Two and a half years ago my world was rocked to its core when a friend was tragically killed in a car accident aged only 23. He was a very close friend. Coming to terms with his loss was very difficult and within six months I had lost my Christian faith. As I started to look into alternative spiritualities and practices I across Naturalistic Pantheism, Paganism and Druidry in particular. These philosophies and religions emphasise the importance of honouring our ancestors, those we have loved and lost, and this really appealed to me. Last Samhain, I made an altar and on it I placed pictures of my friend and lit a candle to remember him. It was a good experience and I believe it helped me to accept things a lot more.
Over at Woden’s Wandering Witch today, she writes about the importance of honouring our ancestors too and it’s inspired me to do a post on it. Although I have talked about this before, I feel I had some new things to say.
If we look at most of the ancient religions of the world, and particularly those that honour the earth, they all have a common practice of Ancestor Veneration. Yes, a lot of it is rooted in a belief that their ancestors somehow live on through an immortal soul, but not in every case. In my opinion, venerating ancestors is a way in which humanity has, for many years, remembered those that it has loved and lost and enabled people to come to terms with the reality of death. Honouring our ancestors, whether they be family members, friends or important people who have influenced our lives, is a practice that I think can be of great benefit to us as Naturalistic Pantheists.
How? Firstly, doing something to honour our ancestors help us keep the memory of them alive. While we don’t necessarily forget about the people we have lost, as time progresses and we move on with our lives, we often do not think of them for great periods of time and we lose a connection to them that we once had. By regularly honouring them, we ensure they are remembered…and if we teach the next generation to do the same, then we ensure that we are remembered after our own deaths.
Secondly, it teaches us important life lessons – respect and gratefulness. Honouring our ancestors is a way of acknowledging their influence and impact on our lives and showing gratitude for that fact (yep that includes those you didn’t like too), even though they are no longer around to receive that gratitude. It teaches us respect – for the dead, for the elderly and for other people. We have to take time to focus on others rather than ourselves and to give them a place of honour, and that is a great life lesson to learn.
Thirdly, it grounds us. It reminds us of where we came from and the forces and influences upon our lives. It gives us identity and a sense of connection to the past. It places us within a story and gives our lives meaning and direction.
So now we have seen some of the benefits, lets consider who exactly we should be honouring? The simple answer is – anyone we want to. Generally I would suggest that honouring family members and friends who have died is a good place to start. You could add in family members further back in your past that you didn’t ever know. You could add in important people who lived in your area or influenced your culture but who you feel a connection to. Finally, you could add anyone who has influenced and inspired you in life.
Yes, I hear you say, I agree with all that, but get specific, what exactly do I need to do? I have two suggestions here – firstly, do some research and create a family tree as best you can so you can see who your ancestors were and perhaps learn a few interesting family stories about them. Secondly, make an altar, just as millions of people have done throughout the hundreds of thousands of years of human history. Put some pictures of lost relatives on it, and maybe a copy of your family tree. Decorate the altar with a few candles, objects that remind you of people and anything else you want to. You could either have this altar up once a year – on Samhain, perhaps on significant dates, or all the time. Create a ceremony to carry out at the altar. It could be something simple like lighting a candle for a minute or something more elaborate including drinking from a remembrance cup and spending time meditating on memories you have of them or holding a minutes silence. Do whatever you feel helps you.
Just one more thing, I always include a few fossils on my altar. Why? As I said in a previous post on the great story of cosmic evolution, we are the subject of millions of years of evolution going right back to a single common ancestor. All those in our blood line, right back to that first life form that appeared on the earth almost 4 billion years ago, are our ancestors and remembering and honouring them helps to keep that fact alive for us.