Encyclopedia of Religion
and Society

William H. Swatos, Jr. Editor

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Beliefs and rites concerned with the spirits of one's ancestors. Rituals may be intended to honor the ancestors, to help the ancestors in the other world, or to seek help (guidance, power) from the ancestors. The spiritual world of the ancestors is usually thought to be similar to the life they experienced prior to death. Morality is concerned with pleasing the ancestors.

Ancestor worship is not itself a religion but exists as a part of many groups' religious systems. It fits societies in which the authority of elders is an important component. While ancestor worship is most important within traditional groups or folk religions, practices associated with ancestors linger on in the world religions (e.g., having Catholic Masses said for the dead).

Ancestor worship has been affected by the scientific challenge to magic, by the diffusion of universal religions, and by changes in family life. In East Asia, worship of ancestors is being replaced by simple acts of remembrance (Morioka 1986). A similar process may be occurring in all modernizing societies. In Western societies, the tendency to preserve deceased loved ones in memory conflicts with changes such as multiple marriages; new religious and secular grieving practices emphasize letting go of old relationships in preparation for forming new ones.

Joseph B. Tamney


M. Freedman, Chinese Family and Marriage in Singapore (London: HMSO, 1957)

K. Morioka, "Ancestor Worship in Contemporary Japan," in Religion and the Family in East Asia , ed. G. A. DeVos and T. Sofue (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1986): 201-213

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