Hosts and Ghosts: The Dead as Visitors in Cross-Cultural Perspective

Clifton D Bryant. Handbook of Death and Dying. Editor: Clifton D Bryant. Volume 1. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Reference, 2003.

All societies must confront the problems of death. The immediate and practical problems that death poses include the physical processing of the dead and the social processing of the death (grief, bereavement, and so on). The secondary problems are related to anxiety about death itself, which affects the members of the society, and to the need for an appropriate relationship between the living and the dead. In this connection, all societies project onto the dead some degree of animation. Furthermore, just as there is a social covenant among the living, there is a covenant between the living and the dead. As John Honigmann (1959), an anthropologist, notes:

Also the remembered dead might be included within a society’s limits. Living members credit the dead with ideas, poetry, and paintings. Among the deceased are the sources of inherited debts and the men who built the irrigation ditches or cleared the fields from which people still prosper. Communities that intercede with ancestors for health, rain, and prosperity strikingly show their awareness of the common interests that unite living and dead. (P. 23)

In maintaining relationships between the living and the dead, societies tend to apply one of two different socially constructed premises: They may elect to consider the dead as totally separated from the living and keep the dead alive only in a symbolic fashion, or they may consider the dead to be only substantively separated from the living and keep them alive in a literal sense.

The Living and the Dead

The United States is an example of a society that culturally attempts to keep the dead alive symbolically. This is accomplished through the physical immortality of products and artifacts associated with memorializing the deceased, such as buildings or structures named for deceased persons, as well as through preservation of the artistic efforts of the deceased, such as music, artworks, and movies. Americans also keep the dead alive symbolically through elaborate socially contrived communication systems, or “death messages” (Bryant 1976), and community-level ceremonial behavior involving the dead (Warner 1959).

Among those societies that elect to conceptualize the dead as being only substantively separated from the living and work to keep the dead alive in a literal sense (at least for short periods of time) are Mexico and China. In these two societies, not only do the living sometimes keep the dead alive literally, but the dead also periodically visit the living. Many societies around the world, both today and in the past, have traditions of entertaining visits from the dead from time to time. For example, during the ancient Celtic (Irish, Scottish, Welsh) festival of Samhair (celebrated on November 1 and the progenitor of modern-day Halloween), the souls of those who had died during the preceding year returned briefly to the land of the living (Brandes 1998a:370-71), and during the annual festival of bon (Festival of the Dead) in today’s Japan, the spirits of the dead also return briefly. The Mexican festival known as the Days of the Dead and the celebration of Ghost Month in Chinese culture offer particularly colorful examples of visitation by the dead; I examine these two traditions in turn below.

The Days of the Dead In Mexico

The Mexican culture is a culture of hospitality. Visitors to the home are warmly welcomed, and the dead are as warmly welcomed as the living. The dead visit only periodically, however—only once a year, during a series of holy days known collectively as los Días de Todos Muertos, or the Days of the Dead. The Days of the Dead take place over the course of three nights and two days. Many behavioral scientists have devoted extensive investigative efforts to this religious festival (e.g., Brandes 1998a, 1998b; Green 1972; Garciagodoy 1994).

The Days of the Dead begin on the night of October 31, which is known as Allhallows Eve (in the United States, this night is known as Halloween), and continues through the following two days and nights: through All Saints’ Day on November 1 and All Souls’ Day on November 2. The celebrations that take place during these days and nights are a cultural blend or amalgamation of traditional Spanish Catholic festivals, as practiced historically in many Catholic countries around the world, and rituals and beliefs from Mexico’s pre-Spanish period (Green 1972:245). Certain elements of the Days of the Dead celebrations, especially the iconographic symbols of skulls, skeletons, and other thanatological representations, are believed to derive from various pre-Spanish sources, including Aztec, Toltec, and Maya sculptures, carvings, and other death-related representations, as well as the death-related religious rituals of Mesoamerican Indians (Brandes 1998b:186, 189-94). The iconography of the Days of the Dead also has origins in early Christian art, with its “skeletal representations of death in the abstract” (Brandes 1998b:199).

All Saints’ and All Souls’ Days are celebrated throughout the Roman Catholic world, including Mexico. These religious holy days have their roots in Catholic masses that originated as early as the 11th century to honor all of the saints and all of the souls in purgatory (Brandes 1998a:360). By the early 16th century, Roman Catholics in Spain and other parts of Europe had established a tradition of observing All Saints’ and All Souls’ Days by “visiting cemeteries, presenting offerings of flowers, candles, and food to deceased relatives; and soliciting or begging in ritualized form” (Brandes 1998a:362). The Days of the Dead as observed in Mexico are essentially similar to these Roman Catholic celebrations, with certain elements of Mexico’s pre-Spanish culture blended in; in recent times, some aspects of traditional U.S.Halloween celebrations have come to be included in the mix as well.

