Vain Traditions: Gravesite Ancestral Worship

Gravesite Ancestral Worship

The Ritualistic Veneration of the Dead

by Curt Wildy

It is sad to see the degree to which ancestor worship and other forms of paganism have entered into what is commonly called Christianity in our day. What unregenerate men and women believe to be good Christian practice is often nothing more than legalism, superstition, and the vain traditions of men. We can see a clear example of this as we consider a common ritual that takes place in cemeteries throughout our land.

At gravesites, it is not unusual to see people talking to their deceased loved ones, leaving gifts for them, pouring drinks out to them, and/or beseeching them for their help and guidance with the full expectation that their loved ones will be “looking down upon them” favourably and “watching over them,” being pleased with the words, flowers, and gifts that they bring.

When men, woman, and children die in Christ, they go to be with him in Heaven; though there bodies remain in the grave until His second coming, they are with Him upon their death in their soul (spiritual) existence, reigning with Him and basking in His presence. That soul in eternal rest forever has the Lord Jesus Christ as their primary focus. There they shall forevermore walk with Him, commune with Him, learn from Him, and worship Him perfectly. Their communion with Him will be untainted and uninhibited by sin, error, ignorance, and other such maladies of the flesh. I have no doubt that their interest will be in their beloved Saviour and not on the idolatrous doings of this carnal world.

Despite their focus being on the Lord, I am convinced that the saint in glory will marvel at the wondrous nature of the heavenly creation, a creation infinitely more spectacular than what we see in this fallen world (though even this sin-cursed world is often quite beautiful when we consider God’s almighty hand in nature). However, I am equally convinced that the least of the works of Heaven (if there is such a thing as “least” in infinite perfection), being beyond our ability to imagine or contemplate on this side of the grave, would be more than enough to captivate the mind of the saint and to turn away all of his thoughts from this base and polluted world. Yet I must emphasise that the “greatest” of the works of the Heavenly creation, in all of its splendor and grandeur, is nothing whatsoever in comparison to our great God and Saviour who created it.

I also think it safe to say that in Heaven, the souls of the just (those made righteous by their union with Christ Jesus in light of His finished work) will be rejoicing in their reunion and communion with those loved ones who died in the Lord before them. To see family members, former fellow congregants, and fellow friends in the Lord in general will be a great, great blessing indeed. Such reunited fellowship will surely outweigh and overshadow whatever events transpire at gravesites. But even our reunion and communion with fellow-servants in the Lord can never outshine the joys of being with the infinite, all-blessed, and all-mighty (almighty) God; it can never outshine the ecstasy of being with the very Lord and Saviour who willingly and lovingly redeemed us with His own precious blood at a cost too painful and too sorrowful to ever really imagine.

It also seems safe to presume that it will be a great joy to know and commune with those saints that died in Christ, those whom we have never had the opportunity to meet in this life. The excitement to imagine not only meeting Adam and Eve, or Abel, or Noah (or Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, David, the Apostles, I could go on), but countless brethren from all ages, lands, tongues, and nationalities that we could not possibly know or hear about in this life – it is too much for me to wrap my mind around. To meet Gadsby, Philpot, Irons, Huntington, Bradbury, Crisp, Beebe and so many others is utterly beyond words. To think of all of the faithful in the Lord who have gone unnamed, of whom we can learn and converse with once in Heaven — it is splendid beyond measure. Then there are all of the elect angels who faithfully serve the Lord, to know all of them, learn of their works and doings, what an unbelievable joy. In light of this, I find it to be complete and utter folly to think that a saint in Heaven would turn their focus away from such fellowship to focus on earthly flowers, beverages, and well-crafted tombstones. Yet even the vast, vast pleasure, the unspeakable pleasure of knowing and loving perfectly such a multitude that no man can count, even that blessed fellowship alone could never come close to the blessedness of knowing, walking with, and focusing eternally on our beloved Saviour.

