The vast majority of the time I believe it is unnecessary and potentially antagonistic to state why you do not do something. Every practice and every tradition is different, so it is generally better to focus on what you do, rather than what you do not do. However, it has become an annual thing for me to become irritated when people vocally assume that everyone has a formal ancestor veneration practice, say that everyone should have such a practice, or even worse, bully and belittle people who do not. I do not formally venerate any ancestors, and I potentially never will, so it is rather vexing when people imply or directly accuse me of having a practice which is incomplete or lacking.
Ancestor veneration is an incredibly important practice for a huge number of solo practitioners, and it is an essential component in widely varied traditions and religions from throughout the world. Remembering and respecting the dead is as close to a universal human concept as it gets. There are no end of good reasons why people practice ancestor veneration, and their lives are correspondingly enriched by it. If these practices work for you, that is fantastic! But, not all the touted benefits of ancestor veneration happen for every person, and most of the benefits can also be achieved through other practices.
I do believe it is usually worthwhile to explore the practice of ancestor veneration, just in case it is for you. However, it does not work for everyone. In this article I am seeking to convey my personal reasons for not venerating my ancestors, and some of the things I have done instead to root my practice and connect with death. Hopefully my words will help to increase understanding of the fact that alternatives can work extremely well for many people, and many situations.
I will in places refer to “active ancestors”. What I mean by this, is ancestors who are to some degree actively interested and involved in their descendants, whether those descendants are one generation removed, or one thousand. Not every person who dies does this kind of work, and even fewer do it for an extended number of generations. Some people simply move on to the afterlife, or their next life.
At One Time I did Seek Ancestor Veneration
In my youth I did very much yearn for a connection to my ancestors. I wondered where my family had come from, and how they had come to be where they were. Clearly, where we were living was not where our ancestors, any of them, came from. I wondered how many relatives there were, out there in the world, that I had never met or heard of.
I grew up in a very nuclear family, with very little contact with extended family, even grandparents. I had so little contact with aunts and uncles that I honestly could not tell you all their names, and some I only met a couple of times in my entire life. I only knew one great-grandmother, never met the vast majority of my cousins, and none of my extend family further removed than that. I felt cheated that the walls of my childhood home were not lined with treasured photos of ancestors and relatives, as seemed commonplace in other peoples’ homes.
When as a child I would ask my parents about ancestry and extended family, I was often met with vague answers, dismissal, contradictory answers, or answers that were mathematically impossible. The last time I asked my father about ancestry, he told me in a very authoritative way that I was a higher percentage German ancestry than either he or my mother, which is mathematically impossible. When I was little he told me that we were part Cherokee, and then a couple years later asked me where I had gotten that idea, because we had no indigenous ancestry (Through genetic testing, I have much more recently confirmed I indeed have no indigenous ancestry.).
I know that people who are adopted usually have even less to go on than I did, but that did not alleviate my frustration. How was I supposed to understand where my family had come from, if I could not get a straight answer out of my parents? What was I supposed to do if the only approachable extended family who knew about such things had converted to Mormonism, and I did not want to deal with them trying to convert me? I wondered about my family tree, but I did not want to take the time to do the research required to figure out my family tree for myself. I had other things going on in my life that were far more important to me.
To make matters worse, my mother genuinely had no idea who her biological father was, and her mother and adoptive father were unwilling to give any information about him, even his name. As a result, my mother never talked about her adoptive father’s family, instead focusing solely on her mother’s family.
Storytelling was also completely absent. There were never any stories told about when my parents were children, or things that had happened to other members of the family. No stories were told about my grandparents, great grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, or anyone else in the extended family. I knew nothing about anyone I was not living with, and I knew next to nothing about the lives of my parents from before when I was old enough to remember events for myself.
All of that meant that when I was very little, I knew nothing about any relatives who had passed, or even the ones who were living. I did not even know most of their names. The only one who stood out was my great-grandmother Ester who was still living when I was a child. I did adore her, though I was not able to attend her funeral, and I have never been able to visit her grave. Last I heard, the graveyard had been filled to capacity, the funeral company had gone out of business, and no one is allowed to trespass on the property to visit their loved ones’ final resting places.
I do send my great-grandmother Ester good will from time to time, but I have always had the feeling that she would not want a fuss, and would not want to be called back here for a chat. She was ready to move on, having lived long enough to see where her family was heading, and would prefer to rest in peace, undisturbed.
