Religion & Culture | Ancestor Veneration: The benefits of communicating with loved ones (Pt1)
I recently received a letter from a reader, an excerpt of which stated: “Maybe, I am wrong, but I am thinking that one of the reasons why Jamaica is such a violent country is not because there aren’t more Christians, but because we don’t honour our dead ancestors. We don’t honour our dead relatives, because we don’t have community solidarity. We don’t have community solidarity, because the family structure is weak.”
The reader elaborated, recalling the many intercessions of his deceased grandmother on his family’s behalf. He concluded: “When I lived in Jamaica and Canada, my grandmother would give me messages in dreams, but since living in the US, she hasn’t appeared to me, but she has contacted me in a different way that is less direct. Once I am contacted, I have to take extra precautions.”
I have studied ancestor veneration in Benin Republic and have written about the practice through the lens of Shintoism, and I must say: the letter from this reader is spot on. In societies where there is respect for elders and veneration for ancestors there is arguably far more stability. Case in point: In Ouidah, Benin, a town of 100,000 people, crime as we know it is non-existent.
As the saying goes: The taste is in the pudding.
It was Confucius who said that filial piety was essential to social harmony. Filial piety according to writer, Lauren Mack, entails “a strong loyalty and deference to one’s parents, [and] because the family is the building block of society, this hierarchical system of respect is by extension applied to one’s country; meaning the same devotion and selflessness in serving one’s family should also be used when serving one’s country.”
For Confucius and many ancients the term family transcended the immediate household to include those members who have passed away.
Thus, filial piety is inextricably tied to ancestor veneration.
Ancestor veneration is neither pagan nor demonic as some Christians would have us believe. In fact, this practice is not totally alien to Judeo-Christian lore. (I will write more on this in part two of this subject.) Unfortunately, today’s evangelism is mired in prosperity theology, glossolalia, religious hubris (self-righteousness) and a number of moot points that include dispensationalism and the rapture.
And while ‘All Souls Day’ is acknowledged by the Roman Church as a day of prayers for the repose of souls, the significance of ancestor veneration is all but lost in the West.
Ancestor veneration has a long history, a history that predates our creation story. We err in judgement when we dismiss the wisdom of the ancients. Cross culturally, the principles of ancestor veneration are the same; the fundamental belief being that the growth and stability of society depended on the incorporation of the deceased into daily living. This should not be misconstrued as some kind of necromancy. Such misconceptions are due to naïveté or anachronistic teachings.
Veneration is a psychological act and not a conjuration of disembodied entities. Psychic or so-called spirit phenomena attributed to ancestor veneration can be explained in purely psychological terms. Fantastical beliefs of the hereafter have long been the handiwork of religion and folklore. These beliefs are psychologically stored in the form of images that could, depending on our mental state, manifest in unhealthy ways.
Veneration means ongoing respect for loved ones who have passed, nothing more.
The first step in venerating our deceased is the creation of a sacred space. It is in this sacred space that an altar is erected. It is where family members disengage from mundanity and focus on connecting, not to the actual deceased person or persons, but to the virtues that they represent. The sacred space facilitates introspection, contemplation and access to the subconscious mind or the reservoir of our greatest potential. It is in the sacred space that we speak, cry, smile and laugh with our loved ones as if they were present. We also journal our feelings. This practice is therapeutic, cathartic, and even revelatory. It is not unlike that experienced in a clinical setting.
The existential benefits of such communions are limitless. It is this space that we strengthen our psychological ties with the family ‘Ideal’ and become fully integrated into the family archetype. We bridge generations in this sacred space. We become the bearers of the all the good that our family represents.
Researcher Peter Fischer and colleagues at the University of Graz in Berlin commented on the cognitive benefits of thinking about our ancestors, coining the term, “the ancestor effect”. They explained, “Normally, our ancestors managed to overcome a multitude of personal and society problems, such as severe illnesses, wars, loss of loved ones or severe economic declines, so when we think about them, we are reminded that humans who are genetically similar to us can successfully overcome a multitude of problems and adversities.”
Every family has an ideal, a ‘good’, around which members can coalesce. The sacred space represents that good that is celebrated and internalised. It is here that the nurturing and counsel of deceased mothers and grandmothers, the courage and strength of deceased fathers and grandfathers, the intelligence of deceased aunts and uncles and so on, up through the lineage are fully embraced and they expressed in our daily lives.
How then do we prepare our sacred space and altar? What items should our altar include? Should we pay homage to every ancestor? Are some ancestors best left forgotten? Are there psychological risks involved in ancestor veneration? Is there a propitious time to enter our sacred space? These questions and more will be addressed in my next column.
- Dr Glenville Ashby is the award-winning author of the audiobook, Anam Cara: Your Soul Friend and Bridge to Enlightenment and Creativity. Send fedback to firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com, or tweet @glenvilleashby.