Working through a few thoughts on ancestor veneration

Today is the Dark Moon — a day (or evening) for praying to Chthonic Gods, ancestors, and others. It’s also Memorial Day in the United States, an interesting accidental meetup of the common and lunar calendars.

I pray to both the ancestors of my family and to intellectual ancestors — blood relations are not the only relations we have, and in works like The Soul’s Inner Statues and the ancestor prayer I posted here on KALLISTI a while back, I have always emphasized taking a mindful, grounded approach to ancestor worship — not an obsessive one, which can become an unhealthy attachment to one’s current life if taken up carelessly. Physical ancestors are related to this incarnation, and we want to approach them mindfully, “in this guest-house we call a lineage.” That said, this post is primarily about our family ancestors.

While I was praying at my shrine this morning to ancestors and the Chthonic Gods, I started reflecting on something I had read earlier this month (a very long and interesting read about the history of the American cemetery and changing American ideas about how we inter bodies) in the context of my own life. Beyond just the changes in cemetery aesthetics and theoretical underpinnings, the ground is filling up, more people are opting for cremation, and there are places around the world where our human remains will only be in the ground (or the cremains apartment tower) for a few decades before making way for the next person.

My surface-level understanding of American cemetery culture is that, when I was a girl, a lot of emphasis was put on visiting graves every so often — we would drive from Missouri to Upstate New York to visit family, and this was just part of what we did. We would go with flowers or other items (probably from Wegmans, as we are intergenerationally loyal to that supermarket chain) at some point when we came back out East every summer. Back in Missouri, we would celebrate ancestors at Samhain in the community with a ritual and a potluck where we were all encouraged to bring foods that were beloved by those whom we had lost. My mother, who now lives two hours from where my maternal grandparents’ graves are located, can occasionally make time to go there to pay her respects. Still, the Samhain ritual is not located near the graves.

Most of us kids are now five to eight hours away from the cemetery where our grandparents are buried. Like most white-collar/academic families outside of huge metropolitan areas, when adulthood hit, we dispersed to where jobs were, and remaining close to home would have limited us significantly in terms of making an income high enough to handle our student loan debt, not to mention landing jobs that take advantage of our actual training. The loneliness and fragmentation of our generation (and I hear it’s worse for Zoomers) are, in part, due to this splintering and division.

For me, the appeal of having an ancestor shine is about blending modern utility with a desire for connection. Speaking from my own background, most white Americans are not from cultures that have traditionally done household ancestor shrines. However, due to our increasing estrangement from the places where our ancestors are actually interred, which makes our traditional remembrance rituals much harder, it’s a wise choice to set aside some space that can move with us as we take advantage of opportunities, flee from rent hikes and natural disasters, or react to whatever else hits us in the 2020s. And we can do this in a way that avoids straying into appropriation — there are many approaches that can be continuous with our own cultural threads.

Within my home itself growing up — and within my mom’s home now, unless things have changed since the pandemic started — there has usually been a place for family photos on one wall, living and dead, and I can recognize the faces even though I don’t know all of their names. (I have no idea how universal this photo wall is, but I’ve seen similar in the family homes of people of a variety of ethnic, racial, and cultural backgrounds.) For those with the space (and who actually have copies of family photos, which I am still trying to extract from my mom, lol), that could mean that the traditional family wall is separated into living and dead, and the area for the dead could also have a small table space for a candle and some offerings to give every so often, like the flowers we once may have brought to the grave or the memorial tokens on secular holidays like Veterans Day and Memorial Day or religious holidays like Samhain, Anthesteria, &c.

My mom has only digitized a few photos — my maternal grandparents — and I feel a bit too estranged from (most of) my dad’s side of the family to know whose photos to put there, especially with what I know now about my paternal grandfather’s alcoholism and how it harmed his wife and children, so my ancestor offering area is a sparse place. It fits on a single low shelf in the same area as my other shrines. Modern utility doesn’t just refer to not making the long trip from Connecticut to Upstate NY or the (much shorter) trip to Springfield, MA, for saying hello to my recent paternal ancestors — it’s also that, with PTO the way it is, and with many of our jobs the way they are, taking that PTO at auspicious times is not something that is always on the table for us. When I give more elaborate offerings on Samhain (during the academic semester) and Anthesteria (during both the academic semester and ice storm/Nor’easter season), my shrine is only a few meters away from everything else in my apartment, and I can set aside worrying about travel or whether I can take time off during peak workload periods and focus on the offerings.

Would I still go to Corning, New York, with my mom to visit my grandparents’ graves? You bet. Would I prowl the glass museum and think about my maternal great-grandfather, who came here as a glassblower and worked for Steuben? Almost certainly. Our approach to honoring the past and the people who came before us is bound to be a synergy of many cultural and economic forces, and while it may take a while to find the rhythm that works for each of us, fostering connection is always worth it.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s