I fully understand that no one is perfect, but my family is profoundly problematic. Out of the ones I do know, most of them are genuinely toxic, many of them are abusive, and those who are not, are stubbornly or proudly problematic in other ways that I cannot honor and will not venerate in my life. In other words, even in death they bring to me more trouble than benefit.
Both maternal grandparents (including the adoptive grandfather – adoption is family) passed when I was in my 30’s. I had serious issues with both of them in life, which makes me very reluctant to engage with them in death. Veneration will never be on the table, because their priorities and some of the core principles they lived by are fundamentally incompatible with my principles and morals.
I only met my paternal grandmother a couple times when I was a very small child. Although it hit me hard when she died, I was mostly grieving what should have or could have been. We never interacted enough for a genuine connection. It was also my first personal encounter with the death of a human I had known. I do not know her name. I do not believe I was ever told her name, and when I asked my father what her name was years later, he refused to answer or tell me anything about her. My only memory of her was when I was most likely still too young to attend school. I tried to talk to her in her kitchen, but she kept her back to me and ignored my presence. Another relative scooped me up and told me to leave her alone. My only personal connection to her was the complete dismissal of a small child, and after death she never showed back up to make amends. I cannot honor that.
My paternal grandfather was the only member of my family who ever showed me genuine caring and support, but I saw him only a handful of times. He died when I was a teenager. He was a crotchety old soul, who was into conspiracy theories and all manner of insanity, but he was kind to me, so I remember him fondly. I send him well wishes now and again, but I feel that I should leave him be, and that if I were to pursue a relationship now, I would only be inviting his crazy into my space. I do not need that. I can honor, remember, and respect the kindness without engaging with his problems by inviting him to exist in my home.
As for the rest of my immediate family? As far as I know, they are all still alive, but they are so toxic, abusive, and all-around problematic people that I ceased all contact with them years ago. My life is much happier and less stressful without them in it, and I am NOT going to be inviting them to rejoin my life once they are dead. They made their beds, and they can lay in them without me for the rest of eternity.
Some people can work with some of their problematic ancestors, but I cannot work with mine. They are dishonest to the core, so I do not and cannot trust them. Working with those who are problematic requires that you can trust their motivations, and that an honest understanding can be reached between the living and the dead. Both are impossible with my family.
If you do want or need to deal with your problematic ancestors, whether it is to include them, make peace with them, or keep them out, there are a lot of good articles on Patheos Pagan which talk about that.
Boundaries, Toxic People, and Toxic Forgiveness
I am big on excluding toxic and abusive people from my life. If I do not want someone in my life while they are alive, I do not want them in my life when they are dead. Looking only for positive points to focus on with the dead is no different to me than putting on blinders to bad behavior so you can continue thinking well of that racist uncle. Some things are deal-breakers, and I am not going to give anyone a free pass on deal-breakers just because they are now dead. They have to earn good graces, and prove that they understand they behaved badly, just like the living. Most living people are not willing to do that, and most of the time death does not change that.
After someone toxic dies, I am not going to reach out to them hoping that in death they somehow achieved enlightenment. It is like getting away from a toxic relationship, then deciding the other person might have learned better, and returning to the relationship hoping to “fix” that toxic person. The overwhelming majority of the time, all that will happen is that the ride starts all over again, with nothing fundamentally changing about the toxic nature of the relationship.
If one of my problematic dead relatives were to approach me, metaphorical cap in hand, offering apologies, I might agree to work with them on a trial basis. However, unless they immediately did a lot of proving, it is likely I would turn them away. I have been burned repeatedly by family who pretended to learn a lesson, but only wanted to regain access to me for selfish or abusive purposes. Abusive people are very good at cultivating false pretenses, and the dead are notoriously wily. Combining the two is a recipe for disaster.
It is not my problem in this life to try and “save” souls who have no remorse for or cannot recognize their bad deeds, any more than I am going to try to save living people who feel no remorse for bad deeds. It is not going to enrich my practice to invite them into my life, because I do not worship at the altar of forgiveness. It is of no benefit to me or my peace of mind to offer forgiveness unprompted. Toxic forgiveness only benefits toxic and abusive people, by providing them continued access to victims. True forgiveness must be earned by those who seek it.
I Owe My Ancestors no Gratitude
I do not owe my ancestors any gratitude for my existence. I am not going to venerate them solely because they contributed to my genetics. My own parents did not plan on children, and never should have had them. It was a natural consequence of actions they took foolishly and selfishly, without any precautions. They were terrible parents, who put their own needs before their children at any possible opportunity which would not be blatantly obvious to outsiders.
