Ancestor worship plays a role in nearly every religion and culture around the world. Throughout human history, we’ve dealt with death partly by continuing to communicate with the ones we’ve lost. And in some cultures, that communication with the departed evolved to include elaborate grief rituals, ancestral traditions, and worship.
Ancestor worship is any religious practice that’s based on a belief that deceased family members continue to exist in some capacity. Often, that includes a belief that the spirits or souls of the deceased have an impact on the lives and luck of the living.
1. Sraddha from India
In the Hindu religion, the Sraddha (Sanskrit śrāddha) ceremony is a religious and social responsibility. All male members of the Hindu faith, with the exception of some holy men known as sannyasis, are required to take part in the ritual.
Sraddha is a rite performed for deceased parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents. It’s thought to protect, support, and nourish the spirits as they travel through the afterlife and to eventual reincarnation.
To perform Sraddha rites, a male family member, known as the Karta, makes offerings to local priests and to the souls of the deceased directly. The offerings generally consist of nourishing rice balls called pinda pradaana. The Karta often performs services for the priests, or Brahmanas, as well, including feet-washing and other acts of devotion.
Sraddha rites take place on the 11th day and the 31st day after a person’s death, as well as at regular intervals after that. The annual holiday of Pitru Paksha is dedicated to performing the Sraddha ritual.
2. Vodun from Ghana
The Vodun religion found in West African nations like Ghana and is known as Voodoo elsewhere in the world. But there’s much more to Voodoo than the stereotypes portrayed by Hollywood horror movies.
Vodun centers around an elaborate series of gods, all with complex characters and similar to the gods of ancient Greece. Although human sacrifice to the gods ended over a century ago, animal sacrifice still takes place.
Another key component of the Vodun faith is ancestral worship. Vodun worshippers believe the souls of the dead walk among the living at certain times. One of those times is during a dance performed by hooded figures called Egunguns, or “living ghosts.”
The ceremony of dancing Egunguns is performed annually in West Africa as an ancestral rite, allowing the dead to walk amongst the living for a little while. It’s believed that the hooded figures represent the dead so accurately that touching them can even bring death to the living.
3. Día de Los Muertos from Mexico
One of the most famous ancestral worship rituals in the world is the Día de Los Muertos ceremony that takes place in Mexico.
For the “Day of the Dead” festival, celebrants use altars and unique Día de Los Muertos symbology to connect with departed ancestors and family members. According to ancient Mexican and Spanish Catholic tradition, offering items to deceased ancestors will help the departed souls through the afterlife.
For example, leaving water on the altar can help quench the spirit’s thirst, and an offering of bread helps keep the spirit satiated on its journey.
4. Venerated Saints from Rome
In the religion of Catholicism, ancestral worship centers around important religious figures called saints. Saints are people throughout history whom the Church has identified as holy or virtuous.
The veneration of saints is a type of ancestral worship prevalent in Catholicism and other types of Christianity. It began out of a belief that saints or martyrs would be received into Heaven more directly, and that their paths should be followed.
Some followers of the Christian and Catholic faiths follow specific saints and worship them through prayer and devotion.
5. Shi Ceremony from China
In Chinese folk religion, a shi is a ceremonial stand-in for a deceased ancestor. The word shi literally translates to “corpse.” At a funeral or ancestral worship event, a “personator” can dress up as the ancestor (often in a symbolic way), and act on their behalf. For example, the shi personator can eat and drink, consuming ritual offerings that relatives want to give to the departed.
Large shi gatherings often take place as a type of family reunion, where many ancestors can gather together in the forms of their personators. At the ceremony, they eat and drink, as well as enjoy blessings from living family members.
6. Megalithic Tombs from Europe
It might not take place much anymore, but one of the most long-lasting types of ancestral worship are megalithic tombs. In ancient Europe, worshippers created giant burial tombs for the dead as a way to venerate the ancestors.
Ancient Europeans also tended to bury the newly departed alongside the long-dead, and to entomb valuable objects alongside the corpses, too.
