The veneration of the dead, including one's ancestors, is based on love and respect for the deceased. In some cultures, it is related to beliefs that the dead have a continued existence, and may 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, as well as praying for and to departed souls in Purgatory.
- Ancient Egypt
- Ancient Rome
- West and Southeast African cultures
- China and Taiwan
- Burma Myanmar
- Sri Lanka
- European cultures
- Brythonic Celtic cultures
- Gaelic Celtic cultures
- North America
In Europe, Asia, and Oceania, and in some 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. 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.
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 (god) or God. 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 since the term worship shows no such meaning.
In that sense the phrase 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. This is consistent with the meaning of the word veneration in English, that is great respect or reverence caused by the dignity, wisdom, or dedication of a person.
Although there is no generally accepted theory concerning the origins of ancestor veneration, this social phenomenon appears in some form in all human cultures documented so far. David-Barrett and Carney claim that ancestor veneration might have served a group coordination role during human evolution, and thus it was the mechanism that led to religious representation fostering group cohesion.
Although some historians claim that ancient Egyptian society was a “death cult” because of its elaborate tombs and mummification rituals, it was 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 continuity between this life and the next. 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).
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.
The Romans, like many Mediterranean societies, regarded the bodies of the dead as polluting. During Rome's Classical period, the body was most often cremated, and the ashes placed in a tomb outside the city walls. Much of the month of February was devoted to purifications, propitiation, and veneration of the dead, especially at the nine-day festival of the Parentalia during which a family honored its ancestors. The family visited the cemetery and shared cake and wine, both in the form of offerings to the dead and as a meal among themselves. The Parentalia drew to a close on February 21 with the more somber Feralia, a public festival of sacrifices and offerings to the Manes, the potentially malevolent spirits of the dead who required propitiation. One of the most common inscriptional phrases on Latin epitaphs is Dis Manibus, abbreviated D.M, "for the Manes gods," which appears even on some Christian tombstones. The Caristia on February 22 was a celebration of the family line as it continued into the present.
A noble Roman family displayed ancestral images (imagines) in the tablinium 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.
West and Southeast African cultures
Ancestor veneration is 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 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.
China and Taiwan
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 or buying offerings for 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).
The ancestral veneration in Taiwan is about the same.
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. In case of missing persons believed dead their family, a Wind tomb is made, an empty tomb to venerate their dead.
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.
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 (ဇေတဝန်ဆောင်, "Hall of Ancestors"), along with a book of odes.
Some scholars attribute the disappearance of ancestor worship to the influence of Buddhist doctrines of anicca and anatta, impermanence and rejection of a 'self'.
During Pchum Ben and the Cambodian New Year people make offerings to their ancestors.
Ancestors are acknowledged and honoured in India among Hindus. In India, when a person dies, the family observes a thirteen-day mourning period, generally called śrāddha. A year thence, they observe the ritual of Tarpan, in which the family makes offerings 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 crows as well on certain days as it is believed that the soul comes in the form of a bird to taste it. 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. It is believed that this reminds the ancestor's spirits that they are not forgotten and are loved, so it brings them peace. However, no one prays to ancestors. On Shradh days, people pray that the souls of ancestors be appeased, forget any animosity and find peace.
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.
The practice of ancestor worship in Punjab is called Jathera (Punjabi: जठेरा, from जेष्ठ which means the elder), in Haryana shrine for ancestor worship of the village deity is called dhok (Haryanvi: धोक, from dahak (fire), meaning worship) or bhaiyan (Haryanvi: भईयाँ, from भूमिया, meaning of land).
The paliya memorial stones are associated with ancestral worship in western India.
In Indonesia ancestor worship has been a tradition of some of the indigenous people. Podom of the Toba Batak, Waruga of the Minahasans and the coffins of the Karo people (Indonesia) are a few examples of the forms the veneration takes.
The predominantly Roman Catholic Filipino people still hold ancestors in particular esteem—though without the formality common to their neighbours—despite having been Christianised since coming into contact with Spanish missionaries in 1521.
In the present-day, ancestor veneration is expressed in having photographs of the dead by the home altar, a common fixture in many Filipino Christian homes. Candles are often kept burning before the photographs, which are sometimes decorated with garlands of fresh sampaguita, the national flower. Ancestors, particularly dead parents, also traditionally function as psychopomps, as a dying person is said to be brought to the afterlife (Tagalog: sundô, "fetch") by the spirits of dead relatives. It is said that when the moribund call out the names of deceased loved ones, the spirits of those particular people are said to be visible to the dying person, waiting at the foot of the deathbed.
Filipino Catholic and Aglipayan veneration of the dead finds its greatest expression in the Philippines is the Hallowmas season between 31 October and 2 November, variously called Undás (based on the word for "[the] first", the Spanish andas or possibly honra), Todos los Santos (literally "All Saints"), and sometimes Áraw ng mga Patáy (lit. "Day of the Dead"), which refers to the following solemnity of All Souls' Day. Filipinos traditionally observe this day by visiting the family dead, cleaning and repairing their tombs. Common offerings are prayers, flowers, candles, and even food, while many also spend the remainder of the day and ensuing night holding reunions at the graveyard, playing games and music or singing.
Chinese Filipinos, meanwhile, have the most apparent and distinct customs related to ancestor veneration, carried over from traditional Chinese religion and most often melded with their current Catholic faith. Many still burn incense and kim at family tombs and before photos at home, while they incorporate Chinese practises into Masses held during the All Souls' Day period.
Amongst the animistic tribes in the northern Philippines, worshipping the ancestors was prevalent until the American Occupation in 1898. Unlike in other places such as the Christianised lowlands, the tribes' traditional religious images were preserved as part of their rich cultural heritage. Many of these carved wooden ancestors, known as the bulul, are preserved in museums and serve as a reminder of the highlanders' sophisticated history and culture.
In Sri Lanka, making offerings to one's ancestors is conducted on the sixth day after death as a part of traditional Sri Lankan funeral rites.
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 Catholic countries in Europe (continued later with the Anglican Church in England), November 1 (All Saints' Day), became known and is still known as the day to honor those who have died, and who have been deemed official saints by the Church. November 2, (All Souls Day), or "The Day of the Dead," is the day when all of the faithful dead are remembered. On that day, families go to cemeteries to light candles for their dead relatives, leave them flowers, and often to picnic. The evening before All Saints' -- "All Hallows Eve" or "Hallowe'en"—is unofficially the Catholic day to remember the realities of Hell, to mourn the souls lost to evil, and to remember ways to avoid Hell. It is commonly celebrated in the United States and parts of the United Kingdom in a spirit of light-hearted horror and fear, which is marked by the recounting of ghost stories, bonfires, wearing costumes, carving jack-o'-lanterns, and "trick-or-treating" (going door to door and begging for candy).
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, November 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.
Native cultures of the original inhabitants of North America honoured the dead with various traditional ceremonies, including food offerings and prayers.
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 United States, many people honor deceased loved ones who were in the military on Decoration Day also known as Memorial 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 Mexicans 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, with the permission of their descendants.
Islam has a complex and mixed view on the idea of grave shrines and ancestor worship. The graves of many early Islamic figures are holy sites for Muslims, including Mohammed, Ali, and a cemetery with many companions and early caliphs. Many other mausoleums are major architectural, political, and cultural sites, including the National Mausoleum in Pakistan and the Taj Mahal in India. However, the religious movement of Wahhabism views this veneration of graves as a form of idolatry. Followers of this movement have destroyed many gravesite shrines, including in Saudi Arabia and in territory controlled by the Islamic State.