This is the fourth in the series, and this post won’t make much sense without the context of the first, second, and third posts. Please read before proceeding.
Good? Yay! Onwards!
The Land connects us to where we are physically located in the here-and-now. Once we’re solidly grounded and anchored there we can move on to the next stage of devotional work – the Ancestors all around us.
Ok, why do I want to connect to dead people?
Let’s be real here. For those with no tradition around Ancestor work this has to be the first question asked and answered. It was certainly mine!
See, we in the West are very fond of black and white thinking in a lot of cases, and especially in regards to spiritual topics. For instance, “dead”. When we hear “dead”, we think “dead and gone”. When we’re alive we’re able to affect the world, and when we die we go away to a different place that rarely if ever interacts with this one. We don’t expect to maintain relationships with the departed, because they’re, well, departed. Or so we think.
Because any day I can reference The Princess Bride is a good day.
The idea that the dead are gone from us is fairly new, and is far from universally accepted even now. In many cultures it’s simply known that not only are the Ancestors still devoted to nurturing their descendants, but that it is our job as descendants to take care of Them. And since They were human at one time, it’s commonly held that They are better able to understand human wants and needs than other types of entities out there.
And honestly, there are people in our lives who are/were literally willing to charge grizzlies with baseball bats to keep us safe. Who would we trust more to go to bat for us in the spiritual realm? Death is really a minor hurdle for that level of love and concern.
If Mulan’s ancestors could help her from beyond the grave, so can ours.
The practices around honoring and caring for the ancestors are usually grouped together as “ancestor veneration or reverence”. And to be clear, it’s not a worship deal – people don’t suddenly get holier when they die. They simply change forms, and the way we interact with Them has to change to accommodate that form change.
The most familiar-to-the-West approaches to this are probably the Catholic practices of praying for the souls of the dead and petitioning saints (super-holy dead people) to carry prayers from the worshiper to God. The most visible examples of ancestor veneration, on the other hand, are probably the Egyptian pyramids.
Beliefs around the dead vary widely, of course. For Catholics, when someone dies they’re assigned to an afterlife (Heaven, Hell, Purgatory, and anything Dante might have missed) and help from there. Egyptians thought the soul continued to live, just in a different place – and that the foods and materials provided Them in our world help sustain Them in the afterlife. One idea I’ve heard for those who go with reincarnation is that the dead stick around for as long as They want to/as long as They’re remembered, after which They move on to the next life and perhaps even choose to be reincarnated in the same bloodline.
However you look at it, ancestor veneration has been a core religious practice around the world for much of human history. Today it can be found in societies around the world, and it can be revived in our lives too. We can reclaim our Ancestors, take care of Them, and They can help take care of us.
Who are my Ancestors, then?
You were not created from nothing. The very DNA of your body came from combining the DNA of your parents, right? And they got their DNA from their parents. When you trace your lineage backwards you find that you are the product of generations upon generations of other people.
As this somewhat sentimental image tells us.
It’s not just physical, either. We have language and art, climate control and internet, cities and nations and societies because we inherited the ideas that led to all of it from our ancestors. The debt we owe to those who came before is staggering.
And it’s even more than that. Humans are much more interrelated than you might think. Because of the way genetics and family trees work, every single human alive on the planet today can trace their family lines back to one common ancestor, one who lived from 8,000-2,000 years ago.
As observed in a 2004 paper on the Most Recent Common Ancestor:
“No matter the languages we speak or the color of our skin, we share ancestors who planted rice on the banks of the Yangtze, who first domesticated horses on the steppes of the Ukraine, who hunted giant sloths in the forests of North and South America, and who labored to build the Great Pyramid of Khufu.”
Isn’t that amazing? Ancestors connect us not just to our parents and grandparents, but to every single person on the whole planet. No matter who we are or where we go, every random person we meet is family. Calling everyone out there “brother” or “sister” isn’t exactly accurate, but only on a technicality.
I don’t know about you, but that idea changed a lot for me. Honoring the Ancestors led me towards greater compassion for others by connecting me to everyone else in the world. There is no more “us vs. them” – we really are all in this together, united by the very blood in our veins. That’s had a huge impact on how I think about everything from faith and politics to how I regard my coworkers. I think that’s pretty damn significant, personally.
