Meditation on Ancestor Work
There is a grace to the dead. We have our ancestors and they‘re a mixed bag: good, bad, and everything in between and it’s our duty, the sacred compact to which we were born, for which we were born to make sense of that, to shoulder it and dance through our lives. Our dead are ours, our strength, our foundation and so long as they are doing right by us, we’re called to honor them. (When they’re not, we may be called to elevations and healing work or to call them to account, or in some very desperate cases to cut them out but this is not the everyday norm). Here is the thing though: our dead for the most part tried to live good lives and to do for their families. Even when they fucked up grievously, very few set out to be horrible human beings. They may have been damaged. They may have made terrible choices, but in most cases they did the best they could in a very diseased world to make sense of their lives.
I think on my 3rd great grandmother Rachel Bobo. According to census records, she was illiterate. But she and her husband seem to have moved around quite a bit, possibly for opportunities for themselves and their children. She and her husband were illiterate but her son was a mechanic who owned his own home and could read and write and her granddaughter was an opera singer.
I’m not sure my own maternal grandmother ever finished high school. I suspect she had only an eight grade education if that. One of her daughters worked forty years plus in a respectable position in the Pentagon, the other at Aberdeen Proving ground, and two of her sons own their own businesses. I’m going for my doctorate. For some families, it’s getting a child to learn to read. For another, it’s getting them safely to adulthood. For others, it’s seeing that they never go hungry. Step by faltering step, our ancestors in the best of times pushed us forward. There were those so damaged or broken that they failed even in this, yes, but overall, stumbling in the often bitter confusion of living, they did the best they could.
Someone asked me recently why we honor the dead. It was an honest question, not asked in sarcasm or petulance but out of a desire to understand. We honor the dead because it is the right and proper thing for adults to do. People who don’t honor and respect their dead aren’t fully realized human beings in my opinion. They are like trees without roots. This is one of the ancient contracts (along with honoring the Gods and honoring the land) and it’s a sacred obligation. It shouldn’t be rocket science to instill in our children and our communities the rightness in not only preventing desecration of the dead, but in honoring them and giving them their dignity. This benefits us too.
Nor is honoring the dead about supporting their causes in life. That was a hard lesson for me to learn with my military dead. We honor our dead as individuals (remembrance is a powerful thing, a holy thing) but also because now they are part of this collective of ancestors that nurture and protect us. At least that’s part of it.
A few years ago I had to do a pilgrimage for my military dead and part of it was going to union and confederate graveyards and it was very, very hard for me to visit the latter. I don’t support what they fought for, I find so much of what they fought for personally vile and I was flat out told “it’s not about supporting their causes. it’ s not about patriotism or lack thereof. it’s about honoring the men and women who contributed to making us who we are today, who laid down their lives for something, who lived, suffered, experienced joys, and died trying to make their world a better place for their descendants. It’s about the link in the chain of humanity, and the strength of the ancestral collective. When we honor them, we restore and renew that ancient compact.
We carry our dead. We carry them always. We should do it proudly and we should do it well.
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