Don’t mess with Grandma

“My grandma’s spirit has magical powers. Like she died, and strange things have happened with her children. They get a lot of dreams with her, signifying her doing this, and like guilting, if they don’t do something then the next day her son or daughter will just like get these nightmares, like ‘hey I’m watching you.’ And one time I experienced it was when we were putting her plaque in the family’s Buddhist temple, even though we’re Catholic. We were doing the ceremony and putting her in, and all these Buddhist people brought their instruments and they were banging on them, and there were like 20 of us and we just sat in this room, and halfway in, the thing where you put the incense in started to flame up, like it’s obviously nobody could set it on fire, and it’s all stone and outside, the entire thing just looked like a ball of fire. And right when the ceremony ended, it stopped, like it was perfect timing. Also, my uncle’s wife was always really mean to my grandma when she was still alive, and she would never sit with her, and would give her mean looks, would never take care of her, and would be a complete bitch. And our family thinks our grandma always knew that, so when she died, you’re supposed to go to the temple certain times of the year to commemorate her, on death days, you go to the temple and you give her things like fruits and flowers, and one time my aunt was like, I don’t want to go, I have other things to do and the next day, she had a stroke. and these things that just like happen, I don’t think they’re coincidences. And I think my dad and mom were the best to her, always took care of her and gave her things, and so my aunts and uncles think that she took care of our family the most, because we took care of her and always remembered her, and had incense at home with her plaque. And like they were really poor before, and now they’re living very comfortably without any hardships, and they think it’s because of her. So be good to your elders. I think I would still take care of her, because I did it as a kid, but I don’t know if my next generation would do it. But I think I believe in her spirit, I’m not sure.”


My informant, who is first-generation American (her mother is from Malaysia and her father is from Macao) still participates in many traditional Chinese practices with her family, including ancestor worship. Though her family considers itself Catholic (she and her brother are non-religious), they still adhere to many traditional Buddhist practices, especially when it comes to the rites and customs surrounding death and familial spirits.  My informant said that she thought she believed in her grandmother’s spirit from what she had experienced first-hand and how her family talks about it, but that she wasn’t sure, though she definitely did not deny the spirit’s existence. This is not uncommon in many supernatural beliefs, especially when it seems hard to find physical proof of one way or the other. Instead, it’s the performer’s personal opinions that count for the acceptance of the supernatural belief.

In many cultures, and still very much alive in many Asian cultures, family honor and ancestor worship plays an integral role in the well-being of the family on a whole. As my informant said, there are specific ceremonies and Death days during which one has to go to their family’s altar in the Buddhist temple and pay their respects to their departed ancestors to keep their spirit alive and healthy within the community. If they treat the spirits right then they are rewarded with prosperity and health, but if they don’t take care of their elders’ spirits, then bad things happen to them due to their lack of respect for their dead family members. This practice of commemorating and remembering passed family members is a way for the departed to remain an active part of the family, even past death, showing that regardless of if one is alive or dead, they will not be forgotten and will continue to be a participant who holds sway in the community.

Now, whether or not you believe in the power of my informant’s grandmother’s spirit is a matter of personal opinion, and is a tricky thing to address. Personally, I believe my informant when she talks of her grandmother’s spirit playing an active role in the family politics, because not only does it help explain the mysterious burning incense receptacle during the commemoration ceremony, but also because the family sees the aunt having a stroke as in accordance with her lack of respect for her mother-in-law, both in life and death; and since she treated her elder poorly, she got treated poorly by her elder’s spirit in return. If you don’t believe in spirits or ghosts or anything of the supernatural persuasion, the grandmother’s spirit can also represent the family’s adopted moral compass, punishing the bad and rewarding the good. Further, the grandmother coming to family members in dreams could signify that they regard her as a very important and powerful member of the family, so it makes sense that she would enter their subconscious as a sort of enforcer of rules. But, regardless of whether you believe in the grandmother’s spirit as an actual thing or simply as a metaphor, she shows the importance of respecting one’s elders and keeping their spirit and name alive even after death.