Another Ancestor Q&A
...When honoring the dead makes your skin crawl
"Every man is a quotion from all his ancestors." ----Ralph Waldo Emerson
"Our greatest responsibility is to be good ancestors." -- Jonas Salk
I was recently contacted by a reader who told me about a friend of hers, who was fascinated by the concept of ancestor veneration, but who also had extreme discomfort at the idea of doing it. Because her friend really wants to honor her ancestors, my reader contacted me asking me if i'd address this in one of my Q&A posts, which I'm doing now. It's a good question, after all, and one I encounter far more than you might think: What do you do when even the idea of honoring the ancestors is an extremely uncomfortable one?
My initial answer is simple: you persevere. I don't say that to be harsh. I say it because no practice comes all at once. It took me over ten years of constant work --at least ten years--to get a decent, consistent, ancestor practice going. It was hard! I had the same level of discomfort and even aversion to the whole thing at first as my reader's friend. More than once I wanted to scrap the whole thing and when I began fumbling my way into honoring the dead, it was more out of a sense of duty, of obligation, of the knowledge that it was something i should be doing (and with more than a little resentment at times) rather than any love for the ancestors or true comprehension of how vital that devotional connection is that motivated me. Nor was sorting myself out easy. It was worthwhile and it's enriched my spiritual life immeasurably but it was not in any way easy. In my case, the problem was largely that I was disconnected from my biological family. I resented for a very long time the idea of honoring them. I didn't know why it was important. I felt no particular connection, save with my maternal grandmother who was at times strongly present. It took as much sorting out. dealing with, and coming to terms with much of the discord with my living family as it did learning to engage with my dead family members. None of that was a quick process. So when I say 'persevere,' I'm speaking from very personal experience.
I think the main thing to understand if you want to do this and it makes you incredibly uncomfortable is that A) it doesn't mean you're doing anything wrong, and B) it doesn't mean that you shouldn't honor your dead. There are a couple of reasons why one could have a very uncomfortable response to engaging with one's ancestors. The most common reason in my experience is that your relationship with your immediate family is unpleasant, hurtful, abusive, or just plain bad. In this case, it's completely understandable why even the idea of honoring one's kin --living or dead--would be unpleasant. Why would you, after all, honor people that hurt you? Nor is there an easy, one-size-fits-all fix.
Generally, when this comes up, I tell people that it is statistically impossible, as my friend Laura once pointed out, for every single one of your ancestors (all the way back to the primordial ooze) to have been an unmitigated, abusive asshole. It's just statistically impossible. It's also statistically impossible that you don't have at least a couple of those types lurking about in your ancestral tree somewhere and probably more than a couple. This is true for all of us. What this means is that when your immediate blood kin were horrible or hurtful or whatever, there's a solution. I won't say it's a simple solution but it's the best and most workable one that i"ve found: go back farther. Go back farther in your lines until you find someone willing to engage with you in a healthy way, or with whom you can feel a connection. sometimes it helps to start with personal heroes, or lineage ancestors ( you're a mechanic, well, who were the leading innovators in your field that you respect (who happen to be dead), who taught you how to do what you do? Who helped and mentored you in your field? Who came before you in this work that, again, you respect and who are dead. These are your lineage ancestors and every field has them). Maybe you have friends or mentors who have died. They are ancestors too. It's a broad term after all and in the scope of ancestor work 'beloved dead' doesn't always mean 'blood kin.' So if you must, either start your ancestor practices far enough back that you avoid the recent generations that hurt you, or start with heroes, mentors, friends, etc. Eventually as you persevere, your practice will grow and with their help, you'll be able to address some of the issues, whatever they might be, making the practice of honoring your blood kin uncomfortable, and with hard work, you'll be able to develop a more organic practice. Stay the course and trust the process is how it was once put to me.
Now there are times where you will have to make the hard decision not to honor a specific branch of your dead. One of the things that many of us deal with is what to do when one part of your ancestry were slaves, and another slave owners; when one part were abusers, and the other those they abused, when one part attacked and slaughtered the other or engaged in other forms of cultural and religious devastation. This is not an easy question and like the above, there's no pat answer. In some cases, some of those ancestors may step forward wanting to make amends and pay their debt and help you. It's up to you whether or not you wish to accept. In other cases ,they are just as miserable and nasty and hateful and cruel in death as they were in life and need to be exhumed from your venerations. Until they step up and do what they ought, they get nothing. I've known more than one person who has made this choice and it has been an empowering one.
