Veneration of the dead

Veneration of the dead
Ancestor worship at a Chinese temple complex in Sichuan
A Korean jesa altar for ancestors
A Vietnamese altar for ancestors
Sending off the dead by burning offerings

Veneration of the dead is 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 Catholic Church, venerate saints as intercessors with God.

In some Eastern 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. 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 of the 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 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.[1][2]

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 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.

Ancient Rome

Detail from an early 2nd-century Roman sarcophagus depicting the death of Meleager

The Romans, like many Mediterranean societies, regarded the bodies of the dead as polluting.[3] 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.[4] 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.[5]

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.[6]


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 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, despite its origins in early Christianity.

Catholicism and Anglicanism's attitudes

The Roman Catholic Church, as well as the Anglican Communion, Eastern Orthodox Churches 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


This picture was taken at a Malaysian Chinese home. On the left of the altar is a glass filled with rice. Joss sticks are stuck into it after the ancestors are invited to partake in the offering of food specially prepared for them on the Hungry Ghost festival.

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 are alive. Instead of prayers, joss sticks are offered with communications and greetings to the deceased. According to Confucian principles, there are eight qualities of De (八德) for a Chinese to complete his earthly duties with filial piety or xiào (孝) the most important. The importance of paying filial 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, i.e., filial piety, is to return this gracious deed to them in life and after, the ultimate homage. In this regard, ancestral veneration in China is a fusion of the teachings of Confucius and Laozi rather than a religious ritual. 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 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 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.

Burning offerings

For those with deceased 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. This derives from the ancient practise of burying grave goods with the deceased, originally actual objects, (and for the aristocracy their favourite concubines and servants) were buried. 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). Spirit money (also called Hell Notes) is sometimes burned as an offering to ancestors as well for 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; hanja: ) or jesa (hangul: 제사; hanja: ). 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. It is still practiced today. (차례).[7]

South and Southeast Asian cultures


Ancestor worship is predominant in India among Hindus. In India, 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 food to the deceased. They offer this food to cows and crows as well. They are also obliged to offer sraddha (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.

The Philippines

Wooden images of the ancestors in a museum in Bontoc, Mountain Province, Philippines

In the animistic tribes of the Northern Philippines, worshiping the ancestors was very prevalent until the arrival of the Americans in the 1900. However, unlike in the 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.


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.

Western cultures


Traditionally, in Celtic and Germanic Europe, the feast of Samhain was specially associated with the deceased, and, in these 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 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 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 needed 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 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.[8] 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. The Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington D.C. is particularly known for the the leaving of offerings to the deceased; items left are collected by the National Park Service and archived.

See also


  1. ^ "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 1-55786-686-4.
  2. ^ Some reflections on ancestor workship in Africa, Meyer Fortes, African Systems of Thought, pages 122-142, University of Kent.
  3. ^ Michele Renee Salzman, "Religious koine and Religious Dissent," in A Companion to Roman Religion (Blackwell, 2007), p. 116.
  4. ^ Salzman, "Religious Koine," p. 115.
  5. ^ William Warde Fowler, The Roman Festivals of the Period of the Republic (London, 1908), p. 418.
  6. ^ R.G. Lewis, "Imperial Autobiography, Augustus to Hadrian," Aufstieg und Niedergang der römischen Welt II.34.1 (1993), p. 658.
  7. ^ Ancestor Worship and Korean Society, Roger Janelli, Dawnhee Janelli, Stanford University Press, 1992. ISBN 0-8047-2158-0.
  8. ^

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