Anthropology: The Importance of Ancestors in Cultures

The significance of ancestry is something that is firmly embedded within the customs that families follow all across the world in hundreds of different cultures. Finding out who you are, where you come from, and what all of that means to you in the present is important. By connecting yourself with your ancestors, you can feel a deep connection with your family roots and learn about all the struggles your ancestors endured to get to where you are now. Ancestors are honored in a variety of ways all across the world. Numerous cultures have developed intricate rituals for grieving, ancestor worship, and communication with the dead happen to be amongst the few ways.

Any religious practice centered on the conviction that departed relatives still live in some form is known as ancestor worship. This commonly involves the belief that the souls of the dead have an effect on the fate of the living. 


In China, the sense of family holds a very strong value. Family as a unit is considered to be one of the most core virtues. The Chinese have a belief system that says that family provides them with a sense of identity and a strong network of support. Each role in the family holds a significant part in creating a whole and each one is respected in different ways. 

In China, ancestors are celebrated and this practice is often depicted in films. Ancestors and their souls are often considered as part of this same world as the living. 

The worship of ancestors is the pillar of Chinese religion. As the embodiments or reproducers of the creative order of Heaven, ancestors are said to be a way to connect to the ultimate force of Tian, also known as Heaven. It is a significant component of the Han Chinese religion, although the practice has also migrated to other ethnic groups.

The Chinese also participate in a ceremony known as the “Shi Ceremony”. The ancestor spirit is said to enter the descendant “corpse” personator during a shi ceremony, who then consumes sacrificed foods and beverages and relays instructions from the spirit. It is also typical for homes to have a spiritual room where pictures of all the ancestors are kept so food offerings can be given.

Ancient drawing of an ancestor worship in China
Ancient drawing of an ancestor worship


In Cambodia, music has a vital role in helping people connect with their ancestors. Music is known to offer comfort and bring people together and that’s just what Cambodians utilize to connect themselves to their ancestors.

The dead and ancestors are invited into the life of Cambodians through music and chants, and they experience a sense of support from this that aids them in overcoming whatever difficulties they may encounter. Buddhists regularly conduct a ceremony known as “feeding the hungry ghost”, which is a special festival. They normally take place once a week, and people usually do it alone in their houses so they can express some heartfelt words to their ancestors.

Buddhism is known to be the predominant religion in Cambodia. Because of this, they ask Buddha to bless them, as well as their ancestors. Cambodians also don’t view death as a sorrowful event to dwell on; instead, celebrations are held with dancing and singing to honor the lives of people they have known in the past and occasionally, distant ancestors who they have never even met. Shrine doors are frequently unlocked during this celebration so that the dead may participate in the fun. This incredible way of celebrating the ancestors in Cambodia has been used for over seven generations. Although death was not new to the people of Cambodia, a country that had experienced numerous wars and great loss, it is remarkable how they approached death after many generations of trauma.

A woman places flowers in front of Buddha statues during the Pchum Ben festival (Festival of Death)
A woman places flowers in front of Buddha statues during the Pchum Ben festival (Festival of Death)


Japanese people have a powerful bond to their ancestors. There is a specific time of year when people gather to pray and welcome their ancestors into their homes. They will honor and make offerings to their ancestors at the family home before sending them back into the afterlife. Obon is the name of this particular festival, which has been observed in Japan since the early 7th century A.D.

The purpose of this festival is to change the evil, lost Souls into peaceful, protective spirits. In order to protect and honor their ancestors, the Japanese accept this responsibility and pursue this specific goal. The fact that the family head continues to hold the highest rank even after death is another fascinating aspect of the way Japanese people honor their ancestors. As a result, only the male heir is suitable for that position. The rank obtained in the Society of the Dead corresponds to a place in the living family’s hierarchy. The significance of the family and the ancestor are intertwined in such a way as to emphasize the importance of the family within the social structure of the culture.

Since the Japanese have various representations of the Dead, each ancestor is seen in different ways. Some are known for passing away peacefully, some for having attained “Nirvana,” and others for being the protectors of the living. This has a downside in that certain ancestors are perceived as lost spirits or as people who are unable to enter the afterlife.