Sometimes, parts of your ancestral line may be closed to you because of some fear or shame in key ancestors in that particular line. Sometimes the blockage comes from the ancestor in question having deep shame still, even in death, sometimes it comes from their desire to protect you from something that they feel would come through them and with which they would not wish to have any decent person engage. For instance, for years, I was unable to get anywhere with my maternal father's line. No matter what I did, it was blocked: no connection, no information, nothing no matter how hard I tried. Frustrated, I finally brought it up in passing to an ancestor worker (a spiritworker who specializes in sorting out ancestor issues, dealing with the dead, and facilitating healthy relationships between ancestors and their descendants). This ancestor worker, without knowing any of the rumors that had circulated about my great grandmother, pinpointed her story. My great grandmother Edna had been an opera singer in late nineteenth century Baltimore. She had two little boys, and when they were six and nine respectively, she took them to a local park and left them there, saying she'd be right back. She never came back. The boys were put into foster care, which went badly for one of them, and years later when they found their mother again, she refused all but the most fleeting of contact with them. The six year old was my grandfather and this left a deep, deep wound in him, one that he carried into his marriage to my grandmother, and one that -- after a great deal of suffering and in a time when one did not make this choice lightly -- led to their divorce and to him disappearing from my family's history until close to his death decades later.
What the ancestor worker nailed was that my great grandmother's father had been a sadist, cruel and brutal to his children. Edna was starting to see that coming out in herself with her children and did the only thing she felt she could do to spare them: she left them. Keep in mind, this was in the late 1800s, and she was a theatre performer. It wasn't likely that there were many agencies or social workers or facilities to help her. It wasn't after all, until 1874 that child abuse even became a recognized crime and then only after the ASPCA prosecuted the abuse of a small girl under regulations intended for the protection of farm animals. (No joke, look it up. I may have the date off by a year or two, being as I am too lazy to look it up but the case when I first studied it years ago was stunning and horrifying to me). I suspect, given what I know about social history of even a few decades later, that there really were very few if any options open to her. Still, I found it very, very hard to come to terms with her actions even so, because I saw the resulting damage working its way down three generations. The thing that moved me, was that the ancestor worker noticed something else. She said that Edna was too alienated and ashamed to make contact as an ancestor, but that she was standing guard, holding that line closed to me, so that her father would not be able to harass or harm later generations. Even as as a spirit, her own wounds persisted and she was using them as valiantly as she could to help descendants with whom she could not effectively engage in life. That at least gave me something I could give a nod to and I was able to thank her for that, and begin the process of ancestor elevation. It wasn't long after that, when that particular ancestor line began opening up and now years later, it's a very important part of my working lineage.
So it may well be that it's one or two of your ancestors themselves who are making things difficult out of their own hurts which don't' just necessarily go away when we die. This is one of the reasons that I"m grateful that in almost every case, one or two of your ancestors will step forward to sort of serve as gatekeepers, guardians, managers…they keep things running smoothly, get everybody else in order, and can really bring cohesion to an otherwise patchwork ancestral tree. If you know who your primary guardian ancestors are, then it's always a good idea to call upon them when issues arise, because it's their job to facilitate and organize on the 'ancestor' side of things and that goes a long way right there toward helping a person sort themselves out. Why bother? you might ask. Well, you get what you get. Your ancestors are your ancestors and keeping them healthy, helping them to heal, allowing them to function in ways that strengthen their wyrd benefits you as it will benefit your descendants. None of this is happening in a vacuum.
Now, there are occasionally -- and i find this to be relatively rare--people who for whatever reason aren't called to honor their ancestors. In almost every case involved, this person was a spirit worker, and they were given over in service to a specific family of dead people. One person I know honors the wandering dead, another the trans-gender dead, and their ancestral obligations, with few exceptions are all bound up in that specific Deity-inspired service. Even those few --and i what to make it clear these are specialized cases-- who are tabooed from honoring their own dead, have some sort of devotional engagement with at least some of the dead some of the time.
I would also suggest making an offering, and i'd make it a personally significant one, to your Gods and Goddesses, to Whomever seems the most inclined to involve Him or Herself in ancestor related matters, and ask for help. Along with that, petition your ancestors, and go far back too. they have a vested interest in engaging properly with you and the burden for seeing that happen is not all on you. Like any relationship, it takes two to tango. There are two sides of the equation here and just as you are working to connect with them, so the reverse is very likely also true. Some at least, will be farther along in their ability to do this well so petition them too and ask for clear and consistent help.
Most of all, don't give up. We grow up and make our way forward in a culture antithetical to engaged devotion, reverence to the Gods and ancestors, and proper piety (or indeed any piety at all save the most shallow and self-serving of veneers). We are navigating the chasm of a disconnection with which many of our polytheistic ancestors at least, never had to contend. It's going to take time. It may be difficult. There may be grave wounds to heal. All of that is worth it though when those relationships become a strong and vital part of one's life. It is absolutely worth it and moreover, I believe it is a crucial curative to the disconnection and spiritual ills of our age. Good luck.
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