The Traditions of Death

Despite practicing traditions of honoring our late loved ones, humanity still demonstrates a fear of the dead.

Reading Time: 3 minutes

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By Rin Fukuoka

Twice a year, my mother’s family travels about an hour’s drive upstate to a Buddhist temple. There, many families, including our own, pay respect to their late loved ones. Our family goes to visit my late aunt.

Together, we bow three times to statues of the Buddha and other Chinese deities and hold sticks of incense in our hands. My mother and grandmother clean the small black plaque with my aunt’s name on it to ensure its protection against time and the elements. Most importantly, my family brings various offerings to burn at a fire pit. My uncles bring fake paper money, while my grandparents bring thin pieces of paper imprinted with silver or gold squares. Once we burn them, my aunt will supposedly be able to use these gifts as real currency. My sisters and I write letters, updating our aunt about our lives, and throw them into the pit to burn as well. Before returning home, we leave behind small snacks, fruits, and flowers that serve as both donations toward the temple and as food for my aunt to eat.

My paternal family, who immigrated from Canton, China, practices similar traditions when honoring our dead relatives. My grandfather stokes a small fire in his kitchen, igniting stacks of paper money in the flames. Meanwhile, my grandmother sets a table entirely for the dead, allowing them to eat before the living members of the family. One by one, we bow three times before these plates of food. Rather than sticks of incense, we hold small cups of alcohol, which are then given to the deceased. When we visit our ancestors, who are buried in a graveyard about a half-hour’s drive away, we bring even more offerings of food.

Many other cultures have similar views on honoring one’s ancestors. Across the world, families throw festivals or hold ceremonies to show their appreciation and love for those they have lost. However, despite the prevalence of traditions that honor the dead, much of humanity shares an aversion and fear of death.

When I was around nine years old, I visited my paternal grandparents’ house with my cousins. It was the day of a Chinese festival, so my grandparents were setting up the customary offerings to our ancestors. As we waited for dinner to be served, I was tasked with entertaining two of my younger cousins. The younger of the two, who was about three at the time, asked me why we had to wait to eat dinner when the food was clearly already prepared. I attempted to explain that our ancestors had to eat first.

“Does that mean there are ghosts in the house?” my cousin asked. Though it seemed she was asking out of curiosity, I was still worried about scaring her. After all, the word “ghost” is generally associated with horror. A ghost is something to be scared of.

“They’re good ghosts,” I responded. “They’re our family. They’re just here to say hi and eat food.”

“Okay,” my cousin said, returning back to her toys and seeming unaffected by my answer. Nevertheless, that moment was the first time I considered that communicating with our late ancestors could be seen as scary. After all, I had been doing it since I was my cousin’s age, and there had never been a reason for me to be afraid. Over time, however, I began to realize that there was an obvious fear of the dead in Asian culture. Like many other cultures, we have ghost stories and fables that make us fear the dead.

These fearful superstitions directly contradict the traditions that place heavy emphasis on respecting those who have passed away. It’s strange to think that our traditions could have such contrasting ideas about death. While we are encouraged to respect and honor the dead whom we once knew and loved, we still corrupt or demonize the memories of others, portraying them as frightening ghosts. I soon realized why this duality was the case: in both instances, the dead are forgotten and unidentifiable. My younger cousin could not understand how the ghosts were still our family. I wonder, at what point do our ancestors and traditions simply become ghost stories?

The concept of death has always been extremely interesting to me. It’s something that no one, not even the smartest scientists or wisest philosophers, truly understands. Yet, at the end of our lives, we all share a desire to be remembered and honored by those we love. With that in mind, we should not fear the dead just because we can’t remember them. Regardless of whether or not you believe in an afterlife, the very least you can do is respect the wishes of the deceased to be loved and remembered. It won’t be long before their stories are lost in time forever.