Veneration of the dead or ancestor reverence is based on the belief that the dead have a continued existence and/or possess the ability to influence the fortune of the living. Some groups venerate their direct, familial ancestors; some faith communities, in particular the Catholic Church, venerate saints as intercessors with God.
In some Eastern, African and Afro-Diasporic cultures the goal of ancestor veneration is to ensure the ancestors' continued well-being and positive disposition towards the living, and sometimes to ask for special favours or assistance. The social or non-religious function of ancestor veneration is to cultivate kinship values, such as filial piety, family loyalty, and continuity of the family lineage. While far from universal, ancestor veneration occurs in societies with every degree of social, political, and technological complexity, and it remains an important component of various religious practices in modern times.
- 1 Overview
- 2 Africa
- 3 Ancient Rome
- 4 Christianity
- 5 East Asian cultures
- 6 South and Southeast Asian cultures
- 7 Western cultures
- 8 See also
- 9 Notes
- 10 External links
Ancestor reverence is not the same as the worship of a deity or deities. In some Afro-diasporic cultures, ancestors are seen as being able to intercede on behalf of the living, often as messengers between humans and the gods. As spirits who were once human themselves, they are seen as being better able to understand human needs than would a divine being. In other cultures, the purpose of ancestor veneration is not to ask for favors but to do one's filial duty. Some cultures believe that their ancestors actually need to be provided for by their descendants, and their practices include offerings of food and other provisions. Others do not believe that the ancestors are even aware of what their descendants do for them, but that the expression of filial piety is what is important.
Most cultures who practice ancestor veneration do not call it "ancestor worship." In English, the word worship usually refers to the reverent love and devotion accorded a deity or divine being. However in other cultures, this act of worship does not confer any belief that the departed ancestors have become some kind of deity. Rather, the act is a way to respect, honor and look after ancestors in their afterlives as well as seek their guidance for their living descendants. In this regard, many cultures and religions have similar practices. Some may visit the graves of their parents or other ancestors, leave flowers and pray to them in order to honor and remember them, while also asking their ancestors to continue to look after them. However, this would not be considered as worshipping them.
It is in that sense that the translation ancestor veneration may convey a more accurate sense of what practitioners, such as the Chinese and other Buddhist-influenced and Confucian-influenced societies, as well as the African and European cultures see themselves as doing.
Ancestor veneration is very prevalent throughout Africa and serves as the basis of many religions. It is often augmented by a belief in a supreme being, but prayers and/or sacrifices are usually offered to the ancestors who may ascend to becoming a kind of minor deities themselves. Ancestor veneration remains among many Africans, sometimes practiced alongside the later adopted religions of Christianity (as in Nigeria among the Igbo people) and Islam (among the different Mandé peoples and the Bamum) in much of the continent.
Veneration of ancestors is prevalent throughout the African island of Madagascar. Approximately half of the country's population of 20 million currently practice traditional religion, which tends to emphasize links between the living and the razana (ancestors). The veneration of ancestors has led to the widespread tradition of tomb building, as well as the highlands practice of the famadihana, whereby a deceased family member's remains may be exhumed to be periodically re-wrapped in fresh silk shrouds before being replaced in the tomb. The famadihana is an occasion to celebrate the beloved ancestor's memory, reunite with family and community, and enjoy a festive atmosphere. Residents of surrounding villages are often invited to attend the party, where food and rum are typically served and a hiragasy troupe or other musical entertainment is commonly present. Veneration of ancestors is also demonstrated through adherence to fady, taboos that are respected during and after the lifetime of the person who establishes them. It is widely believed that by showing respect for ancestors in these ways, they may intervene on behalf of the living. Conversely, misfortunes are often attributed to ancestors whose memory or wishes have been neglected. The sacrifice of zebu is a traditional method used to appease or honor the ancestors. Small, everyday gestures of respect include throwing the first capful of a newly opened bottle of rum into the northeast corner of the room to give the ancestors their due share.
The ancient Egyptian pyramids are the most famous historical monuments devoted to the dead (see Great pyramid of Giza). Egyptian religion posited the survival of the soul in connection with the survival of a physical receptacle for the soul - hence mummification and portraiture flourished as a vital part of Egyptian religion.
Although some historians claim that ancient Egyptian society was a “death cult” because of its elaborate tombs and mummification rituals, it was really quite the opposite. The philosophy that “this world is but a vale of tears” and that to die and be with God is a better existence than an earthly one was relatively unknown among the ancient Egyptians. This was not to say that they were unacquainted with the harshness of life; rather, their ethos included a sense of national pride. The Egyptian people loved the culture, customs and religion of their daily lives so much that they wanted to continue them in the next—although some might hope for a better station in the Beautiful West (Egyptian afterlife). This same strong sense of national and historical pride still exists in modern-day Egypt, although the religion and culture have changed.