Wow. So that’s, um, a lot of people.
It is. So in practice, we have to narrow down the Ancestors that we choose to honor. Just like we can acknowledge all the Land Spirits out there but only work directly with those at home and work, so too can we acknowledge all of our Ancestors while working with only a few. The fun (fun?) is deciding how we want to narrow things down.
Some people strictly honor those on their family trees, or even only their direct line, for as far back as they can trace but no further. A common thing I’ve seen is focusing on the family tree while “adopting” close friends and influential people.
Another technique is to supplement the honoring of blood-line lineage (or replace it altogether) with a focus on professional or lifestyle connections. Soldiers often claim brotherhood with those they’ve served with, for instance – the relationship is based on shared experiences rather than family trees. For those profoundly affected by their service those shared experiences may trump bloodlines for relationship importance.
Those identifying primarily by minority affiliations, like polytheists and members of the LGBTQAI+ community, might find a greater sense of family and understanding from Ancestors with Whom they can share those types of experiences.
There’s also a growing idea of “families of choice” – people are making their own families and clans, and those too can guide our honorings.
Others don’t identify individuals at all, and just go with “Ancestors” as “Anyone of helpful intent who wants to claim me”.
Note that in this area, like anything else touching on family, opinions can get very heated. There are lots of people who will try to tell you exactly how to do your Ancestor work, and critique the holy hell out of you if you decide to do something differently than they “suggest”. Frankly, that’s all bullshit (unless you’re working within a specific tradition, of course – those rules are different). You can certainly pick up perspectives and techniques from all those people, and I highly encourage you to do so, but remember that the only ones who can really tell you how to proceed are yourself and the entities with whom you work.
I don’t have the strongest family lineage. I can trace parts of my mother’s side of the family back to before the Revolutionary War, but I don’t really know more than a handful beyond my grandmother’s children and their descendants. There are two Ancestors I work with on that line, and that’s it. And I know nothing about my father’s family at all – seriously, I’ve tried to trace them and it’s like my grandparents were born on another planet or something.
How my paternal grandparents reached the United States.
That’s perfectly fine. I have all of human history to draw from should I choose to do so. So I chose.
The bulk of my practice honors individuals who have left me a legacy, regardless of bloodline or historical period. This includes maternal ancestors, but also historical figures and inspirational people from all walks of life. I have a separate honoring for monastics of all faiths whose dedication has inspired and guided me along my path. I have also made it my personal mission to honor the Forgotten Ones. Human history is as tragic as it is beautiful, and there are many who have been lost along the way. My life has been blessed by so many people that it is my honor to honor Them.
And the converse is true. By choosing who I honor, I also choose who I don’t honor. Because we can do that. We do not have to honor a single damn Ancestor we don’t want to. Not one. My mother passed, and I do not want her in my life at all. It’s not even that I’m lashing out or want her to suffer. I simply want her to reincarnate as soon as possible. Maybe she’ll get it right next time. *shrug* I drink a shot in her memory at Mabon – because like it or not she helped make me who I am today – and that’s all I can bring myself to do. And that’s ok. Just having options was incredibly healing for me. If you suffered abuse at someone’s hand, or otherwise find an Ancestor to be an all-around repugnant person, then feel free to avoid honoring Them. Death doesn’t suddenly forgive all sins, and sometimes our family trees need to be pruned. However, alternative perspectives and wisdom often come from those we disagree with, so be careful when deciding to drop Someone from your work.
So how do we honor the Ancestors?
With Hospitality, of course! Here’s how I approach it when it comes to Ancestors.
1) Be Ready to Entertain
In my personal experience I find that the Ancestors aren’t as concerned with the whole house being spotless as They are with Their area being neat and tidy. Because yes, They (at least in my experience) want an area. Time to build a shrine to the Ancestors!
