Ancestral Tablets

Digging a pit. Pit in the ground. The shovel, pickaxe and crowba

Ancestral tablets (神主牌), also known as memorial tablets, have a long history in various cultures, particularly in Asian countries such as China, Japan, Korea, Vietnam, Malaysia and Singapore. They are considered a physical representation or vessel for the spirits of the ancestors, providing a focal point for honouring and commemorating them.

The tradition of using ancestral tablets dates back centuries ago where families would create these tablets, typically of wooden placards. More elaborate forms of ancestral tablets could include shrines made of tile or metal, statues, or posters with incense holders.

Typically, the list of details inscribed or written on ancestral tablets are the ancestor's name and surname, generation number, spouse name, dates of birth / death and ancestral place. Sometimes significant achievements or titles of the deceased ancestors are also mentioned.

Tablets are also arranged according to the ancestor’s generation, usually with the oldest generations being placed highest on the altar. Offerings such as food, incense, and other symbolic items might be presented in front of the altar, especially during ceremonies or special occasions.

Although these practices are originated from ancestor veneration practices deeply rooted in Confucianism, Taoism, and Buddhism, it continues in modern times.  There are also some variations in rituals and significance across different cultural and religious contexts throughout the years.

One of the significant differences at present would be families would now place their ancestral tablet in a temple or columbarium, rather than having a dedicated alter space within their home. Space allocation aside, the task to maintain and upkeep the ancestral tablet lies with the temple or columbarium management instead. This in turn saves time for the time-constraint younger generation.

All in all, having ancestral tablets is a way of preserving heritage, fostering family unity, and finding emotional and cultural grounding in the lineage that has shaped the present generation.

Find out more about Goldhill Memorial Centre’s ancestral tablets here.