Tombs were housing in the Hereafter and so they were carefully constructed and decorated, just as homes for the living were. Mummification was a way to preserve the corpse so the ka (soul) of the deceased could return to receive offerings of the things s/he enjoyed while alive. If mummification was not affordable, a “ka-statue” in the likeness of the deceased was carved for this purpose. The Blessed Dead were collectively called the akhu, or “shining ones” (singular: akh). They were described as “shining as gold in the belly of Nut" (Gr. Nuit) and were indeed depicted as golden stars on the roofs of many tombs and temples.
The process by which a ka became an akh was not automatic upon death; it involved a 70-day journey through the duat, or Otherworld, which led to judgment before Wesir (Gr. Osiris), Lord of the Dead where the ka’s heart would be weighed on a scale against the Feather of Ma’at (representing Truth). However, if the ka was not properly prepared, this journey could be fraught with dangerous pitfalls and strange demons; hence some of the earliest religious texts discovered, such as the Papyrus of Ani (commonly known as The Book of the Dead) and the Pyramid Texts were actually written as guides to help the deceased successfully navigate the duat.
If the heart was in balance with the Feather of Ma'at, the ka passed judgment and was granted access to the Beautiful West as an akh who was ma’a heru (“true of voice”) to dwell among the gods and other akhu. At this point only was the ka deemed worthy to be venerated by the living through rites and offerings. Those who became lost in the duat or deliberately tried to avoid judgment became the unfortunate (and sometimes dangerous) mutu, the Restless Dead. For the few whose truly evil hearts outweighed the Feather, the goddess Ammit waited patiently behind Wesir’s judgment seat to consume them. She was a composite creature resembling three of the deadliest animals in Egypt: the crocodile, the hippopotamus and the lion. (The hippopotamus is still the leading cause of human deaths by animal encounter in Africa today.) Being fed to Ammit was to be consigned to the Eternal Void, to be “unmade” as a ka.
Besides being eaten by Ammit, the worst fate a ka could suffer after physical death was to be forgotten. For this reason, ancestor veneration in ancient Egypt was an important rite of remembrance in order to keep the ka “alive” in this life as well as in the next. Royals, nobles and the wealthy made contracts with their local priests to perform prayers and give offerings at their tombs. In return, the priests were allowed to keep a portion of the offerings as payment for services rendered. Some tomb inscriptions even invited passers-by to speak aloud the names of the deceased within (which also helped to perpetuate their memory), and to offer water, prayers or other things if they so desired. In the private homes of the less wealthy, niches were carved into the walls for the purpose of housing images of familial akhu and to serve as altars of veneration.
Many of these same religious beliefs and ancestor veneration practices are still carried on today in the religion of Kemetic Orthodoxy.
A noble Roman family displayed ancestral images (imagines) in the atrium of their home (domus). Some sources indicate these portraits were busts, while others suggest that funeral masks were also displayed. The masks, probably modeled of wax from the face of the deceased, were part of the funeral procession when an elite Roman died. Professional mourners wore the masks and regalia of the dead person's ancestors as the body was carried from the home, through the streets, and to its final resting place.
Early Christianity's attitudes
Some early Christians may have been persecuted for their faith, leading some to hide in the catacombs in Rome. As a result, they may have found themselves praying and worshiping God surrounded by the tombs and bodies of the dead. When possible, they may have sought to pray among the bodies of dead Christians, maybe using a coffin or tomb for an altar on which to celebrate the Eucharist. From the early apostolic times, it appears the Church held a respectful veneration for the dead. They reported witnessing miracles in connection with the bodies of dead Christians, such as healing, or observing sweet-smelling myrrh exuding from their bones. This, combined with their belief in the Resurrection of Jesus and future resurrection of all Christians (the Resurrection of the Dead), eventually led to the veneration of saints and of their relics. Early accounts of martyrs include Christian witnesses making great efforts to obtain the remains of the martyrs and the Romans sometimes trying to prevent this. Also, it became common to continue to ask Christian leaders to pray for them, even after the leaders had died, as they believed that these Christians were still able to pray and that their prayers would still be effective. Later, most of the various Protestant sects that broke away from the Catholic Church in the 16th century repudiated the practice of asking intercession from the dead, based on possible Pagan origin of communicating with the dead.