The Days of the Dead are celebrated throughout most of Mexico and in parts of Central America. The most elaborate Days of the Dead festivities are generally found in the traditional Indian areas of Mexico, such as in the valley of Oaxaca and on the island of Janitzio in the state of Michoacán (Green 1972:245). The Days of the Dead are also observed to some extent in those parts of the United States with large Latino populations, such as Southern California, Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas. In Louisiana, which has a very large Catholic population, All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day are celebrated; in fact, All Saints’ Day is a legal holiday in that state.

During the Days of the Dead, the living reserve their time for their dead visitors; this is a period of great religious and familial reverence, an opportunity for family members—living and dead—to rebond. It is a signal rite of intensification, and Mexican families eagerly anticipate the festival each year. All Saints’ and All Souls’ Days have historically held a place of importance in Roman Catholic celebrations almost equaling that of Christmas and Easter (Brandes 1998a:360). In Mexico, the Days of the Dead festival is one of the most important of the year, as well as one of the most expensive to celebrate. For some time in advance of the occasion, families clean and prepare their homes, acquiring and storing special foods and other materials for the celebration; this might include the purchase of all new dishes to please the deceased relatives who will come to visit (Green 1972:245).

An involved sequence of events and activities occurs during these celebration days. As noted above, the rituals begin on the night of October 31, Allhallows Eve, when the family assembles in the home and makes final preparations for visits from deceased family members and more distant relatives. An altar is set up, and a variety of special foods are prepared and placed on the altar along with alcoholic beverages, tobacco, and various delicacies, such as sweets. Larger households may set up separate altars for dead children, with the alcohol and tobacco omitted but toys added to the small fruits and other foods placed there (Green 1972:245-46). Among the special foods a family is likely to prepare for this occasion are chicken dishes, chilies, fruits, moles, tamales, hot chocolate, atole (a gruel made of sweet corn), and breads, especially pan de muerto, or “bread of the dead,” a special bread prepared only for the festival that often features a cross or a winged angel molded out of white dough (Day 1990:69; Green 1972:248-49). Family members do not eat any of the foods placed on the altar, as these offerings are for the dead. Sometimes families spread trails of fresh marigold petals from outside the house leading into the interior and up to the altar, in order to assist the dead in finding their way home (Greenleigh and Beimler 1991:69). The family members prepare to stay up all night to greet their ghostly visitors.

The spirits of the dead tend to be quite punctual in their arrival (in contrast to the relatively relaxed attention to time commonly encountered in Mexican culture). Promptly at 4:00 A.M. (early on All Saints’ Day), the spirits of deceased children arrive; these spirits are known as angelitos (little angels). The family members recite the names of remembered dead children and light tiny candles, one at a time, for each child (Green 1972:246). (The label of angelitos derives from Roman Catholic belief that when baptized children die without mortal sin, they do not have to pass through purgatory but instead go directly to heaven and become angels; Marino 1997:37.) The angelitos leave the home a few hours later, at 8:00 A.M., at which time the family members extinguish the tiny candles and remove them from the altar (or from children’s altar, if there is a separate one). The deceased children’s visit is over. That morning, the family attends mass at the local church (Green 1972:246). Later in the celebration, during visits to the cemetery, family members light candles and place them, along with flowers, sweets, and toys, on the graves of the dead children (Marino 1997:43).

In the afternoon on November 1, All Saints’ Day, the family prepares to welcome other deceased relatives into their home. The adult spirits also arrive punctually, at 3:00 in the afternoon. The family members say the name of each deceased relative and light a candle (this time a full-sized candle) for each. The next morning at 8:00 A.M., the dead guests leave (Green 1972:246).

On that morning, which is All Souls’ Day, the churches hold three masses. During the day, families visit the cemeteries where their close family members and other relatives are buried. They may put flowers and other offerings (such as lighted candles and toys) on the graves and pray. Some families may totally cover the graves of loved ones with marigold petals (Greenleigh and Beimler 1991:88). Priests may visit the cemeteries, sprinkle the graves with holy water, and say prayers for the dead (Green 1972:246). These activities go on into the evening. This is a time of family togetherness and personal closeness with the dead.

