I’m often told that a deathday sounds “morbid.” But memento mori, y’all.
In all seriousness, I came up with the term while adding ancestor’s birthdays to my calendar. I am trying to start a more active ancestor practice, and I thought honoring them on their birthdays would be a great way to start. Then I thought: well, what about the day they died?
The day you pass on seems important, for the ancestors as well as the living. Perhaps more so for the living. Perhaps deathdays can serve as a day of closure for families.
One of my grandmas died when I was twelve, and it took many years for me to feel closure. Last year, my other grandma passed away (non-COVID related). She had had Alzheimer’s for nearly a decade, and I think I had already gone through a mourning process.
In fact, her death last year was partly a happy occasion. I had a small ritual and talked to her, telling her about how my life had been going for the last decade. In a way, she seems closer now than she has been for a long time.
It’s strange how different death and grieving can be in individual situations.
Honoring the Ancestors as a Pagan
Ancestral practices are certainly part of Paganism. At the very least, Pagans gather once a year to honor the ancestors. If you’re of the Celtic persuasion, this is usually around the end of October for Samhain. If you’re a Roman Pagan, you probably honor your ancestors in the spring.
In fact, it seems that many ancient IE polytheist cultures honored their dead around the new year. Otherwise, they may have had another association to the dead – like the Alfablots and Disablots in polytheist Scandinavia. You can read more about those here.
Most modern Pagans have at least one ancestor ritual a year, often tied to a High Day. We often tell stories about them and share fond memories. As the old Heathen addage goes: that which is remembered, lives.
But is that really enough? While many people have issues with some of their known ancestors, how can we build and deepen our ancestor practices?
Devotional Practice for the Ancestors
I know several Pagans who have a daily or weekly practice to honor their ancestors. Many make a cup of coffee or tea in the morning and share that cup with their ancestors. A few others will recite their names from a list by their altar. If you want some more thoughts on an ancestor practice, I really like John Drum’s article. These are little things, but it’s the little things that count.
Another thing to think about is older generations of ancestors. While we may feel especially close to friends and family that we knew in life, we also have a long line of ancestors who we can build relationships with over time. You may not know these ancestors personally, but their lives ultimately resulted in yours.
In my own, fairly new, practice, I set reminders for birthdays and deathdays. I try to give an offering of something they liked – strong black coffee, a dirty martini, chocolate, or even music or poetry. This obviously works best if you knew this ancestor personally.
My rituals tend to take less than fifteen minutes. I light a candle, call out to the specific ancestor and state why I’m there, give my offering, say a few words, and wish them well.
I don’t feel the need to use fancy language or formally call in an ancestor like when I call in deities. So far, I haven’t asked much from my ancestors, either. But I do feel a very personal connection when I feel I’ve reached them.
Why You Should Honor the Ancestors
I think humans naturally want that connection to deceased loved ones. But why do Pagans specifically honor the ancestors?
More so than any other spirit – land spirits, allies, or even the deities – the ancestors are invested in us. Blood-kin are quite literally invested in us and our lives. And beloved friends and chosen family would naturally still want good things for us. As ancestors, they have different means of helping us, although their wisdom and advice is often the best help.
And I’m not saying that the ancestors are suddenly all-knowing. But people often find that different perspectives are helpful in any complicated situation. As ancestors that you can reach out to, their perspective is as useful in death as it was in life. What’s more, unlike other spirits or even the deities, our ancestors lived actual human lives.
If you’ve seen Avatar: The Last Airbender, you may remember when Aang talks to his past lives. They all give different advice based on their own life experiences, their own particular wisdom. Our own ancestors can give us their own advice from their own experiences.
And for new Pagans, these ancestors are the easiest to reach out to and ask for help. If there’s some test you’re preparing for, ask their advice for studying or keeping calm. Ask for their aid and guidance while you take the test.
Neither of my grandmothers were math or science whizzes. But my grandma who passed away last year got her GED at 63 years old. She knew the importance of studying, learning, and dedication. I could certainly ask her for advice on discipline or motivation. I could celebrate my achievements and struggles with her.
Those ancestors who we knew personally in life still care about us. They are already interested in our well-being. I wouldn’t go to Marie Curie for help with a chemistry test just because that was her job in life. She has no reason to answer some stranger’s call for aid. The ancestors are not vending machines.
Not even my grandma would answer my every call for aid if I didn’t sit down with her occasionally to chat over a cup of coffee. (Actually…she probably would. She was like that. But I would never do that to her out of respect.) And I would not call on an ancestor I didn’t know, demanding that they help me with something. Our relationships are based on genuine care as well as mutual benefit. It’s rude to do otherwise.
Pagans like to focus on the gods and goddesses so often. But most of them probably have a caring grandma in the stands, cheering them on. Don’t ignore those ancestors. They’re already on your team.
Whether your devotional practice is weekly, or like mine, for birthdays and deathdays, I highly encourage Pagans to honor the ancestors regularly. And more than that, talk to them. Sharing a cup of coffee isn’t so much effort in life nor in death.
All articles accessed March 2021.
- Aine. “Winternights.” By Land, Sea and Sky: WordPress. https://thenewpagan.wordpress.com/2016/10/24/winternights/
- John “Drum” Pagano. “Building a Devotional Practice with the Ancestors.” Patheos. https://www.patheos.com/blogs/fromacommonwell/2019/08/building-a-devotional-practice-with-the-ancestors/