Saying that I owe my parents gratitude for my existence is a form of victim blaming. Much of how I approach life has resulted from how I recovered from their abuse. I will not be thanking them for that abuse, even though it had such a profound impact on my life. I thank my resilience and stubborn desire to be a healthy and whole person despite their best efforts to keep me under their thumbs. I thank friends and chosen family who helped me through the hardest parts of my recovery.
I honor and give thanks for the people who have been a positive influence in my life, and I will not be guilted into honoring those who have never earned honor. I will never revere those who do not deserve it.
I am who I am, not because of my ancestors, but in spite of them.
Venerating Unknown Ancestors
There are a lot of people who practice ancestor veneration with their unknown ancestors, and there are lots of articles on Patheos Pagan which address methods of doing that. Unknown ancestors is a viable way to connect with ancestor veneration when you do not know your ancestry, or your known relatives are too problematic to include in your practice.
In my twenties for a time I did engage in a form of unknown ancestor exploration, but it did not provide what I was hoping for in such a practice. I hoped to find a sense of belonging, spiritual support, and a direct connection to something older than myself which reflected my own spiritual journey. No ancestor spirits ever showed up, let alone demonstrated any interest in being venerated or helping me in this life. All I found was further confusion and affirmation that my path is dramatically unlike that of my active ancestors, so eventually I let that practice fall by the wayside.
Venerating Spiritual and Ideological Ancestors
By the time I happened across this concept, I had stopped seeking ancestors to venerate. I had firm connections to my roots, and those roots had nothing to do with ancestor veneration.
I do very much like this idea, but I am not a part of a formal tradition with deceased individuals to venerate, and there are no prominent pagans of the previous century that I can point to as primary inspiration for my path. My path is entirely of my own devising, and those people who are the most inspiring to me are all contemporaries still actively participating in the land of the living.
I have contemplated venerating other admirable historic figures, but it has never felt right for me to actively venerate any of them. I pay my respects, and see my roots in their accomplishments, without the formality of an altar or calling to their spirits through a regular practice. I suppose it mirrors the way I work with most spirits and deities. For the most part, I work with them when there is a need (be it their need or mine), but I do not actively maintain devotional practice. That kind of formal habitual observation simply is not important for my path or how I work with any metaphysical beings, regardless of how critically important it is to so many other people.
I have asked a couple of the deities I work with if I should be more formal, and the response has generally been an amused laugh, and a gentle reminder that formal and structured and habitual does not work for me. What works better for me are more casual dedications and observances, usually through small actions in the world and at times when it feels Right. I respect the beloved dead in a similar manner. I respect their memories by honoring the foundations they created, continuing or supporting their work in the best ways I can, and through actions and offerings when my mind is with them. It is the sincerity that matters most, expressed through little things and big things at unscheduled times.
For Me, Working with the Dead is Not About Me
I have needed to work with the dead now and again, but it has never been about me. I connect to death and my roots through avenues other than ancestor veneration. Those avenues are about me, and about understanding how I fit into the tapestry of life. They are about understanding what came before which led to the circumstances I am living in, and they inform where the tapestry is heading as new threads are woven. They give me a sense of direction and purpose, and ground my perspective in life.
When I have worked with the dead, it has been because the dead need help, in the here and now, with problems they were carrying. Those problems always stemmed from past events, but just like with living people, it was the current manifestation that need to be addressed. I do not see a significant difference between living shadow work, and shadow work for the dead. In either case, it is about facing the root causes, bringing them to conscious awareness, and dealing with them as they are, so that you can move on, a healthier and more whole person.
The main difference I have seen in living shadow work vs. dead shadow work, is that without all the trappings of embodiment, the process is faster for the dead. When things are brought into awareness there is nothing to hide them, no hormones or chemically driven emotions, far less denial, no conflicting memories of events or other brain-driven cognitive mischief. It is a much more raw and honest process, where even the denials and deflections seem obvious. If the dead want to see things for what they are, and heal, they are very capable of doing that, accomplishing in just a few hours what can take us living people years or decades to work through. Making amends for bad deeds, though, is usually as long a process, and sometimes longer than it is for the living.
The problem is that, just like with the living, not all the dead want to work through their baggage. Instead, they carry it with them to the afterlife, and potentially into the next life as well.
