Halloween Is for Wimps: These Are the Real Deathfests

Who wants to trick or treat when you can dance with your grandma's bones?

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Aizar Raldes / AFP / Getty Images

Devotees of the ñatitas (or snub nose, an affectionate nickname for human skulls) leave the church at the central cemetery in La Paz, Bolivia, on Nov. 8, 2011

Let’s face it, with its obsessive emphasis on costumes Halloween has become nothing more than the Straight Pride (or Heteroween, as sex-advice columnist Dan Savage calls it). You want death and horror? We’ll give you death and horror.

1. Famadihana (Turning of the Bones), Madagascar
Every seven years, during the winter months in the central highlands of Madagascar, families return to their ancestral tombs to take part in one of the more elaborate rituals dedicated to filial piety. Once at the family crypts, bodies are disinterred from their resting places and sprayed with perfume or doused with wine before being rewrapped in new burial shrouds. Live brass bands belt about thunderous tunes near the tombs as participants dance with their loved ones remains before the corpses are returned to their crypts along with a smattering of offerings, which often includes photographs, money and alcohol.

2. Dia de los Ñatitas (Day of the Skulls), Bolivia
Every Nov. 8, locals in La Paz leave their homes and head to the city’s central cemetery to stroll through the grounds holding human skulls. During Dia de los Ñatitas, the skulls, which are often, but not exclusively, those of relatives or loved ones, are decorated with flowers and provided with coca leaves and cigarettes. The skulls are also treated to the occasional song by roving street musicians as they are escorted around the cemetery grounds. The ritual is rooted in pre-Columbian indigenous Andean culture, which believes that an individuals remains should be cared for because the bones carry a portion of the person’s soul.

3. Fiesta de Santa Marta de Ribarteme, Spain
While Mexicans across North America remember their loved ones who have passed during Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) for three days every year, back in the old country in northwestern Spain, Galicia residents take time to commemorate those who got close to reaching the other side but remain among the living. During the Festival of Near-Death Experience, residents who narrowly escaped life-threatening incidents are carried in coffins to mass before visiting a cemetery later in the day. The idea is to ponder death and be grateful for a second lease on life.

4. National Funeral Directors Association’s International Convention and Expo
O.K., it’s not a festival, but it is an annual gathering dedicated to all things deathcare. The most recent expo was held last week and showcased the newest products available to deathcare professionals, including environmentally friendly embalming fluids, the latest casket designs, burial vaults and tribute-video software. The 2013 event was held in Austin and included a Boot Scootin’ Bash to conclude the convention on a life-affirming note.