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New Worlds: Veneration of the Dead

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When it comes to reverence shown to one’s forebears, you may be used to hearing the phrase “ancestor worship.” I’m going to avoid that here because, as many religious scholars have pointed out, referring to this practice with the English word “worship” calls to mind many connotations that aren’t always appropriate — though in some cases they are, because the veneration of the dead is a situation where the exact ideology and conduct can vary quite a lot.

Starting with who exactly is being venerated. The subject of this reverence can be a specific, named individual, or it can be the generalized mass of one’s ancestors. That latter shows up in Roman domestic religion, as both the Lares and the Manes had ancestral associations (mixed with other elements, because religion is rarely a place of clear, well-defined boundaries). When it’s a specific, named individual, it might be someone recent enough for the living to remember them personally — a father or grandmother — or it could extend all the way back to the founder of a particular tribe, clan, or lineage. The unifying characteristic here is the idea that the target of the veneration is linked to the venerator by kinship bonds, whether of blood or marriage (since those who marry in are sometimes expected to transfer their spiritual allegiance to their new family, though not always).

But it’s when you look at why this respect is offered that the variety really kicks in.

We’ve actually touched on this subject already, in Year Seven’s discussion of saints (who are, as I mentioned there, often required to be dead). Even when the spirits of the deceased aren’t believed to be of extraordinary holiness, theology may still hold that they occupy a special, intermediary role between living humans and the inhuman divine. As such, their veneration may be less about worshiping them as if they were deities in their own right, and more about asking them to intercede with the gods — spiritual lobbyists, if you will. You want someone with better access and an understanding of the system to help you out and improve your chances of success.

Of course, sometimes these ancestors are truly deified. This tends not to be the domain of ordinary families, but it crops up a fair bit in sacred royal dynasties, where the rituals for previous rulers and relatives become part of the state apparatus. It’s also common when the tradition reaches back to the (possibly mythic) founder of a large kin group, who operates as the tutelary deity of that entire population. As near as we can tell, this is an extremely widespread characteristic of tribal and clan-based organization, worshipped only by those who belong to the group . . . though when that particular group winds up dominating their neighbors, that may be how you get a “chief god” dominating a resultant syncretized pantheon.

But back to a focus on the dead. In some traditions, you don’t venerate them because you want them to help you; you do so because they need your help. Depending on your society’s beliefs about the afterlife, the rituals you conduct on behalf of your ancestors might serve any number of purposes. In the immediate aftermath of death, they might assist the soul’s journey into the underworld, easing the trials it faces or persuading various guardians and judges to show mercy. But even in the longer term, those rites may be in the service of the dead: in various parts of Asia, you might burn “hell money” and papier-mâché items so that their spiritual essence will transfer to the underworld and ensure a comfortable afterlife for the deceased. It was also a longstanding form of charity in European Catholicism to endow a chantry service, a liturgy that was believed to aid a person’s soul in finding redemption.

In some cases, however, veneration of the dead isn’t even really for the sake of the dead at all. Though many Western Christians and members of other traditions probably wouldn’t use this phrase to describe their visits to the graves of deceased family members, that practice is on a continuum with those whose main purpose is, to borrow the phrase commonly used in an East Asian context, the exercise of filial piety. Quite simply, by honoring previous members of your lineage — with prayers, life updates, offerings of incense or flowers, regular cleanings of the site, animal sacrifices, or whatever your tradition calls for — you reinforce the notion that those people matter, and so does your personal connection to their line. We might also engage in this practice for non-relatives, but when it’s mandated by social norms, it’s usually in the service of a kin group.

So the veneration of the dead is widespread not just because it’s a common aspect of religion, but because it’s a common aspect of family, too. And family is up there with religion for being one of the most important types of glue holding society together. The authority a patriarch or matriarch held in life doesn’t vanish the moment they die; those they led continue to hold them in reverence after they’re gone. Which in turn means that their living successors gain an additional aura of significance: they, too, will eventually have a spirit tablet in the family shrine or some other focus for the rituals of their lineage.

The flip side to this — sometimes the dark side — is the question of who doesn’t get that reverence. If people are supposed to conduct regular rituals for the honored dead, cutting someone out of that practice is at a minimum a clear sign that they are not to be admired by those they leave behind, and it might be far worse. You may be condemning them to an eternity of wandering in the afterlife, destitute and tormented, with none of the comforts the well-behaved receive: a damnation inflicted by the living rather than the divine. And this gets especially harsh when certain groups of people are excluded not because of their deeds but by dint of who they are, such as women, minor children, and slaves. A nice afterlife, in those cases, is reserved solely for the privileged few.

But on the whole, veneration of the dead is about the respect we show toward each other, even once the other is gone. And from that perspective, it might be one of the most human things we do.

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