From the 2013 Lantern Festival
For 15 years the Forest Hills Cemetery, located in the Jamaica Plain area of Boston, has been hosting their own Lantern Festival, an event to honor and remember lost loved ones. This community activity inspired by the Obon, or just Bon, a Japanese Buddhist custom to honor the spirits of ancestors, has grown from an intimate gathering of 100 to over 2,000 participants.
Locals donate $10 for a lantern. Japanese symbols of your choice are hand painted on and you decorate the rest — drawing pictures, writing names of loved ones or whatever strikes you.
This year’s festival featured traditional Japanese dances from students of Showa Boston, Irish music from guitar and fiddle duo the Whiskey Boys, gospel music from Ron Murphy and Grand Master Tsuji’s Taiko drummers.
People gathered around Lake Hibiscus with picnics of wine, beer, pies, cakes, chips, you name it. Passing through the crowd it was easy to pick up on its meaning. Some were emotional, others were celebratory. You would hear comments like, “My parents died and now I love knowing I have this day every year to honor them.”
At sunset everyone lit their candle and sent their lantern floating out onto the lake creating a luminous, even magical, scene. As the chatter quieted participants watched their lanterns take on life forming clusters, traveling together, and sometimes circling back to their owners.
Background The Forest Hills Lantern Festival was inspired by a Buddhist-Confucion custom now celebrated in Japan as a family reunion holiday. It’s not a marked holiday but many are given days off so they may return to their ancestral family places, visit and clean their ancestors’ graves. At this time spirits of ancestors are supposed to revisit household altars. The traditional festival, which has been celebrated for over 500 years, lasts for three days but its start date varies by region, as does the music and Bon Odori, simply meaning Bon Dance.
How the Bon Odori Came To Be Maha Maudgalyayana, one of Buddha’s disciples, used his powers to look upon his deceased mother. He discovered she fell into the Realm of Hungry Ghosts and was suffering. He went to the Buddha and asked how to release his mother. Buddha told him to make offerings to many Buddhist monks who had recently completed their summer retreat. He did, and his mother was released. In the process he saw the true nature of his mother’s past unselfishness and the many sacrifices she made for him. In a swirl of happiness over his mother’s release and gratitude for her kindness, he danced with joy. Thus, the Bon Dance became a time to remember and appreciate ancestors’ sacrifices.
The End The celebration, which traditionally includes a huge carnival with rides and games, ends with Toro Nagashi, or the floating lanterns. Paper lanterns are illuminated and then float down rivers symbolizing the ancestral spirits’ returning to the world of the dead. Finally the ceremony culminates with a fireworks display.
Why Establishing Rituals Is So Important Rituals give us a framework to play off of while giving us stability — we know we can count on this annual tradition, but we also know we have the freedom to make it our own. Having rituals, in the case of lost loved ones, gives us peace of mind that we will never forget to honor their memory and all the joy they brought to us and the world. Aside: At a conference hosted by the National Center for Death Education this summer, speaker and American grief specialist Dale Larson actually said, “I LOVE when my clients are Jewish!” Weird? No. The Jewish faith offers many established rituals such as sitting Shiva and the Kaddish Prayer for mourners as an act of loving kindness for the departed soul.
Everyone’s experience is unique but having rituals to guide us and bring us together as a community can have a huge impact.
Thank you, thank you, thank you! We love when people visit us. Please donate to keep our project alive! (You know what they say about giving. It comes back multiplied!)
Our mission is to guide people to grief resources, establish American rituals around commemorating lost loved ones, and develop a resource of artistic expression created in response to grief.