Catholicism and Anglicanism's attitudes
The Roman Catholic Church, as well as the Anglican Communion, Eastern Orthodox Church and Oriental Orthodox Churches venerate saints who are in Heaven. Although not necessarily ancestors, the saints are considered departed from Earthly life. They are honored through prayers and feast days. Such holidays to honor the dead in Christianity include All Saints' Day, All Souls' Day, and Day of the Dead.
East Asian cultures
Ancestral veneration in some cultures (such as Chinese) (敬祖, pinyin: jìngzǔ), as well as ancestor worship (拜祖, pinyin: bàizǔ), seeks to honor and reminiscence the actions of the deceased; the ultimate homage to the dead. The importance of paying respect to parents (and elders) lies with the fact that all physical bodily aspects of one's being were created by one's parents, who continued to tend to one's well-being until one is on firm footings. The respect and the homage to parents, is to return this gracious deed to them in life and after, the ultimate homage. The shi (尸; "corpse, personator") was a Zhou Dynasty (1045 BCE-256 BCE) sacrificial representative of a dead relative. During a shi ceremony, the ancestral spirit supposedly would enter the personator, who would eat and drink sacrificial offerings and convey spiritual messages.
Sacrifices are sometimes made to altars as food for the deceased. This falls under the modes of communication with the Chinese spiritual world concepts. Some of the veneration includes visiting the deceased at their graves and making offerings to the deceased in the Spring, Autumn, and Ghost Festivals. Due to the hardships of the late 19th- and 20th-century China, when meat and poultry were difficult to come by, sumptuous feasts are still offered in some Asian countries as a practice to the spirits or ancestors. However, in the orthodox Taoist and Buddhist rituals, only vegetarian food would suffice.
For those with deceased in the afterlife or hell, elaborate or even creative offerings, such as servants, refrigerators, houses, car, paper money and shoes are provided so that the deceased will be able to have these items after they have died. Often, paper versions of these objects are burned for the same purpose. Originally, real-life objects were buried with the dead. In time these goods were replaced by full size clay models which in turn were replaced by scale models, and in time today's paper offerings (including paper servants).
In Korea, ancestor veneration is referred to by the generic term jerye (hangul: 제례; hanja: 祭禮) or jesa (hangul: 제사; hanja: 祭祀). Notable examples of jerye include Munmyo jerye and Jongmyo jerye, which are performed periodically each year for venerated Confucian scholars and kings of ancient times, respectively. The ceremony held on the anniversary of a family member's death is called charye (차례). It is still practiced today.
The majority of Catholics, Buddhists and nonbelievers practice ancestral rites, although Protestants do not. The Catholic ban on ancestral rituals was lifted in 1939, when the Catholic Church formally recognized ancestral rites as a civil practice.
Ancestral rites are typically divided into three categories:
- Charye (차례, 茶禮) - tea rites held four times a year on major holidays (Korean New Year, Chuseok)
- Kije (기제, 忌祭) - household rites held the night before an ancestor's death anniversary (기일, 忌日)
- Sije (시제, 時祭; also called 사시제 or 四時祭) - seasonal rites held for ancestors who are five or more generations removed (typically performed annually on the tenth lunar month)
Ancestor veneration is one of the most unifying aspects of Vietnamese culture, as practically all Vietnamese, regardless of religious affiliation (Buddhist or Catholic) have an ancestor altar in their home or business.
In Vietnam, traditionally people did not celebrate birthdays (before Western influence), but the death anniversary of a loved one was always an important occasion. Besides an essential gathering of family members for a banquet in memory of the deceased, incense sticks are burned along with hell notes, and great platters of food are made as offerings on the ancestor altar, which usually has pictures or plaques with the names of the deceased.
These offerings and practices are done frequently during important traditional or religious celebrations, the starting of a new business, or even when a family member needs guidance or counsel and is a hallmark of the emphasis Vietnamese culture places on filial duty.
A significant distinguishing feature of Vietnamese ancestor veneration is that women have traditionally been allowed to participate and co-officiate ancestral rites, unlike in Chinese Confucian doctrine, which allows only male descendants to perform such rites.
South and Southeast Asian cultures
Ancestor worship is no longer present in modern-day Burma (except within some ethnic minority communities), but remnants of it still exist, such as worship of Bo Bo Gyi (literally "great grandfather"), as well as of other guardian spirits such as nats, all of which may be vestiges of historic ancestor worship.
Ancestor worship was present in the royal court in pre-colonial Burma. During the Konbaung dynasty, solid gold images of deceased kings and their consorts were worshiped three times a year by the royal family, during the Burmese New Year (Thingyan), at the beginning and at the end of the Buddhist lent. The images were stored in the treasury and worshiped at the Zetawunzaung (, "Hall of Ancestors"), along with a book of odes.