Finally, on the night of All Souls’ Day, with religious commemoration completed and their responsibilities to the dead concluded, families move about the village, visiting at the homes of other families, praying at their altars and offering gifts (called muertos) of food from their own altars and receiving similar gifts of food from neighbors. Sometimes groups of men, wearing masks or costumes, may go about from house to house singing hymns of praise, known as alabanzas, for which they may receive gifts of food from the altars of the households they visit (Green 1972:246). This tradition is not unlike that of Christmas carolers going door-to-door, singing and receiving snacks in return (it also bears a resemblance to the American custom of trick-or-treating on Halloween). Although celebrants may eat the food that has been set out on the altars or may give the food away as gifts as soon as the spirits leave, it is said that this food does not have as much taste as it might normally have, because the spirits of the deceased have eaten it. In spite of this, however, the food is eaten. Usually, families do not dismantle their home altars until November 4.

Two other dates and attendant events are connected to the Days of the Dead but are not technically components of the festival. On October 27, some families hang bread and jugs of water outside their homes as offerings to those spirits who have no surviving relatives to prepare altar offerings for them. In some villages, the custom is instead to gather such offerings and place them in a corner of the village church (Greenleigh and Beimler 1991:21-22).

There is also concern about the spirits of deceased individuals who died by accident, murder, or other violent means. These spirits are considered to be possibly malignant, inasmuch as they may have as-yet unpardoned souls. Offerings of food and beverages are set out for these spirits on October 28, but they are usually placed outside the home, to keep the spirits from coming inside (Greenleigh and Beimler 1991:22).

Although the Days of the Dead festival serves functionally as a rite of intensification, reuniting both living and dead members of a family into a cohesive whole, at least for a short time each year, it also has the latent function of neutralizing or mediating the fear of death. For adults, the fact that the dead visit their living families each year gives promise, if not evidence, of existence beyond the grave. If the dead are able to visit, then death does not have absolute finality. Many of those who celebrate these holy days hold a very sincere belief that the spirits of the dead are genuine and do, indeed, return each year to visit. Others, perhaps those of more sophisticated religious ideology, interpret the Days of the Dead on a more symbolic level. The simple observance of these holy days and the symbolic return of the dead for a short visit each year tends to reify Christian theology and reinforces the eschatological belief in spiritual life after death and ultimate resurrection.

For children, the Days of the Dead may serve to desensitize, to lessen their fear of the dead (and even of death itself). The Days of the Dead festival is a time of faith, family, and celebration. When the dead take on the form of benign visitors, it is difficult to fear them. During this time, heightened spirituality mingles with pleasurable activities and stimulating dramaturgical involvement.

To outsiders, the iconography of the Days of the Dead may appear grotesque. Traditional sweet foods associated with this celebration include candies made in the shapes of skulls, skeletons, and other death-related objects. One popular delicacy is a small confection made in the shape of a coffin. Some of these candy coffins even have plastic windows in the top through which bodies with skull heads can be seen. Some are rigged with strings that, when pulled, cause the lids to open and the corpses inside to sit up. Intended as gifts for children, these various candy items sometimes have individuals’ names inscribed on them (Brandes 1998b:182).

In addition to candy skulls and skeletons, there are a variety of Days of the Dead toys and decorations featuring death-related items and themes. These include papier-mâché skeletons, and cardboard articulated skeleton marionettes. Also popular are small figurines (not unlike the toy soldiers that are popular with children in the United States and Europe) that represent ordinary persons, but with one special characteristic—they are either skeletons or have skull faces. Thesecalavera (skulls and skeletons) toys are made of clay and are quite fragile; they are intended only as amusing frivolities for the children and not as enduring keepsakes. Walkup (2001) describes these toys as follows:

Calavera toys and papier-mâché skeleton figures depict specific professions, musicians, brides and grooms, bicycle riders and other subjects from everyday life. There are rich traditions in Mexican folk art that incorporate calaveras in many ways. (P. 23)

Other types of toys and decorative items are also associated with the Days of the Dead, such as larger humorous but macabre sculptures and figurines depicting skeletal figures engaged in all sorts of activities (a skeleton riding a motorcycle, for example). The production of candy skulls and skeletons as well as other types of death-depicting, but humorous, statuary, miniature figurines, and other varieties of toys and decorative items has become something of a cottage industry in some areas of Mexico and has brought a certain notoriety to this festival. Tourists from the United States, especially, often travel to various communities in Mexico to experience especially colorful Days of the Dead celebrations. Some tour companies plan excursions in which tourists visit several different communities, even stopping at cemeteries so that the tourists can photograph the villagers lighting candles and placing offerings on the graves.

