dimension. As explained by Robert Wicks in his article on Tibetan Buddhism, “the dead person can choose either to become enlightened by giving up his or her “unconscious tendencies” that have been the cause of suffering, or the person can choose to remain bonded to those dispositions and be fated to circle once more through the patterns of his/her past existence”. A spirit that decides to pursue revenge (apparently the most common reason for the spirits to remain on earth) instead of giving up its earthly emotions cannot move on to be reborn and remains in the “intermediate existence.” Unable to let go of its attachments, the spirit remains entrapped in what the Buddhists associate with “the four evil ways:” Hell, Hunger, Animality and Anger. According to Lin, the human soul is “helplessly engulfed in transmigration within the six realms of suffering. These six realms are: heavens, asuras, humans, animals, hungry ghosts, and hells”. Trapped in the realm of hunger, or hungry ghosts, the vengeful spirit will continue to be tormented by its own desires, including the desire to avenge itself. And since in Buddhism even hell is not eternal, as eventually the soul will be reborn into this world, it is in fact the stubbornness with which the ghost refuses to let go of its attachments that keeps the soul from moving on and constitutes the punishment in itself. When the spirit is unable to renounce the world completely it delays its eventual rebirth into a new life (Katarzyna, 2012, p118).
Classical Athenian Greeks had their own version of pacifying the restless dead in the form of the Festival of Anthesteria, technically a holiday honoring Dionysus (and as such involved a lot of drinking) during which it is said that Keres (female death-spirits) roamed freely through the streets, requiring entertainment and finally expulsion.
While the details of the festival of the Anthesteria are obscure, its general character is well known. It was a festival both of wine-drinking and of the dead, whose souls were supposed to revisit the city and to go about the streets, just as in modern Europe and in many other parts of the world the ghosts of the departed are still believed to return to their old homes on one day of the year and to be entertained by their relatives at a solemn Feast of All Souls. But the Dionysiac nature of the festival was revealed not merely by the opening of the wine-vats and the wassailing which went on throughout the city among freemen and slaves alike; on the second day of the festival the marriage of Dionysus with the Queen of Athens was celebrated with great solemnity at the Bucolium or Ox-stall (Frazer, 1935, p30).
Honoring the dead is sensible, but sometime the dead just don’t deserve it. This puts you in a bit of a bind when your cultural sensibilities tell you that the unhonored dead tend to hang around stirring up trouble, or periodically get released to roam the earth by some divine precedent. Halloween makes a great teaching moment for the kids. When they come back loaded with bags of candy and headed for a sugar coma, remind them to leave a few treats around for the restless dead that nobody remembers, just in case. Oh, and if you really want to traumatize them for life, tell them that as Rick Yancy said, “there’s no real difference between us, the living and the dead; it’s just a matter of tense: past-dead and future-dead.”
Bailey, Cyril, 1871-1957. The Religion of Ancient Rome. London: A. Constable & co., ltd., 1907.
Frazer, James George, 1854-1941. The Golden Bough: a Study In Magic And Religion. 3d. ed. New York: Macmillan, 1935.
Katarzyna, Ancuta. “Ghosts, Revenants, and Specters: The Side Effects of Dying”. Facing Finality: Cogntive and Cultural Studies in Death and Dying. Erich E. Berendt, ed. Louisville, KY: University of Louisville, 2012.
Morrison, George Ernest, 1862-1920. An Australian In China: Being the Narrative of a Quiet Journey Across China to Burma. London: H. Cox, 1902.