The Festival of the Dead is celebrated all around the world, usually at the end of the harvest between August and November. Although the rituals vary, almost every culture shares the belief that at a specific time the veil between the living and dead is at its thinnest, and respect must be paid.
Perhaps the most famous is Mexico’s Dia de Los Muertos, which got the Pixar treatment recently with the animated movie Coco. It may have gone mainstream now but these festivities date back to antiquity, stemming from the Aztec festival for Mictecacihuatl, Goddess of the afterlife and underworld.
In Chinese culture, they have a whole “Ghost Month,” in which the gates of heaven and hell open, and spirits are free to roam the earth. Buddhist and Taoist ceremonies are performed for ghosts who need to transition, and feasts held in their honour. Messages to the ancestors are written on joss papers, then burnt to post them to the other realm.
A similar three-day event is held in Japan, known as the “Bon Festival.” This Buddhist-Confucian tradition includes feasts, fireworks, games and the Bon Odori, a dance performed to welcome the dead. In Khmer culture, Pchum Ben is honoured for fifteen days around mid-September. Monks chant through the night preceding the unlocking of hell’s gates. Dressed in white as a symbol of mourning, Cambodians fill their pagodas with victuals for the deceased.
In Nepal, they celebrate Gaijatra; the “festival of cows.” Hindus believe that holy bovines guide the recently deceased, so cows, or children dressed like them, process throughout the streets to help family members accept a recent loss. In North and South Korea, Chuseok is the three-day period over the autumn harvest, where the ancestors’ graves are visited and cleaned.
Perhaps the Malagasy people of Madagascar have the most unique ritual. Once every seven years during Famadihana or Turning of the Bones, they remove corpses from their graves, spray them with perfume or drench them in wine, then wrap them in silk and carry them around the tomb to music and songs. The tradition has declined in recent years, but it’s inspired me to drop a splash of my Dad’s favourite Eternity for Men on his plaque at Southend Crematorium!
It may seem unlikely but now there is a new global destination for The Day of the Dead – Toxeth in Liverpool. It was started in August 2018 by The Justified Ancients Of Mu Mu AKA Jimmy Cauty and Bill Drummond. The artists formerly known as the KLF, a British electronic band in the late 1980s/early ‘90s, they released a series of international hits. Then, at the 1992 BRIT Awards, they fired machine gun blanks into the audience and dumped a dead sheep at the after party. Afterwards, they left the music business, deleted their entire back catalogue, and burnt a million pounds.
The JAMs vowed not to talk about the money burning for 23 years. In 2017, they finally published a book called 2023 and threw a series of events, which culminated in the first Toxeth Day of the Dead.
Drummond and Cauty teamed up with pioneering undertakers Claire and Rupert Callender of the Green Funeral Company to offer MuMufication. For £99, you can buy a brick and when you die, 23 grams of your ashes will be placed inside it. These bricks will be built into a People’s Pyramid and transform you into a work of art.
That first year, after the ceremony, Jarvis Cocker sang a version of their hit song “Justified and Ancient” then the 400 attendees painted their faces as skulls and processed through the streets of Toxteth, pulling The JAMs’ pink ice cream van, made famous in their ‘90s pop videos.
Although the artists had been talking about this project for years, it only manifested after Jimmy Cauty’s brother Simon died in 2016. Cauty and Drummond had been linked with Liverpool for over 40 years through the music and art scene, so chose this location for their lasting artistic legacy. This is one they won’t burn.
In 2018, they laid the first brick for Simon Cauty onto the flagstone. In 2019, there were eight more bricks to lay. Like in so many cultures around the world, the celebration took place over three days, hosted by the extraordinarily creative and prolific Liverpool Arts Lab. On the Friday night, Wake L8 was a cathartic opportunity for friends and families to pay their respects and play the music significant to those who’d passed on.
The next day saw the Toxteth Day of the Dead itself. Hundreds of us gathered, painted with skull faces and dressed in costumes or ceremonial wear meaningful to the individual, even if bizarre to outsiders – this is a bunch of artists, after all. Together, we processed through the streets of Liverpool, behind the Pyramid’s Foundation Stone, to the surprise of local residents who hadn’t heard about it and watched from their front doors.
Finally, we came to a stop at an impressive site in a memorial garden in front of St James’ church. It was dark now and the spire was mysteriously lit. Claire and Rupert Callender gave a powerful speech, honouring the ancestors and reminding us that “we are all already dead.” Then the bricks were ceremonially brought out and laid onto the Foundation Stone by writer and director Daisy Campbell, daughter of legendary theatre director Ken Campbell who Bill Drummond worked with in the 1970s. Daisy had synchronistically just taken a brick laying course to work on her garden before becoming involved with the event and directing the happenings around the publication of 2023. Now her new found skills took on a more profound purpose.
It was a beautiful, moving ceremony, a fitting tribute to those that lived. When I die, I know where 23 grams of my ashes will be. The solemn daytime proceedings drew to a close and flowed into the suitably wild Hereafter Party, channelling the bass-heavy, psychedelic “Dub of the Dead.” For those not too hungover on Sunday, there was a final ritual, to honour the 99 men that died on 1st June 1939, when the Thetis Submarine sank in Liverpool Bay.
The Toxteth Day of the Dead will be held on 23 November ever year. Thus, the People’s Pyramid rises. See you there next year – hopefully on the outside of it for now.