The artifacts of the Days of the Dead, with their macabre iconography, have also piqued the interest of collectors. As Brandes (1998a) observes:

Day[s] of the Dead figurines have awakened tourists’ interest in the holiday[s]. Among foreigners, they invariably appeal to the collectors’ instinct. They are transported back to the United States as evidence that Mexicans really are different from mainstream Americans. (P. 182)

Many craft artisans now produce high-quality artifacts of this variety especially for sale to tourists.

Beyond the toys and sweets, during the Days of the Dead skeletons and skulls appear on signs in store windows and in newspaper ads and articles. The entire panoply of Days of the Dead iconography has been enhanced and magnified by the commercialization and growth of popular culture that now surrounds the festival.

In recent years, the Days of the Dead festival, particularly in urban areas and among the middle-class population in Mexico, has experienced a significant infusion of elements and symbolism from American Halloween traditions. Some Mexican children in the cities now go about in costume on Allhallows Eve, carrying boxes or other receptacles and begging for their “Halloween” (Halloween candies or coins). Many of the decorations in urban areas are also Halloween artifacts from the United States, such as plastic jack-o’-lanterns and manufactured costumes for children’s (Brandes 1998a:372-73). These changes have not been without controversy. As Brandes (1998a) notes, “The rapid penetration of Halloween symbols into Mexico increasingly evokes Mexican nationalistic sentiments, embodied in a campaign to preserve the country from U.S. cultural imperialism” (pp. 359-60). He goes on to report that “all over Mexico today, there appears evidence of formal and informal resistance to the Halloween invasion from the North” (p. 375). In rural areas, however, the Days of the Dead festival retains a high degree of cultural purity.

Although the seemingly macabre death-themed iconography of the Days of the Dead festival may give some outsiders the impression that the Mexican people are fixated on death or that death-oriented themes are central in Mexican culture, most authorities assert that this is not the case. “On the contrary,” Brandes (1998a) observes, “no special Mexican view of death, no uniquely morbid Mexican national character, has yielded this mortuary art. Rather, specific demographic and political circumstances originally gave rise to it, and commercial interests have allowed it to flourish” (p. 214). Like other writers, Brown (1993) characterizes the festival as “really … more of a celebration of life than of death” (p. C9). She goes on to quote the comments of a museum curator who said: “To me, the Days of the Dead subconsciously lends itself to our times [alluding to urban violence and the AIDS epidemic]. It gives you an opportunity to feel good about someone’s life, beyond mourning. It gives you a chance to affirm life by recognizing death” (p. C9).

Walkup (2001) also contends that “los Días de los Muertos is not in any way somber, morbid, or macabre” (p. 24). She compares the celebration activities of this festival with the practices of creating an impromptu memorial by the side of the road where a loved one has died in an automobile wreck or leaving flowers in a public place to honor a dead celebrity, such as Princess Diana. Some writers have even expressed a bit of envy toward Mexicans for their Days of The Dead. As Day (1990) reflects:

The fastidious may regard all this as grotesque. The pious may call it pagan. But there is nothing barbaric about the Day[s] of the Dead in Mexico, even if one considers its terrifying Aztec ancestry. It occurs to me that we might have something to learn from a people who have learned to be on such easy terms with death. (P. 72)

In short, for many, the Days of the Dead are life affirming, not death embracing. To celebrate in this fashion is, on the one hand, to confront death openly and honestly and to be aware of its inevitability and its presence in the midst of life. On the other hand, celebrating the Days of the Dead is a form of wholesome death denial in that it reifies the Christian eschatology of eternal life in another form triumphing over death. Most important, it subjectively keeps the dead alive, for if the dead come home to visit, then, indeed, death does not portend the annihilation of self with absolute finality.

Ghost Month In Chinese Culture

In Chinese culture, the dead have historically been considered to be only substantively separated from the living, and, accordingly, the dead are kept alive literally, in the form of ghosts. Actually, ghost is not the appropriate term. The Chinese term guai, which translates literally as ghost, is used to refer to a “devil” or “evil spirit.” In China, all disembodied spirits are known generically as leng or ling wun (Cantonese, as used in Hong Kong), and there are three major categories of such spirits (or souls) (Emmons 1982:30; for a detailed discussion of Chinese spirits, see Emmons 1982:chap. 3). These include deceased ancestors, ghosts (or guai, who are the spirits of deceased persons who have no relatives to worship them and care for their otherworldly needs), and gods. Gods are considered to be in the same generic category as ghosts and ancestral spirits, because most of them are assumed to have once been mortals who lived virtuous lives and subsequently became deities after death (not unlike saints in the Catholic Church; see Tong 1988). Taking into account, then, all of the dead, worshipped, uncared for, and deified, the residual number of leng to be reckoned with is considerable—a “host of ghosts,” as it were. Concerning Chinese eschatology, Crowder (2003) explains:

The gods and spirits are subject to negotiations like people in society because the Chinese spirit world is modeled to mirror the material one. Heaven and its pantheon of gods are organized like China’s imperial government headed by the emperor and his bureaucracy of civil servants, and it must be approached systematically. Gods and spirits, having human responses and needs, require offerings to sustain their existence. Even beggar spirits must be paid off to leave the deceased alone at funerals. Because life in the spirit world requires the same items as life on earth, ritual money and paper replicas of houses and goods are burned at funerals for the deceased’s spirit.

Because of the profusion of leng or ghosts component to Chinese eschatology, Chinese expend a significant amount of energy on the social behavior necessary to participate in the interactive interface with the deceased and to maintain the appropriate relationship between the living and the dead. In this regard, various rituals and practices that serve as interface mechanisms for the maintenance of the relationship between the living and the dead are part of Chinese culture (see Tong 1988).

The Family Altar

Chinese who are of religious persuasion have in their homes (and often in their places of business) family altars that they use for worshipping ancestors and gods. Some have two altars, one for ancestors and one for the gods. Such altars are often family heirlooms, passed down from generation to generation. Religious worship in Chinese culture is quite varied and includes, among the major non-Western faiths, Taoism, Buddhism, and Confucianism. Beyond these there are numerous folk and local patron gods, sea gods, and, in some places, animistic deities. For example, it has been estimated that throughout the island of Taiwan, more than 250 gods or deities are worshipped. (For an in-depth discussion of the pantheon of Chinese gods, see Tong 1988.) Many Chinese are polytheistic in their worship and, depending on their preferences, have effigies or figurines of several gods on their altars.

Usually also found on family altars are ancestral tablets, on which are recorded the names, titles, and death dates of deceased forebears. Some families have generic or general tablets for family ancestors who have passed from memory. As part of the worship of both gods and ancestors, families place incense pots with burning joss sticks on their altars, along with periodic offerings such as food, drink, and flowers. On several days of the month, more ritualized kinds of offerings are made, and a more formalized set of worship rites is observed on special occasions, such as particular holidays. For recently deceased relatives, families may engage in more personalized and elaborate worship rites on their death dates, perhaps offering the favorite foods of the deceased, along with cigarettes or wine. On Chinese New Year, as well as on some other occasions, families may offer whole feasts on their altars, complete with bowls, cups, and chopsticks. On Chinese New Year, each member of the family, in order of status, kneels before the altar in a show of reverence and respect for the dead. Ghosts (of the uncared-for variety) are also worshipped at family altars, as I will discuss below. Some families also worship particular gods on a regular basis, whereas they worship others only on special occasions, such as the gods’ birthdays (see “Ghostly Taiwan” 1987).

The primary interface of the living and the dead in Chinese culture, then, is in the home, with the family altar at the center of the interaction. Beyond this, the worship of the dead spreads to clan ancestral halls, where altars are also maintained, and to neighborhood temples as well as larger temples, which may be dedicated to one or more particular gods.

Burnt Offerings

Chinese eschatology differs somewhat from Western eschatology in that it includes an automatic dimension to the afterlife. This exigency confronts the soul of the deceased individual within the first week after death, in its journey through the yin world. During this time, the soul reaches the first obstacle on its journey, the Gate of the Demon, and finds it necessary to bribe the gatekeeper!

The existence of the dead in Hades has an economic counterpart in the world of the living—it costs money. The dead must have food and drink. They require houses in which to live, clothing, and all of the other things that are needed in life. These things must be supplied by the living, and it falls to the offspring of the deceased to assume this responsibility.

