What does the concept of Ancestor Veneration encompass? Well, to quote Wikipedia (which to its credit, gives a simple and accurate explanation): The veneration of the dead, including one's ancestors, is based on love and respect for the deceased. In some cultures, it is related to beliefs that the dead have a continued existence, and may possess the ability to influence the fortune of the living. Some groups venerate their direct, familial ancestors. Certain sects and religions, in particular the Roman Catholic Church, venerate saints as intercessors with God, as well as pray for departed souls in Purgatory. In Europe, Asia, and Oceania, and in some African and Afro-diasporic cultures, 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 favors or assistance. The social or non-religious function of ancestor veneration is to cultivate kinship values, such as filial piety, family loyalty, and continuity of the family lineage. 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.
So how does all that translate into actual practices in various cultures and religions? Surprisingly, there are a lot of similarities, which perhaps speaks to a common root to these practices. Let's examine just a few of the beliefs and practices from around the world.
Ancestor worship and reverence are fundamental elements of Confucianism. Rituals to honor the ancestors must be performed in precise ways. By carrying out these rituals properly, an individual can receive the aid and cooperation of deceased relatives. As a bit of background, in Confucianism, the person is thought to have multiple souls, the hun and po which are associated with yang and yin. When a person dies, the parts separate with the hun going to heaven and the po descending to the earth to reside in a Spirit Tablet. These spirit tablets are inscribed with the names of all the familial ancestors for many generations back. The tablet is place at the the household altar. Incense is lit daily here, any significant announcements are made before the Spirit Tablet. Offerings of food, drink, and spirit money are given at least twice a month. The eldest male in the family speaks to the spirits at this altar on a regular basis and makes requests for the spirits to bless the family. The goal of this ancestor worship and communication is to ensure that one's dead relations become ancestors rather than ghosts, which are regarded as malevolent, and to receive blessings and good fortune from them.
The basic precepts of Taoism are based around paying respect to the heavens, honoring the deities and paying respect to the ancestors. The practice of communicating with the ancestors and deities involves the burning of incense in a golden incense burner. As the smoke travels up to the heavens, it acts as the tool for communication, conveying wishes and messages to the spirits. There are strict ways of burning the incense which must be followed in order to show sincerity and respect and thereby receive the blessings desired. These ways include : the left hand is used to offer the incense; three sticks of incense are burned; and the three sticks must be place upright and no more than one inch apart.
In Buddhism, once an ancestor dies, he or she, in the form of a Spirit, can intercede in their descendants' lives by protecting and assisting them. The ancestors are believed to inform their descendants about daily business, and how to avoid conflicts, accidents or bad decisions. In order to receive this information, the living person relies on the interpretation of dreams or on going to a spiritual master. The descendants of an ancestor are relied on to aid their ancestors in reaching self perfection by being sincere and serious in the worship of the ancestors. Once the spirits reach self perfection, they no longer intercede in the lives of their descendants.
In Haitian Vodou, the ancestors are a major part of the religious, spiritual, and daily lives of the Vodousant. The main focus of each practitioner's home is the ancestors' altar, which includes photos and other mementos of the deceased family members, candles that are burned continuously to honor them, and offerings such as coffee, water, rum, or other food items. Greetings are made to the ancestors on a daily basis. In Voodoo beliefs, the soul is made of two parts, the gros bon ange and the ti bon ange. The gros bon ange, or the "big guardian angel," is the life force shared by all humans. It enters the body at birth and leaves at death when it floats back to the Gran Met, or pool of life force. The ti bon ange, or "little guardian angel" is the part of the soul that contains the individual qualities of a person. Upon a person's death, the Vodou ceremony of 'desounin' is held. In this ceremony, the component parts of the person's soul are ritualistically separated and consigned to their correct destinations. One year and one day after the death of the individual, the ceremony 'retire mo nan dlo', which translates to 'take the dead out of the water', may be performed. The spirit of the dead person is called up through a vessel of water, under a white sheet, and ritually installed in a clean clay pot called a 'govi'. The voice of the dead individual may speak from the govi, or through the mouth of another person briefly possessed for the purpose. The govi is reverently placed in the djevo, or inner room of the temple. During ceremonies, the family members can petition the spirits in the govi for blessings or information.
While Christianity as a whole does not subscribe to the practice of ancestor worship, there are rituals and practices which at their heart amount to much the same purpose. In the United States and Canada, flowers, wreaths, grave decorations and sometimes candles or even small pebbles are put on graves year-round as a way to honor the dead. In the United States, many people honor deceased loved ones who were in the military on Memorial 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. In the Catholic Church, one's local parish church often offers prayers for the dead on their death anniversary or on special days like All Souls' Day. Descendants will often pray for intervention by deceased loved ones when they face times of crisis or sadness. In Judaism, a small rock or pebble is often placed upon the grave of a loved one when visiting it.
Though the rituals may vary, the core of all of this is the honoring of the lives of those that have gone before us, and the belief that somehow, some part of them lives on. I've often been asked about the difficulties of honoring or revering an ancestor that was, how should I say it...not such a nice person. My answer is always, without them, you literally would not exist. Honor them for that much. As mediums, and believers in mediumistic communication, we don't have to rely on religious rituals to communicate with those that have passed away. But by using those lines of communication we allow those spirits to contribute to our lives long after they are gone from this plane.