Ancestor worship is predominant in India among Hindus. In India, when a person dies, the family observes a ten-day mourning period, generally called śrāddha. A year and six months thence, they observe the ritual of Tarpan, in which the family offers tributes to the deceased. During these rituals, the family prepares the food items that the deceased liked and offers food to the deceased. They offer this food to cows and crows as well. They are also obliged to offer śrāddha, a small feast of specific preparations, to eligible Bramhins. Only after these rituals are the family members allowed to eat.
Each year, on the particular date (as per the Hindu calendar) when the person had died, the family members repeat this ritual.
Apart from this, there is also a fortnight-long duration each year called Pitru Paksha ("fortnight of ancestors"), when the family remembers all its ancestors and offers "Tarpan" to them. This period falls just before the Navratri or Durga Puja falling in the month of Ashwin. Mahalaya marks the end of the fortnight-long Tarpan to the ancestors.
In the animistic tribes of the northern Philippines, worshipping the ancestors was prevalent until the American Occupation in 1898. Unlike in other places where the images of the old gods were burnt by Spanish colonisers, these images were preserved as part of the rich cultural heritage of the northern tribes.
Many of these carved wooden ancestors, known as the bulul, are preserved in museums and serve as a reminder of the sophisticated history of the mountain tribes.
In rural northern Thailand, a religious ceremony honoring ancestral spirits known as faun phii ("spirit dance" or "ghost dance") takes place. It includes offerings for ancestors with spirit mediums sword fighting, spirit-possessed dancing, and spirit mediums cock fighting in a spiritual cockfight.
In Pagan Europe, there were cultures who honoured the dead. After Christianisation, in most Catholic countries in Europe (and Anglican England), November 1 (All Saints' Day, also known as Day of the Dead) became the day when families go to the cemeteries and light candles for their dead relatives. This is a very ancient practice, already present long before the time of the Roman Empire. In the early Church, honouring Christian relatives who had died was commonplace, and, during the post-Apostolic period when the Church was forced underground by the Roman Empire, the Eucharist was celebrated among the catacombs. The official day, according to the Roman Catholic Church, to commemorate the dead who have not attained beatific vision is November 2 (All Souls' Day).
Brythonic Celtic Cultures
In Cornwall and Wales, the autumn ancestor festivals occur around Nov. 1. In Cornwall the festival is known as Kalan Gwav, and in Wales as Calan Gaeaf. The festivals bear some similarities to the better-known Gaelic festival of Samhain, from which modern Halloween is derived.
Gaelic Celtic Cultures
During Samhain, Nov. 1 in Ireland and Scotland, the dead are thought to return to the world of the living, and offerings of food and light are left for them. On the festival day, ancient people would extinguish the hearth fires in their homes, participate in a community bonfire festival, and then carry a flame home from the communal fire and use it light their home fires anew. This custom has continued to some extent into modern times, in both the Celtic nations and the diaspora. Lights in the window to guide the dead home are left burning all night. On the Isle of Man the festival is known as "old Sauin" or Hop-tu-Naa.
Canada and the United States
In the United States and Canada, flowers, wreaths, grave decorations and sometimes candles or even small pebbles are put on graves year-round as a way to honor the dead. In the Southern United States, many people honor deceased loved ones on Decoration Day. Times like Easter, Christmas, Candlemas, and All Souls' Day are also special days in which the relatives and friends of the deceased gather to honor them with flowers and candles. In the Catholic Church, one's local parish church often offers prayers for the dead on their death anniversary or on special days like All Souls' Day.
Many Latinos of Mexican origin celebrate Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) on or around All Saints Day (November 1), this being a mix of a native Mesoamerican celebration and an imported European holiday. Ofrendas (altars) are set up, with calaveras (sugar skulls), photographs of departed loved ones, marigold flowers, candles, and more.
In Judaism, when a grave site is visited, a small pebble is placed on the headstone. While there is no clear answer as to why, this custom of leaving pebbles may date back to biblical days when individuals were buried under piles of stones. Today, they are left as tokens that people have been there to visit and to remember.
Americans of various religions and cultures may build a shrine in their home dedicated to loved ones who have died, with pictures of their ancestors, flowers and mementos. Increasingly, many roadside shrines may be seen for deceased relatives who died in car accidents or were killed on that spot, sometimes financed by the state or province as these markers serve as potent reminders to drive cautiously in hazardous areas. The Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington D.C. is particularly known for the leaving of offerings to the deceased; items left are collected by the National Park Service and archived. Members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints perform posthumous baptisms and other rituals for their dead ancestors, along with those of other families, even without the permission of their descendants.
- Smithsonian: Ancestor Worship Today