The family’s economic responsibilities to the dead begin at the time of coffining and burial. Relatives may place special “spirit money” or “ghost money” (fake money produced and sold just for this purpose) in the coffin so that the deceased will have funds available for bribes and other expenses on the journey to the netherworld, or Hades. As noted above, the family is also obligated to supply the deceased with the home and furnishings, as well as other supplies, he or she will need in the next world. Chinese communities have special stores where families can purchase paper effigies of all of the kinds of items their deceased loved ones will need. These include paper houses as large as trunks, gardens surrounded by walls with large gates, furniture, automobiles, clothing, and recreational items, such as radios, television sets, cameras, and even board games. Such stores also carry specialized items reflecting their particular communities, such as paper livestock and agricultural tools in rural areas for deceased farmers, and paper boats in coastal areas for fishermen. Nothing is omitted; there are even small figures representing servants available to go with the paper houses. At the time of the funeral, usually the evening after the funeral or the next morning, the family of the deceased burns the paper house and all of the other paper items, thus sending them to the deceased so that he or she will be well housed and equipped in the next world. Presumably all of these things last indefinitely, as families do not seem to burn (and thus send) any additional or replacement items at subsequent dates.

After the funeral and burial, the family’s subsequent economic responsibilities to the dead can be discharged with the burning of special types of ghost money at particular times and the making of food and drink offerings in the appropriate context. Beyond these offerings to deceased ancestors, it is also considered necessary to make similar offerings to assorted gods and wandering ghosts, as well as to various spirit soldiers, at culturally determined intervals and on specific occasions (see “Ghostly Taiwan” 1987). The spirit soldiers are the minions of a particular god (Kuang Kung), who, it is believed, sends them to protect the homes (or businesses or villages) of the living. The soldiers have to be fed and paid—thus the need for food offerings and sacrifices of ghost money. Offerings of food to gods and ancestors are generally made inside the house, usually on the family altar, one portion offered to the gods and one to the ancestors (sometimes there are separate altars for gods and ancestors). The various figurines of the gods worshipped by the family are placed on the altar, as well as the ancestral tablets listing the names and death dates of remembered deceased ancestors (as noted above, there may also be a general tablet for unremembered ancestors) (Jochim 1986:171).

Usually, on the first and fifteenth days of the month families make offerings to both gods and ancestors in the form of food, flowers, wine, and the like. They may also make more elaborate offerings, accompanied by formal rites, on special dates, such as the death dates of relatives, the birthdays of gods, Chinese New year, and other publicly celebrated occasions and festivals. Offerings for the gods are presented facing outward, and offerings for ancestors are presented facing inward. Offerings for ghosts are presented outside of family homes (or businesses). If such an offering is for ghosts in general (such as during Ghost Month), it is placed in front of the house or place of business. If it is for a single “offending” ghost who is causing the family misfortune, it is placed on the ground outside the rear of the house, as if it were left there for a beggar.

The Hungry Ghost Month

Perhaps the most significant of all of the festivals of the dead in Chinese culture is the Hungry Ghost Month. In all Chinese communities outside of mainland China, Ghost Month, as it is popularly known, is a major celebration. It is observed during the entire seventh lunar month, which generally begins sometime in August and ends sometime in September. To understand the meaning of Ghost Month, it is necessary to examine Chinese eschatology.

In Chinese culture, death is not the final annihilation of self, but an alternate, spiritual form of existence. Upon death, the soul of an individual must undertake an arduous, 7-week journey through the yin world or “otherworld” (Lip 1985:11-22). During this journey, the soul passes through various “gates” and “courts” where it faces trials and judgments in regard to the deceased’s conduct in life on earth. The soul ultimately reaches Hades, the abode of the dead, and lives under the rule of Giam-lo-ong (in Mandarin, Yen-b-wang), the main deity of the underworld (“Ghostly Taiwan” 1987). In Hades, souls or spirits have lives not unlike those on earth. They require food and drink and money, all of which must be provided by the living; as described above, it is the responsibility of the deceased’s living relatives to supply these needs. During the seventh lunar month, the gates of Hades are opened and the ancestral spirits are free to visit earth and roam about during a sort of “vacation.” The spirits, although free to roam, are monitored by Ta Shih Yeh, who is the netherworld’s superintendent of visiting ghosts (Tourism Bureau n.d.:47). Such spirits are of two varieties: cared-for ghosts and uncared-for ghosts. The cared-for spirits are those deceased individuals who have living relatives who make offerings of food and drink to them and send them gifts of paper money, thus providing for their needs. Those spirits with family ties are generally “quite good natured and spend their time partaking in the simple earthly pleasures of eating and drinking” during Ghost Month (Tourism Bureau, n.d.:44).

