Relating with the Dead

Updated: Oct 22, 2021

As Jaroslav Róna's sculpture above suggests, having the ancestors at our backs can be quite a weight to bare. Acknowledge them or not, they impact us. Whether this image represents burden or support, there's a gravitas worthy of humility. As the human bows in reverent posture, it's important to note that reverence and worship are not the same. There's a way to remember and honor without repeating the shadow impulses of those who came before us. Ancestry can be complicated, to put it mildly. But we can’t cancel our forebears, and ignoring them doesn’t work so well either. So there’s little choice but to approach the dead with nuance, both honoring (where appropriate) and holding boundaries (where needed). Blessings and burdens can coexist, and do. Love and boundaries can coexist; anger and gratitude can, too. It gets messy, but engaging with our bloodlines is vitally important for personal and cultural healing.

Most cultures hold long-earned wisdom about the mysteries of the death and the ancestors. A commonly shared understanding in many Indigenous traditions is that their journey does not stop at death. There is a range of wellness among the dead, in the present. Thus, relating with them is a present-tense activity. Even the unremembered dead can have impact on us. In fact, we impact one another.

Through dreams, sensations or intuitive connection, the dead attempt to make their presence known. Often, to their dismay, generations of western materialist indoctrination and protestant dogmatism have caused their descendants to doubt their own capacity to hear the subtle voices from beyond--and within. Thus, the living too often abandon an ancient agreement, a pact that prescribes rituals of reciprocity between the living and the dead to maintain harmony and balance between the realms. In my personal journey and professional training of ancestral healing (see more at Ancestral Medicine), I have repeatedly experienced and witnessed that range of wellness in the other world. As above, so below. Whether we imagine these less savory ones as Hollywood-style apparitions, subtle energetic presences or unhealed soul fragments, their unprocessed trauma, grief, regret, judgements, thought-forms and fear can live on through us. Sometimes their lingering trauma impacts our physical bodies, emotions, choices. Similar to living humans, even the well-intentioned dead can be a bit sticky. Their interference can rob the living of life force and sovereignty. While the energy they leach from us may be unintentional and less dramatic than a vampire’s bite, there remains a sense that the dead sometimes need nourishment or support from the living. When the living--because of rejection, loss of ritual technologies, or assumption that the dead are utterly gone--refuse to pay respects or tend to them, the dead can ironically linger a little too close for comfort. Even addictive tendencies can be led by the dead. Some ghosts are indeed very hungry.

Our bodies hold the blood memories of and energetic threads to generations upon generations of people with complicated stories. If you’re tending your blood lineages, we offer prayers for your persistence and dedication to the process. The ancestors are undoubtedly complicated. Like the living, the dead are wounded. Their wounds continue to impact the present, in our bodies, the land and our culture. Time and time again, when working with people and their ancestors, it seems that when these wounds are acknowledged, tended, held compassionately, healing begins to happen and swiftly ripples through the realms. Healing their wounds can bring profound healing to our own bodies and our descendants. Thus, their healing can also provide a key towards cultural healing.

One simple piece of ritual technology is to hold boundaries with the ones who are not yet well while opening up to connection with those who are wise, healed, well-seated with the ancestors. Even when invoking the ancestors, you can specify to reach out to the healthy ones who are capable of supporting you and the not-yet-well dead. The well ones can help to support the dead in their continued journey of healing.

For me, this past decade of tending the dead has been life-changing. I’ve learned to listen for the subtle whispers that echo through time; learned discernment and how to enforce boundaries; grieved wounds and harms enacted on and by my people; tenderly held my body as intergenerational imprints revealed themselves; honored the cultural wounds manifest in my blood; made repairs when possible; healed; forgiven; reconnected with childhood spirit allies; reclaimed forgotten gifts and rituals; become more wholly human.

It takes time, discernment and perseverance to lean into the healing work. Oftentimes healthy boundaries come before intimate relationship. For many of us, there's a back-log of repair work needed before we can safely engage. But it's worth it.

The ancestors can help us understand who we are and where we came from. They can also be ambassadors to the earth, plant spirits, affinity spirits and even deities. It's a worthwhile endeavor to address the mysteries of the dead before dying. They're a bridge to the other world.

Part of Heartward Sanctuary's mission is to tend the mysteries of the living and the dead and how they connect to the holy earth. We aim to remember funeral rites that benefit them all. We're here to help facilitate repair and healing between the worlds. And also boundaries between them when necessary. If you need support in tending your beloved departed, we're here. Whether they've recently passed or been gone for generations, it's never too late to make good on the pact.

PHOTO: Adam Jones, Ph.D. “Podobenství s Lebkou” or “Parable with Skull” Prague Castle, Czeck Republic Sculpture by Jaroslav Róna

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