People ask me frequently how to properly honor their dead. In fact, lately, it's the question that I hear probably more often than any other, especially now that I'm holding public ancestor rituals every other month. People want to know how to do what my colleagues and I seem to do with so much ease. (Let me tell you, it's hard work. The fact that it looks easy is just a matter of most of us having done it for years and years! Don't be fooled). They want to know how they can do it too. Most of all, they want to know how to do it "right."
There are layers upon layers to ancestor work. I've written quite a bit here and at my blog about how people can honor their dead, and the ways really are endless. I usually suggest that folks begin by setting up an altar or shrine and committing to consistent communication and offerings. That's what the ancestors really want, after all: consistent communication.
On top of that there are rituals of elevation, rituals of devotion, visiting and cleaning up graveyards, leaving offerings there, doing good works in the name of one's dead, donating to worthy charities, telling the stories of one's dead, and, in oh so many ways, reweaving those threads. This is something that, in some way, everyone can do. It's just a matter of finding out what works individually and what one's own dead desire. There's one aspect of ancestor work that even the best of us often neglect though: honoring the Elemental Powers.
In Norse cosmology, creation sprang from a synergetic collision of the world of Ice and the world of Fire. From this "big bang" the first proto being, a hermaphroditic giant named Ymir was created. From Ymir sprang the first ancestors of the Gods and things took off from there. Each of these worlds has its sacred beings—Gods, spirits, and assorted kin—and the gifts of each in some way deeply impact and bless the smooth functioning of our world. (Imagine, for example, if we didn't have any means of working with fire. Cooking, pottery, glass, industry, travel, warming our homes, light and electricity . . . we'd be without all of that and more.) Ultimately, ice and fire are our eldest kin. Beltane with its emphasis on fire, passion, and the richness of the land seems to me to be the perfect time to turn one's attention to the Elemental Powers that shape, form, and sustain our world. These Powers hold tremendous wisdom and they are worthy of respect. Somewhere along the line, we've forgotten that and it is yet one more thread that we're tasked with restoring.
There is a popular animation series (Avatar: the Last Airbender), which is based around the concept of elemental nations: the fire nation, earth nation, water nation, and air nation. I like that taxonomy quite a bit and, though this is not what the series intended or how it uses these terms, I've often found myself applying that idea to the actual realms of the Elemental Powers. Conceiving of fire as a nation in and of itself, a sentient community, a culture has the potential to dramatically change our conception of fire itself and by extension the way in which we relate to this family of spirits. The same holds true for the other elements.
I think that's important because amongst all of our traditions and contracts that have been devastated, desecrated, and destroyed by the forced spread of monotheism across Europe (and even before, simply by people's greed and arrogance), perhaps no family of spirits has suffered as much as the Elemental Powers themselves. We abuse our world and we do it unthinkingly. We take far more than our portion. It is yet one more method of colonialism and genocide encouraged by the monotheistic idea that we are masters of all we see, the top of the food chain, superior to everything else in the universe. We have forgotten how to partner with these Powers. We have forgotten what it means to stand not as their superiors but as respectful equals or even their younger kin. There is no balance.
As a shaman, I think it's critical that we re-learn a measure of respect. I strongly believe our Elemental Powers are angry --and they have every right to be. If we as a species think that we can conquer and dominate them without consequences, the recent earthquakes and tsunamis, mine collapses, and that magnificent South American sinkhole should be clear signs that we can't and that we may pay a terrible price for our hubris. The Elemental Powers are crying out for recognition and respect, just like our ancestors; and just like with our human ancestors we need to recognize and grieve for the harm we have done them and then we need to roll up our sleeves, make some offerings, and get down to the hard business of fixing it.