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Ancestor worship or ancestor veneration is a practice based on the belief that deceased family members have a continued existence, take an interest in the affairs of the world, and/or possess the ability to influence the fortune of the living. All cultures attach ritual significance to the passing of loved ones, but this is not equivalent to ancestor veneration.[1] 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.[2] The social or non-religious function of ancestor veneration is to cultivate kinship values like 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.



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 possibly seek their guidance for their living descendants. In this regard, many cultures and religions have similar practices. Some may visit the grave of his 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.

The Philippine

File:Wodden Carvings of the
Wooden images of the Ancestors in a museum in Bontoc, Mountain Province, Philippines.

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

Many of these carved woodend ancestors, known as the bulul are preserved in the museums and serves as a reminder of the sophisticated history of the Mountain Tribes.



Ancestral veneration in some cultures (such as Chinese) (敬祖, pinyin: jìngzǔ), also 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. There are eight qualities of De (八德) for a Chinese to complete his earthly duties, and filial piety (孝) is the top and 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 our 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.

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, 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 or fruit would suffice.

For those with deceased in the netherworld or hell, elaborate or even creative offerings such as toothbrush, comb, towel, 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[citation needed]. 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 (차례).[3]


Ancestor worship is one of the most unifying aspects of Vietnamese culture, as practically all Vietnamese regardless of religious denomination (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 fruit and food are made as offerings on the ancestor altar, which usually has pictures 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. In India, when a person passes away, the family observes 10 day mourning period, generally called shraddha. Six month and a year hence they observe the ritual of TarpanTemplate:Dn in which the family offers tributes to the deceased. During these rituals, the family prepares the food items which the deceased liked, offers food to the deceased. They offer this food to cows and crows as well. They are also obliged to offer siddha to eligible Bramhins. Only after these rituals the family members are 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 "Pitripaksh" (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.


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, most Catholic (and In Anglican England) countries in Europe, 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 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 Samonios


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, and grave decorations and sometimes candles, 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. Some Latinos of Mexican origin celebrate Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) on or around All Saints Day (Nov. 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. 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.


Ancestor worship is very prevalent throughout Sub-Saharan 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.[4][5]

See also


  1. ^ "Ancestor Worship," Leslie Spier, The Encyclopedia Americana, International Edition. Danbury, CT, Grolier, 1987.
  2. ^ "Ancestor worship, Micha F. Lindemans, based on Encyclopedie van de Mythologie. van Reeth, Dr. A. Tirion, Baarn: 1994. ISBN 9051213042.
  3. ^ Ancestor Worship and Korean Society, Roger Janelli, Dawnhee Janelli, Stanford University Press, 1992. ISBN 0804721580.
  4. ^ "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.
  5. ^ Some reflections on ancestor workship in Africa, Meyer Fortes, African Systems of Thought, pages 122-142, University of Kent.

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