Although I grew up listening to my dad’s clichéd stories about how his grandfather came to the United States as an immigrant with less than a dollar in his pocket, it wasn’t until I graduated from college that those stories took on a deeper meaning for me. As I grew further away from organized Judeo-Christian religions, I found more comfort and guidance in the wisdom of my ancestors than in any god ever presented to me in books. Before I even had language for what I was doing, I began following an age-old tradition celebrated across world cultures and throughout millennia: Ancestor veneration.
What is Ancestor Veneration?
Ancestor veneration is the reverential practice of honoring one’s deceased biological (and non-biological) relatives that acknowledges and commemorates the roles they play in the daily lives of the living. Because I believe that my life has been more directly influenced by the decisions my ancestors made rather than by a monotheistic god or pantheon of gods, I focus the majority of my spiritual energies on those closest to me who have gone before—my foremothers and forefathers. Over time, I have developed my own customs and rituals that express my appreciation for the support they offer me every day.
Can I Still Be “Religious” and Practice Ancestor Veneration?
Despite being characteristic of many indigenous cultures, ancestor veneration is not a form of worship incompatible with modern religions. We all, in some way, draw strength from those who have come before: Buddhists, Christians, Jews, Muslims, and Wiccans (and everyone in between) find some value in the wisdom of elders in the form of disciples, prophets, saints, imams, teachers, etc., regardless of the deity they hold highest. It is the placement of that teaching within a dogma that varies from culture to culture, from family to family, from religion to religion. My extended family is a melting pot of religions, yet to a degree, we all practice ancestor veneration.
For example, on my father’s side, my German Jewish great-grandfather David married an Irish Catholic immigrant named Mary. They sent their daughters to shul but ate fish on Fridays. Each of the five daughters took the religion of the man she married. I have Jewish cousins, Catholic cousins, Protestant cousins, and agnostic/atheist cousins, but we all revere David and Mary as being our illustrious predecessors. We are just as likely to toast our grandparents as we are to pray before a meal. If you share the faith of your grandparents, you are in a way practicing ancestor veneration because you are acknowledging their lasting effect on your religious life. If you want to deepen that bond with them, an ancestor veneration practice could be right for you. Similarly, if you are blazing your own path through animism or Wicca and miss having a focus on a supreme being(s), Ancestor Veneration can provide the structure you are looking for.
Is Ancestor Veneration Complicated to Practice?
Many people practice ancestor veneration without even knowing it. Have you ever thought to yourself, “Opa taught me how to make conversation with strangers” or been told, “You inherited your fashion sense from Nana”? By articulating those lessons, whether silently or verbally, you acknowledge timeless connections to family. Ancestor veneration begins by recognizing simple inheritances and soon blossoms into so much more. Just by remembering lost loved ones and being grateful for their hard work and affection is a form of ancestor veneration every day.
And yet, a family is a complicated grouping of humans who make mistakes. Some of us indirectly learn to be better people in spite of the influence of family. I did not get along with my maternal grandmother while she was alive (few did), but I developed strong and lasting friendships by refusing to emotionally manipulate the people I love the way she controlled those she loved. Unfortunately, we don’t get to pick our ancestors; we’re stuck with those whom history gives us. So, we might as well try to learn as much from the good as from the bad. Thankfully, we can choose when or how or under what conditions we want to have individual ancestors in our daily lives. After a while, and sometimes with considerable effort, even the most problematic ancestors can be perceived as elders and teachers with valuable lessons to offer.
What If I Don’t Know My Ancestors?
Knowing the names of your ancestors is not required for Ancestor Veneration. When applied sensibly, intuition can be called upon to fill in the gaps. For example, if the name of a female ancestor has been lost to time, research popular names from the era and assign her spirit a name that resonates with you. You are empowering and naming an energy source for yourself—not forging a birth certificate. This is not a genealogically sound practice, obviously, but ancestor veneration like all spiritual practices involves a leap of faith. If you are an adoptee or a child of diaspora (whether chosen or forced) discovering names or nationalities can be especially frustrating. In such cases where connecting with ancestors on an intellectual level can be difficult—connecting with energies is not. When you listen to what your heart is telling you, you may discover familial truths.
How Can I Get Started with Ancestor Veneration?
You can begin an ancestral veneration practice with as little as one quiet minute a day during which you focus on your breath and remind yourself that each of your hundreds of thousands of ancestors breathed in and out in exactly the same way. Concentrate on one particular ancestor or consider your family tree as a whole. Once you get going, formalizing a regular Ancestor Veneration practice with direct intention can improve negative family energies and allow practitioners to build stronger roots with which to face the present and future. You can devote as much or as little time as you want towards cultivating customs and rituals that are right for you and your forebears. If you trust the process, the development of an ancestor veneration habit can help connect you to the nature of your true spirit and to lost cultural and family traditions, as well.
Copyright 2018 Madra Banrion / All Rights Reserved.