Respecting Death as Cycles
I see revering death and understanding my roots as understanding and respecting the cycles of existence. Everything happens in cycles, where things come into being, grow and develop, have an existence, have a decline, and eventually pass out of existence. Be they physical lives, ideas, objects, relationships, or the very universe we live in. Everything that is, has been, and will be, is subject to creation and eventual destruction.
As an animist I see everything that has a life cycle as having a soul. That soul may be very simplistic, or it may be profoundly complex, but it still has a soul. My tea cup has a soul. My computer has a soul. My cats have souls. The city I live in has a soul. My projects, finished and unfinished, have souls. My garden has a soul. The seasons and years each have souls. Even my relationships have souls, and when I lose my connection to someone, that soul dies. Sometimes the soul of the relationship lasts longer than the life of the other person I had the relationship with, but I do not need a special altar to honor that.
There is a lot of death that happens constantly, throughout the year, on multiple levels of existence, just as there is a lot of birth happening constantly.
That might seem a bit overwhelming to some, but for me it is simply something to be accepted. It is a fact of life, that death is ever-present. Every time there is a change, there is a death. In accepting those deaths, and facing them with respect and compassion, I am able to engage with the cycle of life more fully. I can more fully appreciate the things that exist, while they exist. Most of the time I can grieve and appreciate loss without getting caught up in denial or dismissal. I can remember the past without rewriting history to better suit current narratives. I can respect the past without dwelling on it. I can interact with the dead without fearing my own mortality, or anyone else’s.
I believe wholeheartedly in reincarnation. I have ever since I was a small child who only knew about Christianity, and was told I was a blasphemer for suggesting reincarnation could happen to anyone other than Jesus. Simply put, reincarnation made sense to me, because it explained how people seemed to just know and understand things they had never encountered before, and how people could learn new skills like they were refreshing old ones. Only living one life did not explain those things. I could see the freshness in new souls, and the vast experience of old souls, and even most of the you-only-live-one-life Christians I knew would mention old souls and new souls from time to time.
I can feel the influence of my past lives on this life. On a superficial level, this has manifested as strong emotional reactions to things I have no personal investment in, in knowing about things or knowing slang I had never encountered previously in this life, in confusion when my arms or stature were shorter than I was expecting, in momentary surprise that my body is female instead of male despite the fact that I do love my body and have no desire to change it, and so much more which is too personal to go into here and now. Suffice it to say, the impact of my past lives is profound, and although I have never engaged in past life regression, I did not need to in order to work with those influences to better understand how they impact this life and root me in all of my soul’s existence.
Venerating Ancestor Allies
One of the most common benefits I have seen mentioned for ancestor veneration, is that you are a part of the legacy of your ancestors. Since you are part of their legacy, they are invested in seeing you be successful. It is usually stated as a hard rule that your ancestors are your greatest spiritual allies, who will work the hardest for you if you give them the respect they deserve. This perspective assumes that you have active ancestors who want to be venerated, and that at least some of them are worthy of respect and will be amenable to you.
I may be related to countless people by blood, but as far as I can tell I have no active ancestors who are invested in me and my path as a part of their legacy. If anything, who I am, and how I engage with my life, is an anathema to them. On a spiritual level, those souls which had bodies that contributed to my genetics do not define where I came from, or where I am going. Who I am in this life has far more to do with who I have been in previous lives, than who any of them were.
I do have chosen family, who I love very much. Thankfully, they all are still alive, but I know that will not last forever. I honestly cannot say whether or not I will create an ancestor altar when the first of them passes. It is certainly not out of the question, since their impact on my life has been one of love, caring, and support. They care about me and my legacy, and I will care about honoring and memorializing them. But will I be particularly formal, and make offerings or sit at that altar on a daily, or even weekly, basis? I doubt it greatly. Ways of honoring that come naturally to me are usually casual and spontaneous.
My Path is Whole
My path is whole without formal ancestor veneration because I have a connection to my roots without it. I understand where I came from on levels that have nothing to do with the genetics encoded in my cells and the people who passed those genetics down to me. I understand where I am and where I am going, even if the precise details of the days, weeks, and months to come are shrouded in mystery. I respect history and those who walked this earth before me without engaging in formal trappings. By the same token I also make space to respect the other infinite souls which shaped our world which were not embodied as humans, or even as other living beings.
My path is whole because I embrace the whole of the cycle of life, including death, and in that richness there is beauty, foundation, movement, and purpose.