I suspect that beyond what I’ve stated above, beyond what I or anyone else here on earth could ever think of or envision, there will be other aspects of Heaven that will be more than capable of occupying our minds, filling them with awe and amazement – but even an eternity of such perfection will pale in the light and presence of the Perfection that is in, and that is, our God and Saviour. Oneness with Him will mean more to us than an infinite number of heavenly worlds, things, and beings. He will be our unadulterated first love and we will be His faithful bride, friends, brethren, and children. Because of Him, we will rest comfortably in the bosom of the Father, being ever comforted, perfectly comforted in fantastic joy by the Holy Spirit – how can beverages, flowers, engravings and the idolatrous gravesite appeals of men ever compare? To to think that someone in Heaven will take their eyes off of the things of Heaven, and more unbelievably, off of the Lord Jesus Christ, to behold the pain, sorrow, corruption, decay, and folly of things here below — it seems to be utter madness to me. I cannot say that they will never be aware of things below (even the angels in Heaven appear to be aware of at least some of the activity that goes on here on Earth), but I simply cannot imagine that they will occupy their thoughts and “time” with, let alone take pleasure in, the graveyard antics of unregenerate men and women. 

Nevertheless, I would now like to consider those who died outside of Christ, how such things would impact them. Knowing that all who die outside of Christ have only Hell, eternal fiery damnation, to look forward to, would the damned really be pleased with, or benefitted by, the gravesite rituals of the deceived? Would their pain be eased, their sorrows abated, and their unimaginable despair lessened? I strongly suspect that they are not at all aware of what goes on at their gravesites; I would imagine that thoughts of beautiful flowers, kind words, a kind visit, etc. would bring some comfort and consolation to the damned, but we know that this cannot be. Hell is a world without any peace, joy, hope, or respite. I trust that nothing would be allowed to enter into the minds and hearts of the accursed that could ever minimize their torment. Instead of beloved visitors, worms; instead of beautiful flowers, filth and refuse. Instead of peaceful words, gnashings full of hatred, envying, lusting, and every other sin imaginable. I say this solemnly, trembling at the terror of it all, yet knowing that God is good and just in all of these things.

It may be good to consider the effect of such rituals penetrating down into Hell; in particular, would such rituals benefit the damned? Above I stated “I strongly suspect that they are not at all aware of what goes on at their gravesites; I would imagine that thoughts of beautiful flowers, kind words, a kind visit, etc. would bring some comfort and consolation to the damned, but we know that this cannot be;” however, an opposing argument could be made. One could argue that it would be a curse, a mocking, the cruelest of taunts to have the dead see some of the things that go on above. Think of the act common amongst various groups in the United States (and in other lands I am told) wherein people literally pour drinks, often alcoholic drinks, onto the gravesites of the deceased as a tribute. A soul in hell, thirsting with the most horrendous thirst one could ever experience, if he was aware of such a drink — what a torment. To be aware of the presence of a beverage that could even slightly quench his thirst, or sedate him (easing his pain), or make his heart the slightest bit merry whilst in the depths of the abyss — and yet to have no access to it, no ability to partake of it and benefit from it, what a taunt, what a miserable taunt it would be. Same with flowers and other gifts; to be aware of  something that at one time would have have filled them with joy and appreciation but now only adds to their torment (as they ponder never being able to enjoy such things again) what an addition to their sufferings it would be. Maybe they took such things for granted in this life (food, drink, flowers, kind words); if they did, imagine how tormenting it would be for them now, to be made aware that the things once commonly available to them, once set at nought by them, are now being left for them at their burial places — and are now infinitely beyond their reach. To be aware but to not taste, to see the pouring but to not have a single drop to cool the burning throat and tongue — if such things were so, again hypothetically speaking, what pain, sorrow, despair, and abject misery it would truly be.

Even worse perhaps, imagine those in Hell being able to see their former loved ones; watching as they engage in the very paganism that contributed to their own eternal demise. I suspect that watching their former loved ones in their folly (I say former because I doubt there is any real love in Hell) would only aggravate their gnawing consciences — especially as they anticipated that person joining them in their fiery estate and the guilt that such a thing would cause — especially if they helped to lead them down that path of dead works and will-worship or failed to warn them against such things. Finally, if God were to intervene, saving that former loved one from the misery the damned are experiencing, would that be a benefit to the one in Hell? No, even that would lead to a more intense, biting, feeling of jealousy and regret seeing that they were left to themselves, left to endure that which they thoroughly deserved. What a fearful, terrifying, hopeless place and state Hell is; we ought to beseech God for mercy to boldly witness to, and to pray for, those who are walking through that wide gate, and broad way, that leads to destruction. 

