I started to think about this concept when I was in Sicily last September, where I visited the Capuchin catacombs. Under the streets of Palermo, there are 8,000 deceased Sicilians dating from 1599 to 1920, mummified and displayed. The original intent was for families to be able to come visit their revered dead and to pay homage to them. Many of the dead are posed in such a way to be “looking” at the visitors, and as our guide pointed out, this was to be a warning to their offspring that the pleasures of this life are fleeting. Or as my Italian Catholic friend pointed out, only a Catholic mother could find a way to guilt her kids from the grave.
Ancestor worship is often misunderstood and may be more properly understood as “veneration” than worship. In belief systems that include Ancestor Worship, ancestors are not viewed as diety, but practices center on becoming a better person through filial duty. Here’s a quick run down of some cultures that openly practice some form of ancestor worship:
- China. Ancestral veneration stems from the teachings of Confucius and Laozi rather than from religion. It is considered one’s duty to revere ancestors for their role in one’s physical existence, the creation of the body. Visiting graves and leaving offerings of food or other practical items (such as toothbrushes) for the deceased as well as communicating with ancestors are part of the practices. The living sometimes also regard ancestors as “guardian angels” protecting their living progeny.
- Korea. Similar to China, and includes annual veneration of the ancestor’s death.
- Vietnam. Practically all Vietnamese, regardless of religious affiliation (Buddhist and Christian alike) have an ancestor altar in the home or business. Focus is on filial duty, and there are annual banquets to commemorate the ancestor’s death date, including offerings.
- India. Common in rural India. Families remember deceased loved ones by offering them food first at meals during festivals and ceremonies, and floral tributes in the Ganges to those who have passed on.
- Europe. All Saints Day (November 1) dates to the days of the Roman empire and was adopted by Catholicism. Families light candles for their deceased ancestors in the cemeteries.
- Ireland. During Samhain, food and light are left out for the deceased.
- Latin America. A combination of Mesoamerican and European traditions resulted in Dia de los Muertos. Altars, sugar skulls, pictures of the deceased, and flowers and candles are set up to revere ancestors.
- Africa. Ancestor veneration is common, and ancestors are often believed to ascend to become minor deities, even among Christian and Islamic converts.
Compared to other Christian religions, Mormons certainly go further down the path of Ancestor Worship than some:
- Redeeming the dead is one of the three missions of the church, including proxy work for deceased ancestors in the temples.
- Family history and journal record keeping are expected to preserve a record for future generations.
- The church is the foremost source for genealogical research.
- An interpretation of D&C 132 could be that exaltation is a communal activity, only possible in families, not an individual salvation as in other Christian sects.
So, exactly what is the definition of ancestor worship and how do we stack up? Ancestor worship includes the following beliefs about deceased family members:
- they have a continued existence (check)
- they take an interest in the affairs of the world (check)
- they possess the ability to influence the fortune of the living (hmmm. . . )
And further, the goals of ancestor worship (a.k.a. ancestor veneration) are:
- to ensure the ancestors’ continued well-being (indubitably)
- to ensure the ancestors’ positive disposition towards the living (sounds a little quid-pro-quo so maybe not)
- sometimes to ask for special favors or assistance (hmmmm . . .)
The social functions of ancestor worship are to promote:
- filial piety (turn the hearts of the children to the fathers)
- family loyalty (families can be together forever)
- continuity of the family lineage (save ourselves with all our dead)
So, our form of ancestor veneration hits all 3 points on the social scale, with 2 of 3 on the beliefs scale, and at least 1 of 3 on the goals scale. We seem to be engaging in some form of ancestor worship.
What do you think? Are Mormons more focused on ancestral veneration than other Christian faiths? Is this a restoration of something lost from early Christianity (a la baptisms by proxy for the deceased)? Are Mormons merely “social” ancestor venerators, bent on encouraging filial duty and family ties? Or are we full-fledged ancestor worshippers, expecting and requiring full ongoing ancestor relationships and communal salvation? Or do our ancestral homages fall outside these definitions? Is the church becoming more or less focused on ancestral veneration over time?