Flesh and Bone: Honoring Ancestors

When you see images of bones, do you shudder?

One of the reasons people tell me they fear Vodou is “all the bones,” images of the skeletal Spirits of the Dead. Why do we fear the dead? Why is the idea of departed ones a source of horror? Vodou empowered me to confront and overcome my own fear, to build a healthy relationship with the dead.

The wheel of the year has spun around again. We approach Halloween, Samhain, Day of the Dead, All Souls’ Day, All Saints’ Day. The veil, as they say, is thin. I remember and pay respects to my predecessors: my beloved departed ones, teachers of my spiritual traditions, folk hero(ine)s who inspire me, artists and writers who humble me, scholars who provide my intellectual foundation, and the nameless ancients whose gift is my DNA. We are the living flesh on the bones of these ancestors.

A relationship does not end just because one person passes away.  We carry our dead with us: in our DNA, our memories, our culture, our hang-ups. Sometimes our guilt. But after their death, we can choose to have a relationship with the best part of someone, and let the worst parts go. We can forgive them. We choose what we carry forward.

We are defined by our relationships. In some ways, we are relevant only as part of a community. Your history, life and fate of are not distinct from the history, life and fate of your community. My definition of community used to only include people who live in my time zone, as it were. I don’t mean Central Daylight Time: I mean, people who are alive at the same time as me. But the truth is that we are supported and influenced by the dead as much as the living: community looks like a circle, but it is actually a sphere that crosses the visible and invisible realms. The community is our bones.

My physical ancestors’ bones are part of the rich soil of India and the Caribbean. The land I live on now contains the bones of Native American people and pioneers of European descent. My intellectual and moral heritage is built on the bones of scholars, artists, warriors and healers of heritages too countless to name. While my spiritual traditions are Neo-Pagan, Vodou and Hindu, this practice of honoring one’s ancestors is practiced across the globe.

It is not ancestor “worship” any more than throwing a birthday party for someone is worshipping them. And it looks much the same: food is offered, candles are lit, we stand around and sing. For this one day, they are the center of the circle. We acknowledge their importance to us, and honor their essential spirit. We should not dwell in grief, but neither should we forget our dead ones. They are our bones. Bones are strength. They literally hold us up.

The Vodou I practice is based in New Orleans, but that is based in Haiti and the Caribbean, which in turn is based in Africa. Follow anything back far enough, you’ll end up in Africa. Africa is our bones.

West African philosophy charts an intersection of ancestors, community and time. You seem to believe that time marches ever onward: what is gone is discarded as you look eagerly forward. We live in the present and the future is before us. The past is history. This is not true. You may not be able to see it, but the past is your bones.

The African concept of time and community helps us understand this. In some West African systems, there are two kinds of time: Sasa and Zamani. Sasa is encompassed by the memory of the community’s eldest to the potential lifetime of the youngest. This is “immediate” time, the time of the living.

Zamani is “far” time, the temporal geography in which the consciousness of all the community’s dead and unborn reside. It is heritage and hope. It the well from which both tradition and innovation spring. It is a sphere made up of many circular time-lines. Zamani encompasses Sasa like a womb, cradles, supports and nourishes it.  The future returns the past, but we make it our own. Sasa is the flesh; Zamani, the bones.

Strip us bare: we are bones. The skeleton is us, seen through the mirror of time.

As we come around again to this time of year when the bones of the trees are laid bare, take a moment to connect with Zamani. Honor those who helped create the reality you dwell in. Let yourself love your departed ones. You cannot see them, but they are there, deep within, supporting you. Share their stories. Hold their wisdom. Forgive your dead. They walk every step with you, hidden and essential. There is nothing to fear.

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8 thoughts on “Flesh and Bone: Honoring Ancestors

  1. This is wonderful! Thank you for your insights. It reminds me of my process of dealing with my own ancestral history of white privilege and racism. For so long I was “scared of the bones,” trying to separate myself from my ancestors because of their errors, but it didn’t help me transform my own mind, it just made me guilty. The process you talk about here- of honoring and forgiving those that came before us and make us up- was ultimately much more helpful for me in visualizing my own transformation. I couldn’t leave my ancestors behind; I have to bring them with me.

    I look forward to reading more from you.

  2. Thank you for this wonderful piece! Ancestral reverence/veneration (NOT worship, as you so aptly point out) is a feature of many systems around the world and is an absolutely integral part of Western culture though not always recognized as such. As a devotee of Orisa and one who engages in ancestral veneration on a daily basis, I love and appreciate “the bones” and your thoughtful, pointed words about them.

  3. This is a timely and helpful article as a prepare for my next performance. It is an exploration coming from the tribe that lost its memory and what seeds we need to sow for our children to reap. Thank You

  4. Saumya, I’m curious about this:

    One of the reasons people tell me they fear Vodou is “all the bones,”

    How many people have actually said this?

    It seems to me that most people know so little about Vodou that they have no idea what its art looks like – bones or no bones.

    And the ones who have seen Vodou art and depictions of the Gedes would almost certainly have been given some explanation.

    To be honest, I have a hard time imagining your demographic 🙂

  5. There are three groups of people I’ve heard this from. 1. The general public who have seen movie images that are based on Gede/Baron Samedi but create a sensationalized, violent or morbid association: people wearing that particular costume are inevitably villains, and of African heritage (e.g. Live and Let Die; Princess and the Frog). There is a huge amount of other Vodou/Gede imagery, usually in horror movies. When I ask people where their impression of Vodou originates, after some searching conversation, they usually admit/realize that it comes from movies and TV. 2. People from New Orleans or other cities with Vodou communities. Many people in these areas are aware of Vodou and have seen images, but don’t have reliable information. Because it’s being practiced nearby them, these folks often have the highest level of suspicion and fear; it can feel like a genuine threat. 3. People who (either through academia or just curiosity) have read a little about Vodou from outdated and biased sources. If someone Googles “Voodoo” or does a search in an academic library system, it’s difficult to distinguish between biased and unbiased sources.

    1. I forget how uninformed some communities still are about this kind of stuff. I’ve seen (for example) Day of the Dead mainstreamed so much, I’m shocked there are still people whose reaction to bones is, “Must be evil!”

      Thanks for your answer.

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