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65. RELIGIOUS PRACTICES: The Role of Ancestors

Are past generations of ancestors remembered? Are they honored? In what way? Is there a difference between how male ancestors or female ancestors are honored?

How important is this nationally? for the family? to the individual? for the deceased?

Is there a special time locally or nationally when ancestors are remembered? What is done at this time?

Does the family make regular visits to the gravesite(s)?

  • How often do they go?
  • What do they do there?
  • What other activities are done by the family to remember their loved ones?
  • Are there special ancestral shrines?
  • Where are they, and what objects are kept there? How are they used?
  • What other activities are done by family members to care for the needs of their ancestors?

Are ancestors considered benevolent extensions of the earthly family unit?

  • If so, what are the obligations expected to be carried out by the living for the dead?
  • By the dead for the living? For how long?
  • Who in the family makes sure these obligations are carried out?
  • Are there pictures of the deceased in the home?
  • Are they in a special place for remembrance, intercession, or prayer?
  • Are pictures taken of the dead body and put in a special place?

Are the ancestors feared as spirits which might harm the living?

  • How many generations need to pass before the harm is mitigated?
  • What needs to be done by the family to block potential harm?
  • What things offend to the ancestors?
  • If they are offended, what may they do to the living?
  • What must be done to placate their displeasure?

Are ancestors consulted?

  • How often and in what way?
  • Are séances held? When, where and why?
  • What can ancestors do to help the living that the other spirits or gods cannot or will not do?

63. RELIGIOUS PRACTICES: Their Importance

This assignment investigates religion’s importance in the culture in a general sense; future assignments will address each aspect in more detail.

Does religion hold a large place in the life of the local people?

  • or just at certain times of the year?
  • or only for a certain age group?
  • or a certain class of people?

Draw up a list of yearly events or ceremonies which make up the religious calendar or ritual cycle.

  • With what spirits, saints, or special events are they connected?
  • Inquire about what is done, where and why.
  • How are the dates determined as to when an event will be held? Who does this?
  • Who officiates, and who participates?
  • Are some of these observed nation-wide, and others more personal, like for a clan, a household, or even for an individual person?

If your investigation finds that only certain people are affected by religion, try to find out why other groups or classes of people do not feel a need for this.

Talk to those who do hold that religion is important in their lives. Why is this so?

Some topics that can help you with these conversations:

  • Does a person have a soul? If so, why do people have one?
  • Does a person have more than one soul? Why?
  • Can the soul get lost, leave the body, become weakened?
  • What can be done to restore it, or bring it back?
  • What happens to the soul at death? What determines where the soul goes?
  • Is there a belief in purgatory? Who goes there? What is its purpose?
  • Is there anything that family members can do for the deceased?
  • Is it possible for the soul to go directly to heaven? Under what circumstances?
  • Who or what do you worship?
  • How important is this relationship to you?
  • What do you do to maintain it?
  • Is maintenance necessary? Why?


How is death viewed? Is there life after death? Is the dead person feared? Why? What steps are taken to protect the living?

How soon is a person buried after death? How is a dead body preserved until the funeral takes place? Is there a “wake?” How are friends and family notified of the death of a loved one? How are people greeted as they arrive? By whom? How long do guests stay and what do they do to comfort the family? How do the chief mourners relate to the guests?

Who prepares the corpse for burial and how is this done? How are financial arrangements made if done by practitioners? Who is responsible for making funeral arrangements? How is the gravesite determined? Who prepares it? How is a corpse disposed of? What happens to the person’s belongings?

Describe the customs observed at death and for a funeral. How long does the mourning period last? What are the obligations and responsibilities of the family during this time? What is expected from friends and others (supplying meals, continued visits, prayer, reciting religious texts, etc.)?

What happens to widows or widowers? Who cares for them? May they remarry? Is there a mourning period? How long is it and what signs of mourning are shown?

Is euthanasia practiced? For what reasons? Are there cases of suicide? For what reasons do people kill themselves? Is suicide treated differently from other types of death?


According to folk belief, what is the cause of aging? Why do people get old? What happens to the soul as the body ages?

What is the average life expectancy? What is the attitude toward old age? What age is considered “old”? Are the elderly honored? Are they considered wise? Are they considered burdensome?

What living arrangement options are there for the elderly? What responsibility is taken by the members of the family? Who makes the decisions concerning their living arrangements? Are there nursing homes or retirement centers available as options? Are these government run or private institutions? How are they financed? What happens to old people who are childless, who have no relatives nearby, or are financially destitute?

What responsibilities do the elderly have in family life? in village life? at festivities or ceremonies?


