Fall is upon us. It’s time when the dead roam the earth more freely (because there is more darkness after the fall equinox). And on the upcoming three day period (Halloween, All Saints Day and All Souls Day), contact with the dead is easier. So this is when the dead come back to visit – particularly those who are in the in between state who have not fully crossed over. (These are the scary, possibly unhealthy dead).
It’s the perfect time to cultivate relationship with the dead. It’s something we don’t do well in this country because we don’t really do death. So, how do you have a relationship with the dead? It’s a great question. Let’s look first at why you’d want a relationship with the dead.
Why Have a Relationship With the Dead
Since we don’t have a relationship with death, many die without resolving their lives, meaning they have unfinished business and don’t let go. Or the living mourn so deeply that the dead feel they can’t leave. Perhaps the dead just don’t know how to get where they are going. It’s also possible that they linger out of fear or going to Hell. When we have a relationship with the death and it becomes natural, we learn that death is just a part of life. We don’t fear it. This helps us to die better.
If we have a relationship with the dead, we can live more fully. We don’t have to carry them in our hearts all the time. There are three days per year where we can be with them in a healthy way. We aren’t holding them hostage here. They aren’t hanging onto us. So they are never fully “gone.” This can create a lot of peace for people.
Feeling a connection with our dead helps us to honor the living. We understand that we have a DNA connection to our relatives. Those of us in the physical world stand in between those who came before and those who are coming next. It’s a responsibility to live well and clean up the ancestral debt of our ancestors. This can help us to be kinder to our living families and create healthier relationships with the living. It can also help us to feel a part of the web of life rather than isolated and alone.
Since you’re a part of your ancestral line, the ancestors are invested in helping you to live well. This can give you a lot of support as you go through life’s challenges… if you access it. For example, issues of abuse, addiction, poverty, victim thinking, and unhealthy patterns of thinking are handed down. These things may have started many generations ago. The good news is, everyone in your line will benefit from having that pattern removed, so they want to help you. What more powerful ally could you ask for?
If you’re convinced that it’s a good thing to do, let’s look at how to do that.
How to Have a Relationship With the Dead
Practice a Cultural Funeral Tradition. It’s important that you observe a predictable funeral practice so that you learn, while you are living, the practice of dying. When a soul departs, it hangs often hangs around for a while. If it sees the funeral and realizes what is happening, that will be a cue that it’s time to go. This is why some cultures have funeral practices that may seem over the top like hiring professional mourners, giving away all the deceased’s belongings (so that she will have no reason to hang around) or placing the body in such a way to give it the easiest access to the Otherworld. The rites aren’t really as important as the fact that it’s recognizable to the dead person.
We don’t have a lot of rites of passage in our culture, but they are important practices that separate one part of our life from another. Weddings separate being single from being officially coupled. Graduation could be a delineation from childhood to adulthood, but our lines are so very fuzzy in this culture. The funeral is one that could and should be black and white.
Grieve. Part of what makes death so hard is that our cultural norms for funerals say that we have three days to do the funeral, get the body in the ground, eat, pray, remember, and then get back to the business of living. Grief doesn’t flow that quickly. In fact, when all the people go home and the food stops coming is often when the grieving process starts because it’s the first time you have to sit down alone and feel.
You’ve got to make time to grieve. Feel your feelings. Unresolved and unexpressed grief shows up in the lungs (according to Traditional Chinese Medicine). A lack of joy shows up in the heart. If you don’t feel your loss, it will literally make you sick. When you let it flow, something new will come. Most likely acceptance.
So give yourself three months or a year. Take whatever your tradition allows so that both you and the dead know that this is a time limited thing. I know that lots of people say, “You can’t put a time limit on grief.” If you have a set tradition, your inner knowing will follow that tradition because you are giving it time and space to be. Trust it.
Let the Dead Go. You’ve got to let the dead go. They do not belong in this world. We do not belong in their world. If you call out to them, feel happy when you “feel them around you” and wish for that, you could be binding them here. This could make you sick. This is why some traditions don’t speak the name of the dead once they are gone. It’s not healthy for either side to have the dead living in limbo.
Find Yourself in Your Ancestral Past
There are all kinds of ancestral stories that just aren’t true. People get confused. Stories get exaggerated or lost in translation. If you really want to know your history, get a DNA test from Ancestry.com or 23andme. You will find out for sure who your people are. This is important because it can illuminate family triumphs and tragedies. This can help you figure out what your work in. For example, some big cultural events were the Holocaust, Irish potato famine, the many genocides, slavery, indentured servitude, religious oppression, and the Inquisition.
In America many people feel that we have a clean slate and what we make of our lives is up to us. That’s true. Yet we still have to clear up our own mess and ancestral mess. There are villains and saviors in every family tree. Knowing yours makes blaming a bit harder to do and assuming responsibility easier.
Old Celts and others take advantage of the thin veil between the worlds to honor their dead, and sometimes the dead with no one living left to care for them, with a dinner. The details differ, but there are always three constants. First is that it’s “dumb” or silent. Second is that there is a meal of some sort. It can be the food of your ancestors, something elaborate, or something simple. Third is that the dead are invited. When you do this as a way to send love and respect, it helps the spirits on both sides to be more peaceful.
Create and Tend an Ancestral Shrine
So, I just said to leave the dead alone. This is not a contradiction. We do want to leave the newly dead alone. The shrine is for the well dead – these are most likely people we didn’t have a relationship with in life. In our culture, we don’t live or die well so there are lots of people in the in-between, unresolved place. They do not make good ancestral helpers because they are the same in death as they were in life. The shrine is for honoring and asking for help from the well ancestors who are in a position to be helpers.
The living exist in the space between the ancestors and the descendants. We carry the gifts and burdens of the ancestors. They want us to resolve their unfinished business and fulfill our purpose so that the descendants can do the same. (We’re often reborn in the same ancestral line so this makes it nice for us too). So, the ancestors want to help us live well. The shrine is the place to meet them, ask them for help, give gratitude for their assistance, and to remember them. In remembering them, we stay in spiritual contact with our roots.
One word of caution. Erecting an ancestral shrine is duty. It has to be tended daily. It’s a relationship, and relationships require attention to flourish. If you don’t want the responsibility, you can tend to the dead by visiting graves, praying, and speaking to them on holidays like Memorial Day, Veterans Day, Samhain and the Day of the Dead. You may also hold a Dumb Supper.
Instructions for creating shrine can be found here. Intention is everything. Your shrine doesn’t have to be big or elaborate. Just do what feels right for you.
The goal of life is to live well so that you can die well. This isn’t about hanging around waiting to die and live in Paradise. It’s about living in your fullness, expressing your gifts, sharing your life, and living without regret or unfinished business so that you can die without leaving a debt for the next generation. It’s about understanding the wheel of life so that death is natural. When you honor the dead, they’ll help you. It’s not ancestor “worship.” They are not gods. It’s just a way to extend your spirituality to include those on the other side.