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Veneration of the dead

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Veneration of the dead is a practice based on the belief that the deceased, often family members, have a continued existence and/or possess the ability to influence the fortune of the living. Some groups venerate their ancestors; some faith communities, in particular the Roman Catholic Church, venerate saints as intercessors with God.

In some Asian cultures, and in Native American traditions, 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.[1] 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. This article will examine similarities and differences in the relationships between the living and the dead. The minimum requirement for veneration offered to the dead is probably some kind of belief in an afterlife, a survival, at least for a time, of personal identity beyond death. These beliefs are far from uniform.


For most cultures, ancestor practices are not the same as the worship of the gods. When a person worships a god at a local temple, it is to ask for some favor that can be granted by the powerful spirit. Generally speaking, however, the purpose of ancestor veneration is not to ask for favors but to do one's filial duty. Some people believe that their ancestors actually need to be provided for by their descendants. 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. Whether or not the ancestor receives what is offered is not the issue.

Therefore, for people unfamiliar with how "ancestor worship" is actually practiced and thought of, the use of the translation worship can be a cause of misunderstanding and is a misnomer in many ways. 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 deceased 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, see themselves as doing.


Ancestor worship is very prevalent throughout Africa and serves as the basis of many religions. Ancestor veneration 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 minor deities themselves. Ancestor veneration remains among many indigenous Africans despite the adoption of Christianity (as in Nigeria among the Igala) and Islam (among the different Mandé peoples and the Bamum) in much of the continent. [2][3]

Ancient Egypt

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.

Ancient Rome

The Romans, like many Mediterranean societies, had strong prohibitions against dead bodies. Bodies of the dead were often displayed for a time but were then taken outside the pomerium, or sacred boundary of the city - in effect, the city walls - for cremation. Ashes and bone fragments were then interred outside the walls. Aristocratic Romans had from their remote past observed the custom of keeping portraits of their male ancestors - they had probably borrowed this custom from the Etruscans. These portraits were originally in the form of masks - probably even death masks moulded on the dead ancestor's face. On significant family holidays, the living members of the family might wear the masks in procession. In the 2nd century A.D., practices shifted from cremation to burial. The reasons for this change are not at all clear. Scholars have posited influences from groups who practiced burial - for instance, the increasing numbers of Germanic foederatii (troops settled inside the borders of the empire) - and from the increasing numbers of practitioners of religions that practiced burial for doctrinal reasons, such as Judaism, Christianity, and the Egyptian syncretistic Mystery religions.


Early Christianity's attitudes

Many early Christians were persecuted for their faith, leading many Christians in Rome to hide in the catacombs. As a result, they found themselves praying and worshipping God surrounded by the tombs and bodies of the dead. When possible, they sought to pray among the bodies of dead Christians, sometimes using a coffin or tomb for an altar on which to celebrate the Eucharist. From the early apostolic times, it appears the Roman Catholic 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, 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, despite its origins in early Christianity.

Catholicism and Anglicanism's attitudes

See All Saints Day, Saint, Day of the Dead.

East Asia


Ancestral veneration in some cultures (such as Chinese) (敬祖, Pinyin: jìngzǔ), as well as ancestor worship (拜祖, Pinyin: bàizǔ), seeks to honor the deeds and memories of the deceased. This is an extension of filial piety for the ancestors, the ultimate homage to the deceased as if they were alive. Instead of prayers, joss sticks are offered with communications and greetings to the deceased. There are eight qualities of De (八德), earthly duties for Chinese people to complete, and filial piety (孝) is the foremost of those qualities. The importance of paying filial duties 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 for many years afterwards. Respect and homage to parents, i.e., filial piety, is to return this favor to them in life and after. In this regard, ancestral veneration in China is a fusion of the teachings of Confucius and Lao Tzu rather than a religious ritual. The shi (尸; "corpse impersonator") 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 impersonator, 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 Qingming, Chongyang, and Ghost Festivals. All three are related to paying homage to the spirits. Due to the hardships of the late 19th- and 20th-century China, when meat and poultry were difficult to come by, sumptuous feasts were still offered in some Asian countries as a practice to the spirits or ancestors. However, in the orthodox Taoist and Buddhist rituals vegetarian food would suffice.

For those with deceased relatives in the netherworld or hell, elaborate or even creative offerings, such as toothbrushes, combs, towels, slippers, and water 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, even paper cars and plasma TVs. Spirit money (also called Hell bank notes) are sometimes burned as an offering to make ancestors comfortable in the afterlife. The living may regard the ancestors as guardian angels to them, perhaps in protecting them from serious accidents or guiding their path in life.


In Korea, ancestor worship is referred to by the generic term jerye (hangul: 제례) or jesa (hangul: 제사). 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.[4]


Ancestor veneration is one of the most unifying aspects of Vietnamese culture, as practically all Vietnamese regardless of religious affiliation (Buddhist or Christian) 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.


Ancestor worship is predominant in India among Hindus. When a person dies, the family observes a ten-day mourning period, generally called shraddha. 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 those foods to the deceased. They offer this food to cows and crows as well. They are also obliged to offer siddha to eligible Brahmins. 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.

The Philippines

In the animistic tribes of the Northern Philippines, worshiping the ancestors was very prevalent until the arrival of the Americans in the 1900's. However, unlike in other places where the images of the folk gods were burnt, the American missionaries allowed these images to be preserved as a memorial of the rich cultural heritage of the different 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.

Western culture


Traditionally, in Celtic and Germanic Europe, the feast of Samhain was specially associated with the deceased, and, in those countries, it was still customary to set a place for them at table on this day until relatively recent times. After Christianisation, in most Catholic countries in Europe (and Anglican England), November 1 (All Saints' Day, also known as the Day of the Dead) became the day when familieswent to the cemeteries and lit candles for their dead relatives. This is a very ancient practice, already present long before the time of the Roman Empire. In the early Catholic 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 Mass was celebrated among the catacombs. The official day, according to the Church, to commemorate the dead who have not attained beatific vision is November 2 (All Souls' Day).


In a British context, the autumn ancestor festival corresponds to Halloween, which derives from the Celtic Samhain.


During Samhain in Ireland, the dead are supposed to return, and food and light are left for them. Lights are left burning all night, as on Christmas Eve, and food is left outdoors for them. It is believed that food fallen on the floor should also be left, as someone needs it.

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 Roman 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. Some 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.[5] Some Americans may build a shrine in their home dedicated to loved ones who have died, with pictures of them. Also, 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.

See also


  1. "Ancestor worship, Micha F. Lindemans, based on Encyclopedie van de Mythologie. van Reeth, Dr. A. Tirion, Baarn: 1994. ISBN 9051213042.
  2. "Ancestors as Elders in Africa," Igor Kopytoff; in Perspectives on Africa: A Reader in Culture, History, and Representation (Editors Roy Richard Grinker & Christopher Burghard Steiner), Blackwell Publishing, 1997. ISBN 1557866864.
  3. Some reflections on ancestor workship in Africa, Meyer Fortes, African Systems of Thought, pages 122-142, University of Kent.
  4. Ancestor Worship and Korean Society, Roger Janelli, Dawnhee Janelli, Stanford University Press, 1992. ISBN 0804721580.

External links

This page uses content from the English Wikipedia. The original article was at Veneration of the dead. The list of authors can be seen in the page history.

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