It is the second category of deceased spirits—the uncared-for ghosts—that are potentially harmful. It is only this category of spirit, or lin, that can appropriately be termed ghosts, or, more correctly, kui (although all spirits of deceased individuals may popularly be generically aggregated under the term ghosts). The uncared-for spirits are called hungry ghosts because, having no living descendants, they have no one to supply them with food, drink, or money in Hades; they are thus deprived, or hungry. Such ghosts may be malicious or at least mischievous and are likely to go about causing trouble—teasing humans and, in some cases, causing them harm. If the hungry ghosts are displeased or angry, they can be particularly malevolent and may bring serious misfortune or even disaster on the living (see “Ghostly Taiwan” 1987).

The most dangerous of the hungry ghosts are the spirits of individuals who died in accidents, through suicide or homicide, or as the result of other “unnatural” causes. The spirits of persons who die in these ways do not go straight to Hades. Rather, they are placed in a special limbo or purgatory where they must remain until they can lure someone else into an accident or unnatural death, at which time they report this fact to Giam-lo-ong and can enter Hades. The ghost of the newly dead victim, in effect, takes the place of the spirit that was formerly in limbo. Accordingly, it is assumed that these ghosts are actively trying to entice others into dangerous situations where they might accidentally be killed. Only the foolhardy would place themselves in potentially dangerous situations during Ghost Month; for example, many will not go swimming for fear that they might somehow be trapped underwater and drown. Motorcycle racing on the streets of Taipei, which is a widespread and dangerous pastime of many youths during most of the year, is significantly reduced during Ghost Month. During Ghost Month, the malevolent ghosts are believed to be desperately trying to promote accidents, and it is an ominous time for all. As Jochim (1986) notes, “In fact, this is a month during which no tradition-honoring Chinese would think of opening a business, buying a house, scheduling surgery, or getting married—for it is without qualification the most inauspicious time of the year” (p. 138). With the profusion of ghosts, or lin, both “cared for” and “uncared for,” returning to the world of the living for a visit, Ghost Month is a time of general anxiety.

Although some authorities assert that the returned spirits of the deceased are invisible (Jochim 1986:138), others speak of the visiting spirits as assuming human form (e.g., Tourism Bureau, n.d.:46). When they appear as humans, it is widely believed, they resemble the living in every way save one—their feet do not touch the ground. As they walk about, they hover a fraction of an inch off the ground. During Ghost Month, many Chinese spend an inordinate amount of time looking down at the feet of other pedestrians as they walk along the street.

The principal activities of Ghost Month involve the presentation of offerings and sacrifices to the dead. Among the offerings are food, money, and entertainment. Special attention is given to the hungry ghosts. Tables are set up outside homes and places of business with offerings of food and wine for the hungry ghosts. These offerings are located outside homes or businesses so that the ghosts will not go into the houses or stores and cause any trouble or harm. Also, families want to keep hungry ghosts from coming into their homes because the ghosts are likely to steal the offerings for deceased ancestors from their family altars, or otherwise interfere with the families’ paying the proper respect to their ancestors and the gods (see “Ghostly Taiwan” 1987).

The offerings of food and wine for the hungry ghosts are sometimes quite elaborate, with several courses of food and various delicacies laid out. Some families may even serve up for the spirits whole pig carcasses suitable for large feasts. Usually these carcasses are only partially cooked, and after they have served their purpose as “ghost” fare, they can be further cooked for family consumption. The offerings for the hungry ghosts might also include fruit, flowers, cigarettes, burning joss sticks, and bundles of ghost money (Jordan 1985:35-56), which is burned at some point to deliver it to the ghosts for their vacation use. The offerings to the hungry ghosts serve both as a kind of protection against ghostly mischief or harm and as a kind of altruistic gesture to the unfortunate dead, out of a sense of compassion (Jochim 1986:138).

During Ghost Month, families also honor their deceased ancestors with special offerings of food, wine, flowers, and cigarettes, usually placed on their family altars. The offerings of food during this period often consist of entire meals, laid out with dinnerware and chopsticks. Joss sticks are burned constantly, and ghost money is sent to ancestors through burning. Families might make such offerings to their ancestors only on specific dates during the month, but many do so on a more frequent basis.

Beyond the offerings of food and drink and the sacrifices of ghost money to the spirits, during Ghost Month Chinese operas and puppet shows are performed on street stages to entertain the visiting ancestor spirits and ghosts. The living also find these performances enjoyable, so there are invariably big audiences (living and dead) to watch them. In another custom of Ghost Month from earlier times (perhaps still practiced in some places even today), merchants would test the money they earned during this period by putting it in a bowl of water. If it sank, it was real, human money; if it floated, it was money from a ghost (Tourism Bureau, n.d.:46).

