Ancestors, Respect for

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Attitudes toward elderly and deceased members of the family, church, and community are reflected in a variety of articles in this encyclopedia, including burial customs, care for the aged, cemeteries, death and dying, eternity, funerals, genealogy, and martyrs. The family, with the assistance of the church, has provided the context for many of these practices through most of the history of the Mennonite communities. Along with most other branches of Protestantism, Mennonites have rejected sacramental rites performed on behalf of the dead, as well as veneration of the deceased as special mediators of God 's grace. The dead have been memorialized, rather, as personal and collective expressions of gratitude and affection. Memories of the deceased (the martyrs in particular) have also been preserved to serve as examples to be emulated by posterity.

In many Asian and some African societies, ancestor veneration plays a crucial role in consolidating family and community relationships. Ritual care for the ancestors is, in these societies, both a social obligation and a religious practice. The commemoration of death is intimately related to the entire structure of one's larger family, which includes a strong sense of continuity between the dead, the living, and the not-yet-born.

In China, Korea, and Japan, remembering people after death is an important factor in enhancing a sense of communal solidarity. It is in this sense of community, rather than in individuality, that people find meaning in life. The community provides a framework which, on the one hand, provides protection and security and on the other hand, demands allegiance and loyalty. This reciprocal relationship balances the "bestowal of favor" with obligations to "return a favor." Although petitioning the dead for favors and for protection from misfortunes cannot be ignored as factors in the preservation of ancestor veneration, memory is at the heart of the rites. Memorial rituals are performed in order to maintain a sense of continuity in relationships between the dead and the living.

In many Asian societies, commemoration of the dead is not limited to burial rites. Funerals are followed by a series of memorial services and rites, usually conducted in homes and at gravesites. These rites may include gatherings of relatives and friends and offerings of food, water, incense, and flowers. In this way, the ancestors and their descendants remain linked together in a circle of obligation, reciprocity, and loyalty.

In Japan, ancestor rites are closely associated with Buddhism. Though they have also been influenced by Confucianism, mystical elements of Shinto, and folk religions, Japanese generally view ancestor veneration as standing outside of any particular religious tradition. Many Japanese do not view ancestral rites as "religious " at all since respect for the dead transcends and encompasses all religious traditions.

The ancestral system has been susceptible to manipulation by political leaders for nationalistic and militaristic ends. In Japan, the Tokugawa government (1603-1868) made ancestral veneration compulsory, as a means to expose the "hidden Christians " who refused to "worship " in accordance with the rites as prescribed by the government. Their willingness to accept martyrdom, rather than engage in ancestor "worship, " indicates that many Christians in Japan have equated ancestor veneration with idolatry.

However, ancestor veneration may also be viewed as an appropriate human symbol of honor, respect, and gratitude towards one's parents. The specific forms may vary with the culture, but the respect paid to ancestors in West and East may not be fundamentally different. Rites of commemoration and respect for the dead need not mean that the deceased are regarded as "gods " or are the object of "worship. " If God is truly known and worshiped as God, lessor priorities will be relegated to subordinate positions. This is the interpretation which has generally been adopted by the Roman Catholic church in Japan during the modern period, as well as by many of the groups within the ecumenical United Church of Christ in Japan.

A 1986 church member profile of Mennonites and Brethren in Christ in Japan shows that a majority of the members reject "worship " (matsuru) at a household ancestral altar (butsudan) or shrine (kamidana) and disapprove of sponsorship of the traditional Buddhistic memorial services (hoji). Regarding the appropriateness of attendance and participation in Buddhist funerals, memorial rites, and activities associated with the Bon festival for the dead, a majority are uncertain or say it depends upon specific circumstances. Only a few members categorically disapprove of attendance or participation in any Buddhist funerals or memorial rites. On the other hand, a few members also indicate that they see no problems in attending and participating in these rituals. Many respondents view at least some of these activities as "cultural " rather than "religious " (shukyo).

Comparable data for other Protestant groups in Japan are not available, but earlier studies support the observation made by Mennonite pastor Hiroshi Yanada: "We are not so different from other conservative groups concerning this issue."

There is no single, universal Christian answer to the question of the right way to express honor to and gratitude for deceased members of the family, church, and community. Christians in each cultural situation must deal with this question responsibly, constructively, and with personal, political, and religious sensitivity.


Bong Rin Ro, ed. Christian Alternatives to Ancestor Practices, Asian Evangelical Theological Library, 1. Taichung, Taiwan: Asia Theological Association, 1985.

Juhnke, James C. A People of Mission: A History of General Conference Mennonite Overseas Missions. Newton , KS : Faith and Life, 1979: 54-55.

Kiyomi Morioka, le No Henbo To Senzo No Matsuri (Transformation of the Household and the Celebration of Ancestors in Japan). Tokyo: The Board of Publications, UCC in Japan, 1984.

Smith, Robert J. Ancestor Worship in Contemporary Japan. Stanford: Stanford U., Press, 1974.

Various articles in Japanese Religions (1983-84) and in The Japan Missionary Bulletin, 39 (1985).

Author(s) Takeji Nomura
Robert Enns
Date Published 1989

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Nomura, Takeji and Robert Enns. "Ancestors, Respect for." Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. 1989. Web. 19 Jun 2021.,_Respect_for&oldid=74771.

APA style

Nomura, Takeji and Robert Enns. (1989). Ancestors, Respect for. Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. Retrieved 19 June 2021, from,_Respect_for&oldid=74771.


Adapted by permission of Herald Press, Harrisonburg, Virginia, from Mennonite Encyclopedia, Vol. 5, p. 26-27. All rights reserved.

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