What types of marriage are recognized by the society? Must there always be a ceremony? Are mass marriages performed, and when? Attend a wedding and describe the ceremony and other activities associated with it. Notice who the participants are. As you have the opprtunity, attend various weddings and note the difference between traditional weddings of various tribes or clans, the difference between a Christian wedding and that of adherents of another faith, the difference between a civil wedding and a religious one, etc.

Who officiates at the wedding? Is there a reception or dinner afterwards, and who arranges it? When are the bride and groom presented to the invited guests? When do the bride and groom see each other for the first time after the ceremony? How do they leave the site of the wedding, and where do they go? Are there other dinners and receptions at another time? What is the traditional schedule kept by the wedding party for the first month (or later if applicable) after the wedding?

Who are invited as guests and how are they informed? What gifts are given? When and how are they given, and to whom? What would be expected of you as a guest?

Where does the new couple live? What is the relationship between the man and the woman and their in-laws? Is the relationship dependent on whether the couple lives with the man’s family, the woman’s family, or in their own house? What adjustment problems do newly-weds have? When is a marriage considered consummated?

How many wives/husbands may a person have? Are there wedding ceremonies when succeeding spouses are taken? Is polygamy permitted? What are relations like in a polygamous household?

Is divorce socially acceptable? What are the reasons for divorce? What is the frequency? Describe a divorce procedure. What happens to the original bride price or dowry? Is there any provision made in the marriage certificate for compensation in case of divorce? Can divorced people remarry? How would such a ceremony differ from a regular one? Who gets custody of the children in a divorce? May women divorce men?


Many cultures have special traditions or ceremonies to induct their young people into the world of adulthood, but some do not. Inquire about the existence of such traditions. Here are some ideas to get you started.

How and at what age is a boy recognized as an adult, able to take part in adult activities? Is there a special initiation ceremony? Is this a tribal ceremony? One conducted by the family? If a family tradition, would each family have its own tradition, or is this also standardized in the culture? Who conducts it? How is the boy prepared for it? Is he given a new name? Who gives it and how is it determined? What activities are now open to him?

How is a girl recognized as having come of age? At what age are a girl’s ears pierced? By whom? Is special note taken of a girl’s first menstruation? How? How is she prepared for it? Does a girl receive an adult name? What duties, responsibilities, or privileges are now open to her?


What animals do you see in your neighborhood? Are they free-roaming or tied to a hitching post in front of the owner’s home? Are they confined to a fenced-in pasture or a front yard? How do the people treat these animals (if they appear to own them, if they see them on the street, if they feel threatened by them?)

Are any animals kept as pets? Is this a wide-spread practice? What kind of animals are kept and for what purpose? How are they cared for? Are they shown warmth or affection? Are they given names? How are pet animals obtained? Are wild animals or birds ever tamed for pets?

If animals are kept as pets, are there any codes which owners should observe, as picking up after the pet, keeping them quiet, keeping them confined to certain locations, etc.?

Are dogs kept as pets or for some other purpose? Would every household have at least one dog?

Are certain animals or fowl status symbols? Are any of the animals involved in any kind of religious, local or national ceremonies? Are any of them used as icons for tribes, sports, or institutions?

What domestic animals are raised and for what purpose? How much do people pay for them? sell them for? Are any animals put out for hire? For what purpose? At what price? Whose job is it to care for the domestic animals? At what time of the day?


Ask your friends about the annual national religious calendar (dates and reasons for the celebration). Are there other celebrations or ceremonies that are local? When are these held?

Observe, when possible, several ceremonies done in the village or your area of town. At this stage, don’t worry about fine details of ritual and meaning. Note these important points:

  • The time and date of the ceremony
  • Correlation with phases of the moon, the season of the year, the time of day
  • Who performs the ceremony and where it is held (a building set aside for religious ceremonies, a home, outdoors, etc.)
  • Why it is performed and for whom (an individual, a family, the whole society)
  • What is the purpose of the ceremony (curing, blessing, fertility, dedication, initiation, etc.)
  • Participation – Is it a private ceremony, participation by invitation, or an open public event? Who gets invited? How do people know about the event? How are the participants expected to respond?
  • Progression of events

What other holidays are observed throughout the year? Make a list of these, noting the name of the holiday, the date it is observed, the reason why it is celebrated, and the extent within the country that it is observed (whether it is local, ethnic, or limited in some other way).

How long do the activities last (a day, a week, or more)? What special foods are prepared for the event? Is this an occasion for wearing the national dress? Are there special activities associated with the time? What is their significance? Are homes and neighborhoods decorated for the occasion?

Are schools closed on these special days? Are special programs held in schools or other venues and if so, when? Are outsiders (government dignitaries, parents, friends, etc.) invited?

How much coverage is given on TV or the radio to the celebrations?

Write down your observations and add to them as you have opportunity to attend more such events.

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