The Japanese usually visit their temples but also commonly have a Shinto Shrine in their houses. Here, they will carry out certain rites and present their ancestors with food, gifts, and other offerings. Shinto is a religion in and of itself, and it is centered on a few gods. In Shintoism, various varieties of gods with specialized roles exist. The idea that the ancestors are a kind of Kami, a spirit that is said to pervade everything on Earth, is prevalent.

Lanterns decorate the plaza in front of Nippori station, in Tokyo, for obon
Lanterns decorate the plaza in front of Nippori station, in Tokyo, for obon


The Day of the Dead, also known as “El Dia de los Muertos,” is perhaps one of the most well-known occasions to honor ancestors. This particular celebration has roots all the way back to the time of the Aztecs, who celebrated the Dead for a whole month rather than just a few days. Several films, notably the Disney film “Coco,” have been produced to show off the magnificent festivities that take place during this festival in order to honor the ancestors of each family.

For a brief moment during this occasion, the majority of Mexicans welcome back the souls of their deceased relatives in order to have a reunion. There will be food, beverages, and celebrations all around the nation during this special reunion. Families frequently place food or other offerings on the graves of their loved ones or even place them on altars they have made inside their homes.

The boundary between the spirit realm and the human world is said to dissolve on El Dia de los Muertos. This allows the souls to cross back over and once more visit their loved ones. It’s a sentimental festival marked by intense feelings that demonstrates the Mexican people’s strong sense of family and unity.

Skeletons and skulls are frequent symbols associated with the Day of the Dead and it’s typical that performers dress up and apply makeup to resemble skeletons while performing dances for their audience. The streets are constantly filled with singing and mariachi bands playing music.

Nowadays, it is popular for people of Mexican origin to commemorate this day, even in the United States. This day is frequently observed as a holiday in schools and is also taught there to teach kids about different cultures. It’s an essential time to honor and commemorate people who have passed away while shining a positive light on a typical aspect of the Human Experience.

El Dia de los Muertos parade in Mexico
El Dia de los Muertos parade in Mexico


The Philippines celebrate “The Day of the Dead,” also known as “Araw ng mga Patay”, in a manner similar to Mexico. During this particular holiday, which is typically observed on All Saints Day, Filipinos visit the graves of their departed loved ones and offer prayers for their souls. This custom has its roots in Christian tradition, and the Philippines, which has a majority Catholic population, adopted it as their own, including their own culture and ways of remembering their loved ones. 

On this day, Filipinos clean the tomb of any debris, and celebrations are typically noted to take place near the deceased’s grave. This day is filled with prayer, religious observance, and, of course, food offerings. In an effort to honor the deceased, family and friends gather in cemeteries across the Philippines to enjoy these foods.

This day is set aside not only to honor respected ancestors, but also to remember the Saints. A saint is regarded as someone who possesses a very high level of holiness, similarity, or proximity to God. Saints are highly regarded as holy representatives in the Catholic religion, with each saint standing for a distinct aspect of the divine. Catholics frequently choose a saint to be confirmed throughout the process. With the completion of their baptism through confirmation and the calling to become a new creation in Christ and by the power of the Holy Spirit, this name represents the completion of their baptism.

The Filipinos take this day seriously and celebrate it extravagantly, depending on the family. The most well-liked and well-known traditional cuisines are consumed, and singing and sharing the joy that music brings are also present. These are just a few of the various actions Filipinos do to let the deceased know that even though they are no longer with us, they will never be forgotten.

philippine cemetery during araw ng mga patay
philippine cemetery during araw ng mga patay


India’s culture is heavily influenced by how a family interacts with one another.  In Hindu families, there are 13 days set aside immediately following a family member’s passing in order to honor the soul that has passed and is now traveling to the afterlife. It is also  common for them to take care of the corpse by cleansing it and clothing it with traditional attire. The Vedas state that cremation is the most suitable method of dissolving the physical corpse after death. In this act, the soul can readily go from the material realm thanks to its purification through fire. The soul is immortal and self-sufficient, yet after death, its subtle image, also known as the individual jiva, must ascend.

