Ways to honour ancestors beyond your own family tree
It is totally okay not to honour your family ancestors. It’s also okay to honour others you feel a strong connection with, too. How about honouring your community’s ancestral dead as an addition or alternative?
Samhain and other modern Autumnal Pagan Holidays often emphasize the importance of honouring the ancestral dead. For many who practise a nature-based faith, this time of year may be filled with visits to graveyards, setting up a commemorative altar to deceased family members, or perhaps leaving an empty seat at a meal eaten in their honour.
However, family relationships are not always neat and tidy. There are plenty of reasons to not feel like honouring family ancestors. These might relate to difficult or complex relationships, a family history you’re not comfortable with, or simply not feeling very connected to deceased family members you’ve never met.
Then again, maybe you just feel a strong affinity to an individual who you would like to pay your respects to, even if your apples didn’t happen to grow on the same family tree of life and death.
Whatever the reason, it is okay to pay homage to an ancestor who’s not connected to you in the usual ways. Here are some things that might help you honour ancestors in the wider community in accordance with your own spiritual traditions or beliefs.
Where to find your community ancestors?
If you want to honour an ancestor who isn’t your own but you don’t know where to start, stop for a moment. Look at the ground beneath your feet. Countless people have walked on that ground before you. Some of them may have shaped the stories of your community. You most likely walk the same paths (albeit with some variations) that they did.
Are there any historical figures in your community you share a vision with? You’re likely to find evidence of your community ancestors all over town. Maybe there’s a street or building named in their honour. You might find a statue or marker commemorating their deeds. If you’re a university student, you might choose to pay respect to a founding member of your programme who helped pave the way for students to pursue their studies.
Here’s a personal example: In my community, a well-educated and wealthy woman named Samantha was fond of reading in her garden every day during lunch with her gardener and life-long friend, Bill. Samantha was a proponent for equality at a time when segregation was the norm. She was also a poet, and a lover of dogs. When Samantha died, she left funds in her will for the town’s first public library to be built. The library was built on the very gardens where Samantha and Bill read together.
Having worked in the library for several years, I wanted to honour Samantha for being fundamental in establishing a place where I grew up as a child, studied as a teenager, and worked as an adult.
Unearthing the unexpected
You may decide to complete some research on a specific person you intend to honour. This could be as simple as googling them or as involved as making a trip to your local library or historical society to see what you might uncover.
Not everything you uncover about community ancestors will be positive. People are complex and flawed. Even the most progressive individuals of their day might have harboured beliefs or done things that don’t line up with moral or ethical behaviour today. If you discover something that leaves you deeply uncomfortable, you do not have to honour them. The decision is yours and yours alone.
As a personal example, a local historical figure was fundamental in defending my community during a time of conflict. He was a skilled military man and saved the lives of many of his troops and the land he defended. He valued courage, honour, and hard work and went above and beyond the call of duty to service his community. I also learned that he was responsible for the displacement and death of many Lenape people. While his deeds helped preserve and found the community I live in today, I was uncomfortable with the knowledge of his many crimes against Lenape people and how these crimes were often dismissed as products of the time.
Research hidden truths to reveal the unknown
Here are some things you might choose to research to help you connect with your community ancestor:
Did your community ancestor live in your community? Is their home still standing? Are there any buildings, landmarks, or natural areas that were important to your figure? Consider taking a visit to these sites (even if you pass them every single day). Look at them, drink them in, and wonder how they might have looked when your community ancestor was standing in the spot where you are standing now. Explore all the senses with your imagination to help you connect these places with the past.
What causes or values were important to your community ancestor? Did they found or support any local charities, nonprofits, or organizations? How have these organizations evolved over time?
Where is your community ancestor interred? Are there any statues or monuments dedicated to your community ancestor within the town? Are you able to visit the grave, marker, or monument?
Make offerings of respect
Deciding on what, if anything, to offer to this ancestor will be entirely up to you and your personal spiritual preferences and traditions. I’m using offering to include any sort of action done in remembrance of the ancestor you have chosen.
An offering can be as simple as taking some time to reflect on this ancestor’s actions and how these actions might inspire you on your path, or encourage you to choose a new path.
You may find that any research you did on your chosen ancestor left you feeling closer and more connected with your community. Simply acknowledging that you now look at a building or road a different way can act as an offering of itself.
You might choose to visit the grave site of your ancestor and offer a simple prayer, poem, or words of appreciation.
You might take a libation or alcohol, fruit juice, or another beverage and pour some at the grave or marker of your ancestor. It should go without saying that any libations, offerings, or deeds done should not damage historical or private property. Avoid pouring or leaving items directly on gravestones. Consider the feelings of anyone who might be currently grieving in the graveyard at the time.
You might wish to light a candle, or burn herbs or incense in honour of your ancestor.
You might choose to remove trash or debris from an area of your community.
You might want to make a small monetary donation supporting a charity your ancestor helped found or to a cause that your ancestor was passionate about.
As a personal example, remember how I told you about Samantha? In her honour I decided to pay a visit to her gravesite. Exploring the cemetery she was buried in was a rare treat in itself; several historic figures were interred there and discovering their graves was a fascinating experience. The Autumn air and crunching leaves provided a lovely ambiance to the cemetery. Surprisingly, Samantha was buried only a few plots away from my own family. I chose to light some floral-scented incense at her gravesite and thank her for the library where I spent many years learning and working. Later, I donated a copy of my favourite book to the library in her honour.
Prayer to a Community Ancestor
Please feel free to adapt the wording as needed. If you aren’t comfortable speaking these words aloud, you could try writing them down and then carefully burning them in a fire-safe receptacle.
Though we do not share the same blood, I walk the earth you walked*, I breath the air you breathed, taste the water that rained upon you, and share the fire of spirit that carried you through life.
This Samhain, think kindly of me as you again cross the paths we share. I offer to you this ___________ so that you might be remembered on this day for the deeds you have done. I bid you well as you travel the paths between this world and the next.
*It should be noted that I used the word walk to refer to any type of movement, not at the exclusion of differently-abled practitioners.