Many of the tombs found from ancient Europe were built to resemble houses, indicating that the people of that time imagined their ancestors living on after death.
7. Pchum Ben from Cambodia
The Buddhist holiday of Pchum Ben is also known as Ancestors Day or the Caring for the Dead Ritual. And it’s one of the most important annual ceremonies in Cambodia.
For the ritual of Pchum Ben, celebrants typically honor departed relatives and ancestors going as far back as seven generations. For 15 days each year, families create offerings of food, which they bring to their local places of worship.
Each family typically gives its donation of food (usually cooked rice) to the Buddhist monks. The merit earned by making this donation to the monks is thought to transfer to departed ancestors in the spirit world.
The monks also do their part by chanting all night and performing a complex ancestral worship ceremony.
8. Samhain from Scotland
Most people know of Samhain as the pagan version of Halloween. But the Celtic holiday of Samhain was originally a festival marking the end of fall and the beginning of winter. It’s during this time of year that the Celts believed the spirits of ancestors could walk among the living at will.
To honor the ancestors and protect yourself from negative fae encounters, celebrants can offer food and drink to the ancestors and offer departed family members a seat at the feast.
9. Shinto Rites from Japan
In Japan, many households observe both Buddhism and the religion of Shintoism. Many homes have a Shinto shrine, where they perform specific rites. You can also find dedicated, permanent Shinto shrines in Japan, where Shinto rites take place.
The religion of Shinto revolves around gods or spirits known as kami. The kami is a type of entity believed to inhabit everything on earth. And in Shintoism, the ancestors are often thought to be a type of kami.
There are many festivals and rites associated with the kami, but they nearly all have to do with presenting offerings to Shinto shrines in exchange for good results from the kami.
10. Paganito from the Philippines
According to an ancient Filippino religion, spirits called Anito inhabit every part of the world. The Anito are the spirits of the ancestors, and they influence events in the lives of the living.
The Paganito ceremony is a type of spiritual seance, in which a traditional shaman communicates with the Anito spirits.
The term Anito is also sometimes used to refer to acts of worship and sacrificed used to please the ancestral spirits.
11. Chuseok from Korea
The holiday of Chuseok is celebrated in both North and South Korea, and it’s similar to the American holiday of Thanksgiving in many ways. It’s a harvest festival, celebrating a bountiful autumn season.
However, Chuseok is also different from Thanksgiving in that it’s specifically dedicated to thanking the ancestors for the plentiful harvest. A ritual called charye takes center stage on Chuseok, involving laying out food and lighting incense for departed relatives. Families also visit and clean the graves of their ancestors on Chuseok as a way of saying thanks.
12. Calan Gaeaf from Wales
In Wales, the first day of winter is known as Calan Gaeaf. It’s believed that on this date, the spirits of the ancestors can walk amongst the living. People in Wales traditionally avoid locations like churchyards, where the spirits are likely hanging out.
The traditional way to honor one’s ancestors on Calan Gaeaf and avoid a negative encounter with the spirits is by writing your name on a rock and placing it near a fire.
Modern Ancestor Worship
We often think of ancestor worship as something from the ancient past. But ancestor worship is still alive and well today.
Some researchers and scholars even consider acts like embalming and entombing the dead, as well as celebrating occasions like Memorial Day, a form of ancestor worship. However, most forms of ancestor worship center on a belief that the soul of the dead continues to exist after death, which isn’t necessarily true with those practices.
One thing is for certain: there’s always more to learn about ancestor worship, and the examples given above are just the tip of the iceberg.
- “Shraaddha.” Sanskrit Documents.org. sanskritdocuments.org/articles/shrAddha_DrMNarayanaBhat.pdf
- “Voodoo and West Africa's Spiritual Life.” NPR. www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=1666721
- “Veneration of the saints.” Britannica. www.britannica.com/topic/veneration-of-the-saints
- “Religion 101: Ancestor Worship in Ancient Europe and the Arctic.” Daily Kos. www.dailykos.com/stories/2019/4/3/1847528/-Religion-101-Ancestor-Worship-in-Ancient-Europe-and-the-Arctic