Worship of the Dead

Though the peoples of Vietnam practice a number of religions, the prevailing religious practice among most Vietnamese is ancestor worship.

The majority of Vietnamese people take great care in preserving the memories of their ancestors and honoring them with regular prayers and offerings. Ancestor worship is such an integral part of Vietnamese culture that many would not even recognize it as a religion—it’s just a part of life.

Use the Q&A below to learn more about ancestor worship and to pray for the millions of Vietnamese who worship their ancestors on a daily basis.

Q: What is ancestor worship?

A: Ancestor worship involves the worship of spirits of deceased family members and other spirits of the dead. This is a practice handed down from generation to generation among the peoples of Vietnam.

The worship of ancestors stems from two basic ideas. One is that the deceased continue to have interest in the affairs of the living. The other is a fear or uneasiness concerning the dead, often involving practices to appease them.

Q: Why do people worship their ancestors?

A: Vietnamese people believe that their ancestors exist in another realm after their deaths. It is the duty of the family left behind to take care of the needs of their ancestors. In return for their worship and care, their ancestors will give advice and bring good fortune.

Q: How do Vietnamese people worship ancestors?

A: Worship of ancestors usually takes place at the ancestor altar located in the home or at places of business. Vietnamese people have daily rituals for burning incense, praying, and offering food and gifts to their ancestors. Gifts often include paper replicas of money, motorbikes, cars, houses, etc., that are burned so that the spirits of the gifts can ascend to the ancestors for them to use. Many people will light incense sticks and bow a certain number of times, praying to their lost loved ones for blessings and peace.

Besides daily routines, special events revolve around superstitions and rituals involving ancestor worship. Weddings, funerals, death anniversaries, and especially the Lunar New Year, all have elements of ancestor worship.

Q: What is an ancestor altar?

A: An ancestor altar is the place where Vietnamese people pay special homage to their family members who have passed on before them. Altars are typically displayed inside Vietnamese homes or businesses in a prominent place. They are usually ornately decorated tables or shelves that display photographs of the ancestors. Incense holders with burning incense sticks are usually placed on the altars, along with various food and drink offerings.

Q: What is a death anniversary?

A: Many people in Vietnam celebrate the death anniversaries of their lost loved ones, a practice that was once more common than celebrating birthdays. The death anniversary is an extra special day to worship and honor loved ones who have died on that particular day. Vietnamese people throw large parties, invite friends to join, and go to great lengths to clean the ancestor altars and arrange gifts on them.

Q: How does this practice affect Christians?

A: Christians often face pressure from their families to continue in the practice of ancestor worship. If they do not, they are seen as “ancestor traitors” and accused of dishonoring their families. Some have faced persecution from their families because they can no longer worship their ancestors. Families have refused to communicate with them, withheld monetary support for college, and even disowned their Christian relatives. Often persecution for new Christians begins within 24 hours after they follow Christ.

Q: How can I pray for Christians in Vietnam regarding ancestor worship?

A: Pray for Vietnamese Christians to remain faithful to God during times of persecution. Pray for them to be examples to their families and to have opportunities to share the gospel with them. Ask God to comfort those whose families have disowned them. Many times families will welcome back their Christian family members after some time. Pray for Christians to forgive family members and be lights for Christ in their households.  

Q: How can I pray for the peoples of Vietnam regarding ancestor worship?

A: Pray for the peoples of Vietnam to have the opportunity to hear the gospel. Ask God to open their hearts and minds to receive salvation and place their faith in Jesus, who alone deserves their worship and praise.