Vedic tradition dictates that significant rites for the ancestors should be carried out annually. They ought to take place on the anniversary of the death as well as during the pitri paksha, or the dark period that follows the final full moon of the autumn astrological year. Offering food and sacrifices to the ancestors during the Pitri Paksha is regarded as the most fortunate season.

Hinduism, which is a very spiritual religion, believes in Karma and that doing good will bring good things your way. Because of this, they honor their ancestors to maintain harmony in their own lives as well as the lives of all living things. This is because they believe that people in the present are connected to those in the past through their ancestors and that destiny will be fulfilled in an orderly manner.

Worship of the ancestors is possible everywhere and at any time. Even if people don’t know particular historical information about their ancestors’ lives, every experience of life offers a wonderful chance to re-establish an emotional and spiritual connection to their memories and energy. People  might start to see them in our dreams and sense their grace shielding us in ways that aren’t immediately evident.

Hindu ritual for their ancestors
Hindu ritual for their ancestors


To “guarantee, through the conduit of fervent devotion to their mortal remnants in the tomb, comfort, refreshment, and perennial renewal of life to immortal souls,” the ancient Roman tradition of ancestor worship is predominant way the people of Rome honor their ancestors.

They commonly hold festivals at various times throughout the year to urge people to remember and revere their departed ancestors. The Lares, the deified ancestral spirits that were meant to guard the home, were the most significant of these ancestors. The Romans considered that the founding members of their families should not only be respected and honored, but should actually be worshiped as gods.

The family is still the most significant part of an Italian’s life nowadays. The elderly are held in such great regard in Italian society. The grandparents in the family love their grandchildren and great-grandchildren very much. As a catholic country, like Mexico and the Philippines, Italy participates in the long-standing custom of using the day after All Saints’ Day. As All Souls’ Day in Italy, as it is in many other Christian nations, this holiday is observed with prayers, floral arrangements and food.

Children look for delicacies that adoring relatives who have passed away have left behind. People occasionally leave their houses unoccupied in case the dead decide to pay a visit. For those who no longer sit at the table, many Italians leave an empty spot at the table. It’s important to visit loved ones’ graves and is seen as the most significant act of memory. When it’s time to clean up the family plot and adorn the graves with candles and new flowers around all souls day cemeteries experience a surge in visits. Many people use the burial site as an opportunity to express gratitude to their ancestors, to honor their lives, and to converse with them as if they were still alive.

Italian church left with offerings to the saints and ancestors of families
Italian church left with offerings to the saints and ancestors of families


By knowing about their family’s history, including where they came from, who they were, what they did, the challenges they encountered, the triumphs they obtained, and the aspirations they had, a person can grow a stronger sense of self. Ultimately, expanding your knowledge makes you more appreciative of the life you now have.

Knowing about our ancestors’ past aids in our comprehension of the difficulties they experienced and frequently increases our love and compassion for the shortcomings and errors they made. This compassion can be applied to our interactions with the living, both inside and outside of our families. By looking at how people all across the globe show gratitude towards their ancestors, you can adapt some of those traditions and make them your own. 


  • (57), junvebbei. (n.d.). How we celebrate all saints’ day. Steemit. Retrieved March 18, 2023, from
  • Cake, & Kessler, S. (2022, June 14). 12 types of ancestor worship from around the world. Cake Blog. Retrieved March 18, 2023, from
  • Honoring ancestors and celebrating traditions around the world. Global Heritage Fund. (2022, October 5). Retrieved March 18, 2023, from
  • Los Angeles Times. (2003, July 12). Honoring ancestors and cultural roots. Los Angeles Times. Retrieved March 18, 2023, from

Internal Links

Why African Folklore, Myths, and Legends Are So Meaningful in Shaping Culture

The Sacred Caves of the Basotho’s and the Meaning of Rituals

Travel Guide: Cambodia, the Khmer Kingdom of Kampuchea

South Africa’s Prehistory: Cradle of Mankind and Human Evolution

Life and Death: Honoring Ancestors Through Cultural Masks

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