Following the Dead: Road Trip, Part 2

The rest of the meal passed without incident and then we took some time to walk around the town of Gettysburg, just as twilight was falling. One of my companions, having been raised by a medium, was quite sensitive to spirits and kept commenting that there were ghosts all over. I'm afraid my response was a less than elegant "No sh-t! Just wait till we get to the battlefields tomorrow!" We returned to the hotel fairly late and though I had intended to walk out to Culp's Hill to make my first offerings after dinner, I decided this could wait until the morrow. 

HistoryThe morning came all too quickly. I was urged awake by a press of my own ancestors and the collective military dead of that place. Well before 7:00 am, I was told to walk out to Culp's Hill (perhaps a quarter of a mile from the bed and breakfast, maybe less) to meet the battlefield, commune with the dead, and begin my round of offerings. (I've found that there is a protocol to honoring the dead, but for us, its restoration is often a matter of trial and error, since we are just now relearning how to do all of this properly. I suppose ease and excellence will come as the restoration of our ancestral ways progresses but for now, sometimes I need to be prompted by certain of my dead).

During the battle, Culp's hill was a key point in the Union's defensive line and suffered several thousand casualties. It was rather eerie walking out alone into what is now a memorial park. I could feel the point where I passed into the place that had seen the worst of the killing. It was as though I had crossed an invisible divide. I could smell it. All along the way, I stopped at various monuments (Gettysburg battlefield is littered with them, many raised by individual regiments to commemorate their fallen comrades) to leave offerings of alcohol and tobacco. I was pushed to go further, beyond the monuments and to address the spirit of the field itself. It has a relationship with the dead that dwell there, and it needed to be honored first. It's impossible to go far off the paved trail, for most of Culp's field is now occupied by cattle, but I was able to lay more tobacco in the field itself and spend a fair amount of time with the land spirits there and with the dead.

MonumentI stayed so long with them, in fact, that I ended up running back to the Inn. I had booked a registered battlefield guide (who turned out to be excellent) for myself and my friends and did not wish to be late in meeting him. By 9:00 am, we were on our way to the place where the battle had actually started, and over the next four hours we made our way to several key places, as our guide brought the story of the battle of Gettysburg alive. He seemed not only very knowledgeable but also very invested in his work. I found out later, when we visited the cemetery there, that he was descended from Union soldiers who fought at Gettysburg with an Ohio regiment. He even had their regimental symbol —a crescent moon - -tattooed on his arm in honor of them.

As we went from place to place, I played what I've tongue-in-cheek referred to as "ninja shaman," leaving massive and major offerings all over the place without ever being seen. Only once was I so incredibly moved that I had to fumble with offerings out in the open, and that was at a monument to peace graced with an eternal flame. There I openly laid tobacco and poured out alcohol, simply telling the guide that "I had to do a thing and that it was the way we honored the dead in my family." This was more or less true, if one counts one's ancestors as current family, which I do.

CountryBy the end of the tour, I was exhausted. I felt as though I had been physically beaten, because in a way I had. I learned then what ancestor workers the world over have long known: sometimes dealing with the dead (and also powerful spirits of the land like battlefields) in this way involves experiencing their body memories too, including memories of battle: physically, as well as the noise and stench and heat. All of this had poured over me, and nearly laid me out on the ground.

I have a very stoic demeanor and a very high tolerance to pain, so I was able to conceal what was happening to me from the others. They only noticed that more and more I trailed far behind the guide. The spirit of tobacco, which I honored by keeping lit most of the time I was walking the field of battle, consecrates and protects, but not from those experiences. I didn't quite comprehend what was happening to me, and by the time we left Gettysburg, I was aching, sore, and very confused. It took a call later that night to a more experienced ancestor worker to clear things up. If I ever had any illusions about honoring the dead being something that one could relegate safely to the realm of rigid intellect and calm, measured action, my visit to Gettysburg rid me of them. Honoring the dead is sometimes about stepping into their experience, pouring out offerings and, in whatever way one is able, witnessing the defining aspects of their lives and deaths.

8/23/2011 4:00:00 AM
  • Pagan
  • Highway to Hel
  • Ancestors
  • Civil War
  • Gettysburg
  • Paganism
  • Galina Krasskova
    About Alonzo L. Gaskill
    Alonzo L. Gaskill is an author, editor, theologian, lecturer, and professor of World Religions. He holds degrees in philosophy, theology, and biblical studies. He has authored more than two-dozen books and numerous articles on various aspects of religion; with topics ranging from world religions and interfaith dialogue, to scriptural commentaries, texts on symbolism, sacred space, and ritual, and even devotional literature.