Sadly, I suspect that these points concerning Hell will be too hard, too much for some. Even if they acknowledge the things above, most in this world will deny any applicability to themselves or to their loved ones. The wicked will say that it is the wicked (as they define the wicked) that will suffer such a fate, but not the “good” people who try their best to “do the right thing.” It seems that everyone, the most hardened of criminals, the most immoral amongst the perverts, the most accepting amongst the deists and occultists, and the most zealous amongst the Arminians, Sacramentalists, and other such will-worshippers, it seems that most all of them believe that they and their loved ones will end up in Heaven (or whatever their “equivalent” of Heaven might be). Far too many believe that if their deceased friends or relatives gave even the most nominal of professions of faith in their concepts of a “jesus,” then all is well with their souls. Others believe that as long as their relations lived a decent life, strived to be moral, and “did the best that they could do” then surely all must be well. But all is surely not well; all is well only when all has been vested in the Lord Jesus Christ, by the grace given to them by the Father and worked out in their lives by the Spirit of God. Outside of that relationship with the True Christ, the True and Living God, their hopes are in vain and their footing is sure to fail.

Likewise, it is not enough to have seen the Lord Jesus as some “ascended master,” or “good teacher,” or “the highest amongst angels,” or as being above the angels (yet short of the Deity that He really and truly is) — they must see Him as He is declared in Scripture, being both fully God and fully man, co-equal, co-divine, and co-eternal with God the Father and God the Holy Spirit.  Likewise, it isn’t enough to see Him as a Saviour who promotes love and pardon at the expense of righteousness, truth , and justice. It isn’t enough to see Him only as “God is love” and not as The One whose name is Jealous and who is both a Just God and a Saviour (Just and Justifier). It is not enough to see Him as a failure, as one who died for all mankind but failed to save the vast majority of those for whom He died. No, to be in Heaven, to be with the Lord, to be one in perfect union with the Lord, forever, in eternal bliss, requires that in this life you must have been given faith in, repentance towards, and love for the True God and Saviour and the Gospel that reveals Him by the Spirit of grace. You must have been brought to believe in the Gospel of the free and sovereign grace of God, grace lavished upon utterly undeserving sinners by God’s goodness and God’s sovereign will and mercy. Any refuge in a “christ” who is not perfectly divine, perfectly human, perfectly loving, perfectly just, perfectly righteous, perfectly victorious, and perfectly sovereign is a false refuge — and that refuge will crumble around you, trap you in it, and will pull you down to the very pit of Hell if you dare to deny, impugn, or attack the true nature, character, person, and work of God. Those who so dare…. do so at their own risk and unto their very own eternal demise.

Finally, I wish to make this one last point. My aim in writing this is not to convince anyone that they should not visit cemetaries or not leave flowers; my aim is to point out the idolatrous, silly forms of ancestral worship, inherent in the aforementioned gravesite activities. If you think it good for you to visit a loved one’s gravesite and leave flowers behind for your own (mental or emotional) benefit, as a memorial concerning them (for you or others living to see), I have nothing to say concerning it. If  for your own remembrance of that beloved individual, you want to speak words out loud or have a thoughtful engraving on the tombstone, I will not, and cannot, nay-say. But if you are visiting these graves, leaving gifts, beseeching the dead for their help and guidance, or otherwise actively “communicating” with them under the belief that they hear you, see you, are pleased with you, and/or are somehow benefitted by you (or you by them) — then you are committing nothing short of pagan, ancestral, idolatry; to engage in such things in the name or guise of Christianity (or being a Christian) is folly. I say again that the soul in Hell is too tormented to take comfort in you or your activities and the soul in Heaven, being free from their fallen tabernacles, are likely too wrapped-up in eternal bliss to care about beverages and idolatrous requests for their guidance and assistance. Those in Hell have nothing but death, sorrow, crying, and pain, having the remembrances of former things (and the guilt that it engenders) gnawing forever at their consciences. Those in Heaven have already had all of their tears wiped from their eyes. They are eternally free from death, sorrow, crying, and pain, for the former things are passed away for them. Whatever remembrances believers in Heaven have of former things, of those people, places, and objects left behind, I fully trust that such memories will not be sufficient enough to take their eyes off of God, His People, and His Kingdom. Likewise, whatever current awareness they have of things here below, their eyes are ultimately on bigger and better things — infinitely bigger and better, and gravesite antics will likely be of very little, if any, interest to them. 

I pray for the grace to have our eyes on such bigger and better things in this life as well, as God enables, things pertaining to our Lord Jesus Christ and His great love for us, His elect, as He suffered in our stead and obtained a righteousness for us that guarantees all of our salvation (including, most importantly, our eternal union and communion with Him) .

To God be the glory.

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