Assemble objects that bring your Ancestors to mind in one location, and arrange them so they’re visually appealing. Photographs are fabulous for this – and if you don’t have a photograph of someone you honor but can get a picture of their tombstone that works well too. Family Bibles, grandma’s favorite knitting needles, a toy dog passed down for generations. The items don’t have to be particularly valuable to work – I have a rock on my altar from Wales, where the maternal ancestors I work with are from. A print-out of a family tree works, too. If honoring historical figures, portraits and/or examples of their work are absolutely appropriate here. Really, whatever works. Just make sure to include space for a plate and a cup. I almost always offer incense too, as this is traditional in many cultures when honoring the dead, so if that’s something you want to do incorporate an incense burner into your arrangement. Another similar idea here is offering fresh bouquets of nicely scented herbs/flowers.
A simple, and beautiful, ancestor altar complete with offerings. It doesn’t have to be lavish to work.
2) Offer Food and Drink
This can get fun with the Ancestors! There are lots of stories around about eating and drinking with the dead for inspiration, but I like to keep it simple.
Liquid offerings often include coffee, tea, and water. Alcohol is common too, especially if the Ancestor liked it in life. Food offerings run the gamut from cakes and breads to treasured family recipes. If the deceased had a special favorite dish, making it in Their memory would certainly be appropriate.
Food – both scent and taste – resonates with people on levels we often don’t consider, and I like playing with that type of sense memory. My favorite thing here is making food I’ve never had that was common in other times and places. For the Aunts I honor in my maternal line I’ve experimented with all kinds of traditional Welsh cuisine. I’ve also made good old-fashioned American food like meatloaf and fried chicken when honoring American soldiers who died overseas (because I figure They must have missed that), French desserts to honor Antoine de Saint-Exupery, homemade mac ‘n cheese for abused kids I honor at Samhain (what kid doesn’t like mac ‘n cheese?), Indian curries when honoring wandering monks, etc. While I’m making these foods I also learn a lot about the cultures, lives, and times of people in different places, which is always fascinating and brings me closer to Them.
It might seem a bit silly, but I always keep the food for the Ancestors and anything I plan to eat separate as soon as it leaves the stove, and the dishes the Ancestors use are strictly Theirs – they don’t go back in my cabinets for general use. Ever. There are too many stories about Bad Things happening when the two get mixed up. YMMV, of course, but I thought I’d mention it.
Lest we unwittingly wind up like the Greek Persephone.
Once you’ve decided what to offer, offer it. Make up all the plates and cups and whatnot, and arrange them in the available space. Then find your Center. Anchor yourself in the here-and-now by connecting your energy to the land (saying “hi” to any Land Spirits you might “feel” along the way but not focusing on Them). Once you feel stable, cast your awareness “out” to the Ancestors. I usually visualize this as a transparent sphere that emerges from my Center and expands to surround me and my Ancestor altar, a sphere that lets in Ancestors who wish me well and blocks out everything else. (If your visualization skills aren’t the best, work on that. And in the meantime feel free to write a casting if that helps you.) Once that sphere is stable I verbally invite in Whoever I’d like to share food and drink with. *shrug* I’ve seen some lovely ritual poetry to do this, and if you feel it necessary go with it, but this is family. I tend to speak from the heart and let the chips fall where they may.
3) Show Respect
Share your offering with Them in a meditative silence, listening for Them. I usually take this time to catch the visitor up with whatever’s going on at the time, focusing especially on family gossip and on how what’s happening in my life is affecting me. I’ll ask for advice only if I’m stuck (and accept it gracefully if They offer it regardless). Their perspectives are usually different enough from mine that I get interesting insights into the issues I might not have had before. Just make sure to leave Them time to communicate too.
And just like with the Land Spirits, don’t presume on the association. They’re family, not slaves, and getting demanding with family is a really fast way to find everyone talking about how ungrateful you are and refusing to talk to you. It’s best to just avoid that whole scene.
When the visit is over, sincerely thank Them for sharing with you, and leave it open for a repeat later. If They prompt you with “I’m done” go ahead and dispose of the food and drink outside. If not, leave out on the altar overnight, then dispose of the food and drink outside the next morning.
Continuing the Association
Ancestors are people, and as people there’s more you can do with Them than just say hi over an altar. This is especially true since They are in symbiotic relationships with Their descendants (which, as we’ve covered, includes everyone on Earth). Anything you do to help out your fellow humans helps the Ancestors too. Here are a few ideas.
