11. Ghosts and Ancestors in the Modern West

  1. Janice Boddy and
  2. Michael Lambek
  1. Fenella Cannell

Published Online: 17 JAN 2014

DOI: 10.1002/9781118605936.ch11

A Companion to the Anthropology of Religion

A Companion to the Anthropology of Religion

How to Cite

Cannell, F. (2013) Ghosts and Ancestors in the Modern West, in A Companion to the Anthropology of Religion (eds J. Boddy and M. Lambek), John Wiley & Sons, Ltd, Oxford, UK. doi: 10.1002/9781118605936.ch11

Publication History

  1. Published Online: 17 JAN 2014
  2. Published Print: 21 OCT 2013

ISBN Information

Print ISBN: 9780470673324

Online ISBN: 9781118605936



  • Ghost;
  • ancestors;
  • modernity;
  • modern West;
  • modernization;
  • genealogical ancestors;
  • serendipity;
  • genealogy;
  • religious dimensions of lineage;
  • custom


Anthropologists and others have usually associated ancestors with traditional societies and ghosts with the modern condition; a linked analytic trend associated especially with Max Gluckman, but also with broader secularization claims, has been to imagine the progressive displacement of “ancestor cults” by “salvation religions” (including “cults of the dead” in Christian settings) and then the latter by secular outlooks. In this essay, these assumptions are interrogated in two ways: the implications are explored of stories told by “Alys,” a Cambridge taxi-driver, about the practice of family history, and the ambiguous forms taken by her transmission of knowledge about the past; and writings by Meyer Fortes and Fustel de Coulanges are revisited. This allows a reconsideration of the English present as a space where piety toward ancestors has a powerful presence, historically shaped by the long legacy of the Reformation and the class history of England since World War I.