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Life Arts

How to Honor Ancestors

By Mike the Fool  Posted by Rady Ananda (about the submitter)     Permalink
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We all have ancestors, some living, most of them have passed on. The Reformed Druids of North America (RDNA) does not have any specific traditions on revering ancestors, although most of the other modern Druid groups have incorporated this concept, which is common among Nature and folk-based religions. In a sense, many believe ancestors are the best intermediaries of the living with the deities. Who cares about you more than those who raised you and your parents and your parents' parents? Naturally, the farther in the past, the more descendents that ancient ancestor has to care for, so expect a slower response as you drift back 30, 50 generations.

Whether you believe in reincarnation, paradise, eventual nirvana, or whatever, if there is an afterlife, ancestral spirits tend to be part of the picture. Many researchers believe that ancestor worship is the base root of all religions, but its role has been denigrated by more "evolved" religions as too local or parochial. Perhaps the clan-religion, nation religion, world religions are methods of bringing people out of highly localized ancestral concerns and including less-related people into a great sense of community?

What do we know about out hundreds of thousands of personal ancestors? Even the most dedicated genealogist of a royal family member can generally only go back about 10 to 14 generations, and often the lesser family lines are not well covered. The average American knows his ancestors usually only as far back as their great-grandparents, and maybe the direct maternal or paternal lines a few generations further. Most of what these folks know is just the name, date of birth, where and when; only simple factual information. We have culture, some family traditions, but the rest of our ancestors hover facelessly, collective, in the past. They are in your genes and your soul. I might ponder if friends of the family might also be part of that pool. Most of us have ancestors who were adopted by someone too.

In Japan, and in other countries, usually the eldest son is entrusted with maintaining a family shrine, usually paternal line and makes offerings and prayers at regular intervals. Many American families, even Christian, will have a section of their house where family photos congregate, along with heirlooms and family items. These are pseudo altars of a sort too, just less formal. All over the world, families and clans will host reunions to re-establish and strengthen ties with distant cousins, and share family lore and forge new traditions.

There are numerous traditions that incorporate reverence for ancestors, which is indirectly a self-respecting measure, too. I've listed some of the ones I like the most:

Make Halloween More than Fear: Traditionally Samhain was about honoring returning (good) spirits who came back for these few nights, and of course, keeping out the bad ones who also might show up. We tend to focus on the bad ones now and dwell on the frightening aspect of death. However, how often do you talk to your children about welcoming back grandpa or Aunt Myrtle? The idea that good returns too, that is can be a very comforting concept for children. Rather than horror flicks, why not watch a movie of a sad, tragic death story and talk with kids about it. Fluke, the movie of a father reincarnated as a dog, trying to rejoin the family, is very touching.

Have a home altar: decorate it with family photos, as many as you can dig up, some safe candles or incense (watch the smoke detector). Visit once a day or once a week. Try to visit longer on the anniversary of a loved one's demise. Come by and talk to the spirits once in a while about hard things in your life and ask for advice and meditate there. You might assign one child to maintaining the shrine and dust it, replace candles, etc.

Empty plate: This charming tradition is the plate for Ezekial in some Jewish traditions. The POW-MIA often hosts a missing-man service, where a table is set once a year with symbolic plates, flowers, salt, lemon, etc. At all festivals, set the table for one extra person, put some food there, and come-who-may will be able to join you.

Live a respectable proud life: Ancestors generally wish the best for you and your family. They take pride in your accomplishments, just as they did when they were living. Be careful of course, many traditions in the world, including the Celts, have taken the "family honor" thing to unlawful levels. It is still you life to live, and the needs and burdens of the past cannot squelch those of the future.

Learn about your ancestors: Do some genealogical work, back a few generations. Make a family tree with your children. Collect interesting family stories about each person and write them down with a photo and some details. Visit their hometowns or homelands. Study the language or culture of those ethnic roots for a few weeks. Share what you learn with your children and make sure each gets a copy. You might even assign a report on one to each child to plan a research expedition.

Visit graves: Usually memorial and veteran's day are the busiest. In Latin American and some parts of the United States, on Dios de Los Muertos (sp?) around Halloween, families will have a picnic and set up an ofrido (altar) at the family grave site, sometimes for a day or two. Check your local cemetery to see if this is permissible, and what the proper rules are.

Carry a memento: Perhaps your grandfather's cufflinks, your grandmother's silk handkerchief. Perhaps keep in your wallet your uncle's coin from his sailing trip to Zanzibar.

Take care of your self: Most of all, stay healthy, keep your body whole and hearty. It is a gift from them, after all.

Originally posted at the Druid Inquirer.

I'm just one druid among many in the Reformed Druids, no-one special, mind you.


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