Help me learn about ancestor worship
September 15, 2010 2:23 PM   Subscribe

I want to learn about ancestor worship, particularly as practiced in China and by Buddhists.

My interest is research-based and not personal, and pretty open-ended at this point. But I'm curious how those heavily into these practices view their dead relatives -- do they see them as still alive in some form? Do folks pray to specific relatives, as some Christians do? Are there special rites and incantations involved? Are the worshiped ancestors seen as literal entities who are watching and listening? Do they have special powers? Should we be afraid of them?

There are a couple of good articles on Wikipedia, but I'd love some book pointers or advice on where to look for more information.
posted by swift to Religion & Philosophy (4 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
The Toraja people of Sulawesi, Indonesia are not Buddhist nor Chinese, but do have a strong culture of ancestor worship and veneration. Properly speaking, they don't "worship" ancestors as God (neither do Buddhists, really), but view them more as intercessors or intermediaries because they've already gone further along. There is a hierarchy of ancestral effigies and tombs, based on social and financial standing. The effigies are thought to be embodiments of the spirits of the dead, and are petitioned directly for assistance. The lesser members are entombed conspicuously, and are given offerings to both alleviate their suffering and for currying their favor with prayers.

In many of these kinds of cultures, the funeral ritual is paramount.

> Should we be afraid of them?

posted by Burhanistan at 2:40 PM on September 15, 2010

(forgot to link this classic picture of their effigies)
posted by Burhanistan at 2:42 PM on September 15, 2010

Apparently there is an art exhibition currently at the National Gallery of Australia on this theme, although more about South East Asia than China: Life Death and Magic, 2000 years of Southeast Asian Ancestral Art. The catalogue (parts of which are online) has some information answering your questions.
posted by Weng at 8:44 PM on September 15, 2010

Fascinating stuff here -- thanks.
posted by swift at 7:53 AM on September 16, 2010

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