Ghost Month reaches a climax toward the middle of the lunar month, when various specific activities occur. One of these is the festival of the “worship of good brothers,” held on the 15th day of the month (“Ghostly Taiwan” 1987:9). This is also the date of the Chung Yuan Festival, a Buddhist celebration marking the end of the annual mediation period for monks and nuns. On this date, certain temples become locations for elaborate feasts for the visiting ghosts. The feasts feature large assortments of food and drink, with delicacies of every variety. Large hogs are sacrificed to be added to the fare. The temples are decorated with lanterns and other lights so the spirits will not get lost on their way. Lanterns and candles are also floated on bodies of water to appease the ghosts of those who have drowned there as well as to warn the living of the presence of the water so they will not become drowning victims. Vast amounts of ghost money are burned for the use of the spirit visitors. Frequently encountered at such temple celebrations are effigies of the god Tai-sai-ia (in Mandarin, Taoshih-yeh), who serves as a representative of the netherworld at the feasts and also supervises the ghostly visitors (“Ghostly Taiwan” 1987:29). At the temples, priests offer prayers for the deceased and conduct special religious rituals. Families may engage priests to say prayers or conduct rituals for their ancestors; some honor specific ancestors by paying for the ancestors’ names to be placed in a temple for a period of time.

As noted above, Ghost Month is a time of anxiety for many individuals because of the possibility that hostile ghosts might visit misfortune upon them. It is also a time of festivities and feasting, inasmuch as the living can enjoy the special theatrical performances as well as the dead, and can enjoy the food after the spirits of the dead have had their fill. This period also gives the living an opportunity to indulge in altruism; that is, much as many Americans enjoy the satisfaction of giving to the poor at Christmastime, the Chinese “give” to the uncared-for ghosts during Ghost Month. They are also often more generous with their ancestors than usual during this time. For example, one woman told me that her family laid out extra food offerings for her deceased grandfather during this period because he had been gregarious in life, and they assumed that he might well bring guests home with him when he visited during Ghost Month.

Perhaps most important, Ghost Month’s annual reenactment of dead ancestors and hungry ghosts visiting the living reinforces the notion of the continuity of the family, even in death, and the symbolic immortality of the individual. Inasmuch as the dead survive in the memories and ritualistic behaviors of the living, death itself is not so much to be feared. Even the sad plight of the hungry ghosts serves as reinforcement for the fabric of social life, for the message, as Jochim (1986) notes, is very clear: “The worst possible fate for anyone, living or dead, is to be cut off from the network of support and obligations that constitutes the Chinese family system” (p. 172).

The activities of Ghost Month are directed at remembering the dead and including them in the social fabric, as well as at eliciting amity on their part. All of these structured patterns of conduct address the special needs of the deceased and conform to the traditional obligations of the living. Such activities are social and reciprocal in nature, in that the living are motivated by love and respect for the dead as well as by the expectation of benevolence on the part of the dead. By engaging in such behavior, the living attempt to ensure some indirect control over their own lives and destiny, maintain social contacts and bonds with the dead, and perpetuate a symbiotic social structure involving both living and dead in which the deceased continue a worldly existence after a fashion, thereby diluting their own anxiety about death. The living regularly and purposefully interact with ghosts and, in doing so, effectively “deal with the dead.” Through this interaction with the dead, the notion of an existence after death is reified and the prospect of death is rendered less frightening, inasmuch as ghostly interaction with the living implies the probability of a postself presence.


Many societies reanimate their dead, at least periodically. As I have discussed in this chapter, such reanimation may assume a configuration of formalized visits to the living. Such visitation rituals are particularly colorful and especially meaningful in Mexican and Chinese cultures. In both instances, the festivals or celebrations involving visits from the dead serve as rites of intensification, providing for the reinforcement of bonding between the living and the dead, thereby reifying the solidarity of the family, including members past and present.

These celebrations also function as a means of placating or rewarding the dead. The dead may have unfulfilled needs that can be met only by the living, thus the living must attend to their obligations to the dead ritualistically. The efforts of the living are not totally altruistic, however, inasmuch as there is an expectation of reciprocity—that the dead may be persuaded to help in meeting the unfulfilled needs of the living.

By annually reenacting the dramaturgical rituals of host and ghost, the living gain reassurance in regard to the validity of their religious eschatology. If the dead can come back from the netherworld to visit the living and enjoy the benefits of even a brief sojourn, then the living can expect similar opportunities and fulfillment in the future after they die. By entertaining the dead as visitors, the living mitigate their own fear of death and anticipate continued inclusion in the family circle after their earthly demise.