Halloween, the Day of the Dead, and Other Afterlife Celebrations

pumpkins, halloween, all saints day, jack-o-lanterns
As of this initial posting, Halloween is tomorrow, and I felt like taking an opportunity to offer some thoughts on the spiritual side of Halloween, the Mexican Day of the Dead, and afterlife celebrations.

It's very common in many societies to have beliefs focused on honoring the dead or warding off "bad" spirits, and I'm sure some of my readers have those beliefs or even experiences with other dimensions. In being in the present moment, we learn to be with a lot of different experiences and perceptions, and some people have more access into other worlds and the spirit realm than others.

But I am concerned about what Halloween has become. According to History.com, Halloween generates $6 billion in revenue each year and is only behind Christmas in terms of the money it generates. It's basically just another commercial holiday with no deeper spiritual relevance. I'm also not so sure about the lessons that it teaches now as opposed to some of the lessons earlier iterations of the holiday offered to people.

With that said, let's explore these afterlife celebrations and rituals.

Halloween: A Hollowed Experience

The root word of Halloween is "hallow," which means to make holy. But I don't think there's really that much holy about Halloween. Halloween is mainly a time to dress up, get drunk, get/give candy, potentially put up decorations, and maybe go to a party. While fun is fine, digging into the roots of this tradition shows that it could be a lot more. You can learn some of that history on the link below.

History.com's History of Halloween

If you read the above link, then you certainly know that Halloween currently has nothing to do with All Saints' Day or Samhain, which preceded it and merged together in interesting ways. However, all holidays are subject to changes, and the current version of Halloween actually hasn't been in existence for that long as noted on History.com. I think that reality that holiday traditions change and shift should not be forgotten. Instead, this is a malleability that can be embraced.

One past tradition of Halloween that was rather beautiful was the practice of souling. Souling was when people in need came to other people's houses to beg for food. In exchange, those in need would pray for the giver's dead relatives. What a wonderful exchange! Family members who had moved beyond this world are honored by prayer, and the hungry are supported and nourished.

Obviously, this is only one way to transform Halloween, and we certainly don't have to be limited by the past. I'm sure that there are many other ways that we could collectively reclaim Halloween, still have a lot of fun parties at the same time, and make a hollow holiday hallowed again.

The Mexican Day of the Dead

Día de Muertos, Day of the Dead Decorations
Day of the Dead Decorations
Conversely, as far as afterlife celebrations that are popular in the U.S., the Mexican Day of the Dead or Día de los Muertos is still a rich celebration very much full of meaning in my experience. It carries a lot of significance for the Hispanic community, and it isn't just an attempt to fill children with sucrose until they pop.

I've actually celebrated this holiday with one of my students. I remember decorating candy skulls with her, her son, and her friends, and I remember wandering through the Mission district in San Francisco through a parade and a large display set up for those who have gone beyond.
dia de los muertos, day of the dead display
A Day of the Dead Display

The many and varied altars for friends and family who have passed into the other realm were really beautiful. I am not sure if my pictures do them the justice they deserve, but hopefully you get a sense of how artistic and elaborate some of them were. To be sure, others were more simple, and there's nothing wrong with simplicity!

dia de los muertos, day of the dead display
Another Day of the Dead Display
I also felt that the fact that people shared their displays and offerings for past friends and family openly to the entire public was beautiful. So in this celebration--at least as far as what I glimpsed personally in that experience--I feel like this beautiful ritual has maintained much of its essence, and it's still a lot of fun, aka parades and parties.

If you want some more thoughts on the Day of the Dead, here's a Wikipedia link.

Other Afterlife Celebrations

There are, of course, many other afterlife celebrations, including:
  • Bon Festival
  • Gaijatra
  • The Hungry Ghost Festival
You can read more here:

In general, you can get a sense of the many, many ways that cultures around the world appreciate and stay in touch with the energy/spirits of those who have gone beyond. In a world of growing secularism where such things are often regarded as superstitious, I think this kind of appreciation is actually quite healthy.

Honoring the Dead and Our Connections to Realms Beyond this Life

At the core of these rituals is honoring the dead and our connection to life beyond this one, and I think that is important to remember. While I don't talk a lot about afterlife stuff because I think we've got a lot of work to do in learning how to live in this life, I do appreciate the power of ritual for individuals and communities. Because of that, that's why I'd love to see more of the essence of appreciation for departed loved ones and for our connection to the afterlife infused into a day like Halloween again. It's the type of thing that can be re-energized in any family in any way that you so choose, and I want to empower you to find your own way of revitalizing a holiday that truly has become mostly a commercial venture with a lot of sugar addiction intertwined.

In taking back this holiday, however, Halloween can become holy again and truly be a hallow day.

For some more thoughts on death and the afterlife, you may find these posts interesting:


  1. Nice post. Thanks. I like how you see and appreciate the depths of meaning, complexity and fluidity of holidays for different peoples and cultures. One of my "problems" with the socialization of holidays is the expectation that one is necessarily in that space at that time... like, the expectation/pressure to be, say, thankful, on Thanksgiving Day. Sometimes I'm there and love the celebration, sometimes not and it's a chore to attempt to manufacture the feeling when it isn't natural. Sometimes pushing through that generates the feeling (like how smiling makes you feel better even when your sad), and sometimes not. So, while I like the idea of clarifying the meanings of a holiday, participating in traditions and rituals to express those meanings, and possibly even creating new meanings and rituals (over time culturally or instantly personally), I always see them as optional. Might be neat to invite community members to gather and share what the holiday means to them individually and discuss together what they might want it to represent collectively for the community at that level. Thanks again for sharing your thoughts. Peace.

    1. Thanks for the very thoughtful and thought-out comment. Yes, we can't be ready to feel a certain way on-demand/on the day of the cultural holiday. And gathering people together to discuss what the community wants a holiday to be is a wonderful idea.


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