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Offerings to ancestors' graves can include the burning of incense.

Sending off the dead by burning offerings.

Ancestor worshipping (or ancestral worship) is a religious practice based on the belief that deceased family members have a continued existence, take an interest in the affairs of the world, and 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 worship. The goal of ancestor worship 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 worship is to cultivate kinship values like filial piety, family loyalty, and continuity of the family lineage. While far from universal, ancestor worship or 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.

About ancestral worship/veneration

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 favour that can be granted by the powerful spirit. Generally speaking, however, the purpose of ancestor worship 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 practised 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, honour 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 honour and remember them while also asking their deceased ancestors to continue to look after them. However he would not consider himself 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 Confucian-influenced societies, see themselves as doing.

Who are our ancestors?

When one refers to ancestors, it is said to include all of the following:

  • subtle bodies of all our known and unknown departed relations from all the previous generations are included in the category of our ancestors.
  • Relatives from all the previous generations from the father’s and mother’s side; for a woman from her parent’s side as well as from her husband’s side are included in this category.
  • Along with this subtle bodies of departed relatives from previous births are also included in ancestors.[1]
  • Normally a daughter married away to another family will never visit her previous generation and will instead visit her husband's previous generation because it's a custom for the women to follow the men's.
  • If the daughter is the only child in the family, the daughter might make a brief visit to the ancestral shrine.
  • The eldest son and his family will usually be the ones who initiate the visit to an ancestral shrine.

Ancestor veneration in China

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.

Food is offered to the ancestors during the annual Hungry Ghost festival prayers.

Ancestor worship in some cultures Chinese (拜祖, pinyin: bàizǔ), also ancestor veneration (敬祖, pinyin: jìngzǔ ), seeks to honor the deeds, memories, and sacrifice of the deceased. Much of the veneration includes visiting the deceased at their graves, making offerings to the deceased to provide for their welfare in the afterlife. For instance, a toothbrush, comb, towel, slippers, and water are provided by the coffin or memorial 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. Joss paper-Spirit money (also called Hell Bank 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.

Ancestor veneration in Vietnam

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 didn't 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 festivals, 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 veneration in Germany and Austria

November 1 (All Saints Day) is the day when families go to the cemeteries and light candles for their dead relatives.

Ancestor veneration in America


In America flowers, wreaths, and grave decorations and sometimes candles, are put on graves year-round, as a way to honor the dead. Times like Easter, Christmas, Candlemas, and All Souls' Day are especially days when the relatives and friends of the deceased gather to honor them with flowers and candles. Some Americans may even have a shrine in their home dedicated to loved ones who have died, with pictures of them; and also, many roadside shrines may be seen for deceased relatives who died in car accidents or were killed on that spot.

Ancestor veneration in Ireland

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

See also


  1. Who all are included in ‘our ancestors’? Spiritual Science Research Foundation Inc.

External links

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