1) Explore your family tree. Guides on how to do this are all over genealogy websites, so I won’t go into too much detail here, but you can learn all kinds of cool things. I found the Ancestry website to be a great resource for this. Genealogy is also a wonderful way to invite the living members of your family to contribute to your work. My Christian family doesn’t get a lot of what I do, but my super-conservative grandmother was eager to help with this project. I got personal accounts of the people in the genealogy I’d never met, which is something no amount of research could give me. Other sources include letters, diaries, service records, etc.
2) Visit a cemetery where your Ancestors are buried. If you can track locations down this can be a really interesting pilgrimage. The coolest one I did was from New Jersey to middle-of-nowhere Pennsylvania awhile back, as I had some family buried at a tiny cemetery there. Standing at the grave of a direct ancestor who died three hundred years ago was thrilling (yes, I have issues). Can’t find a location? Try Find A Grave, which is a database listing millions of cemeteries with information available from the tombstones. I found relatives scattered all over the US! A bonus here is that occasionally the tombstones will fill in holes in the genealogy you didn’t know you had.
3) Speaking of, volunteer with Find A Grave. Figure out, say, the three cemeteries in your area that are easiest for you to get to, register on the site, and volunteer to be a contact person for those cemeteries. People who would like a picture of the headstone but can’t physically get one themselves request a picture. Volunteers then go out to the cemetery, track down the grave, and snap a picture to send to the person requesting it. This helps reunite ancestors with their descendants, which is an amazing offering to make! It’s not very time or labor intensive, either, if that’s a concern.
4) Adopt a local cemetery. There are a sad number of cemeteries across the US that are pretty much ignored. This can be especially true in areas with high population turnovers. So adopt one. Take one day a month to tend the graves, leave flowers or other offerings for the deceased, and read the names of the dead out loud. I don’t get to do this often, but when I do there’s usually one or two graves that for whatever reason catch my attention. I’ll spend extra time there, chatting and communing, and I always feel that the effort to connect is appreciated. As an added note, I know one person who literally adopted a whole cemetery into her ancestral line. The cemetery was incredibly small and overgrown, and she felt that all the people there had been forgotten. So she offered all of Them space on her ancestor altar, and now Those who wanted it are in her line too.
5) Attend funerals for people without families. There are more and more people these days dying with no one – or at least very few people – to attend their funerals. So read the obituaries, and if you can show up and offer respect. If nothing else they lived a life, and that’s not exactly the easiest thing to do. If this becomes something of a calling for you contact local funeral homes – they might be willing to work with you if you explain your purpose, and let you know when a service might be planned that won’t have many attendees. If you can’t make the funeral you can make it a point to visit the grave afterwards and leave flowers.
6) Honor the Ancestors with the community. Unlike many polytheists I tend to honor my Dead at Mabon (often called “the Pagan Thanksgiving”), because that’s a time I associate with honoring my family. It’s not like people cease to be family when they die, so separating the two doesn’t makes sense to me. (I go into more detail about that here.) This can be done at Samhain too, if that makes you more comfy. Simply invite a bunch of people to a potluck to honor the Ancestors. It doesn’t even have to be a ritual, exactly – just sharing food and drink with Them and each other is enough to make it a memorable occasion, as long as They are included. Give Them an area for food and drink offerings, play songs that call specific Ancestors to mind (people can bring CDs or mp3 files they’d like played in memory), and have a good time. Death doesn’t have to be all sad, so having a party works too.
7) Volunteer as an offering. For instance, if Aunt Flora was an English teacher, then volunteering to teach adult literacy classes could easily work as an offering. Think about things like that and see what comes up. Don’t limit yourself, though. ANYTHING that helps out any other person can work as an Ancestor offering, because strengthening the living strengthens the Dead (as long as we remember to include Them). So do it as an offering, and let Them know it’s an offering, and see how much of a difference you can really make out in the world.
Add working with the Ancestors to the routine established with finding your Center and connecting with the Land. If you start feeling overwhelmed, go back to your Center and make sure that’s steady, then add back in your work with the land spirits. When you’re totally stable with those add working with the Ancestors back into your practice. Once you’ve got all three of those elements balanced it’s time to begin working with the Gods – the next-to-last post in this series!