Posts Tagged Ancestors

Feeling rather “rootish” these days

And don’t they twine through your being, all the various ones that contribute to who you are?  I give you, “St. Patrick’s Breastplate”- a beautiful song, a song of spiritual power.


Comments (1)

What do the dead want?

Part One

I realize I was a bit precipitous in dismissing Samhain, after extracting Thanksgiving. In fact, I fell into a error common to those addressing the issues of cultural change.  I dismissed- out of hand- a driving human need  that the festival  addresses. We all have a felt  need to remember those who have died and perhaps to have an assurance that we too will not be forgotten after our deaths.

It is certain that those of us alive wish to leave something behind that will continue to influence, or impress people.  We are reluctant to die and in most instances hold on to this present existence tenaciously. It is not surprising then that many cultures assume that after death the “dead” will continue to want to exert influence on the world they left behind, and that they will hanker for the life they have lost.

In Nkonya you first assume that the dead desire to reach the abode of the previously deceased and join the ancestors. Witches, and murderers are denied this and their spirits are thought to wander unhappily between the world of the living and the dead.  Those who reach the abode of the ancestors continue to influence the living.  They have power to do good. However they are somewhat capricious and must be placated with sacrifices, and by observing taboos so that they will not be offended. Thus their power to do good is balanced by their ability to cause sickness and death.  It also follows that marriage engagements and joyful events should not be put on a day dedicated to them because of their propensity to meddle jealously.

In the Celtic tradition, putting a candle in the window to show the way home, or putting out food, and singing songs for the departed, also shows our beliefs that the departed have a desire to partake again of  “the real world”

There is also a widespread human belief that those who have departed, having gone to a spirit existence have also gained knowledge of the future.   We know that death destroys the physical body because we can eyeball it’s destruction. Perhaps, since they are now incorporeal  we view them as having escaped the space-time continuum. We lump them with the fairy or spirit world.

Given this universal hunger to remember our dead, and to be remembered, we do need to consider the Christian answer because our hope for what is beyond the portals of death is unique.

Comments (4)

Of Babies, bathwater, and breaking hearths

The November before my mother died she sent out a Christmas letter and hand wrote short notes on accompanying cards.  Morning after morning she sat down at a card table in the living room with carols playing, and persisted. She enlisted the help of her home care aides to address envelopes.

She died on Boxing Day after we lost a last battle to yet another bout of pneumonia.

I spent much of the first two weeks of the new year answering my mother’s Christmas mail. I felt as though one by one I was tying knots in and cutting the cords that bound her to this earth; writing letters to her dear friends, many that I would likely not communicate with again.

I understand something about closure.

I had returned  from Africa to care for her and my father through their last illnesses.  We still make our primary home here.  I moved into her den, and took over her desk, and her filing system: gradually merging what was mine with what was hers.

I understand something about inheritance.

And, I am indeed, meandering toward a point.

Cooking hearth

The Nkonyas have a Custom called “Breaking the Hearth.”  It is  performed perhaps a year after an adult woman dies, after the first painfulness of a death has passed. It is a ceremony both of closure and inheritance. It is also a time when extended family bonds are re-affirmed

It is performed on Odɛ Kulihɛ́, the fifth day of the traditional Nkonya week, a day set aside for honoring the ancestors. At that time the woman’s cooking hearth is broken into twenty-one  pieces and seven mature women make three trips to the dunghill to throw the pieces away. The kitchen and courtyard is also ceremonially swept and the sweepings disposed of.  At this time the woman’s earthly possessions, her cooking dishes, cloths, and beads are displayed and distributed.  Representative women from her family-Oldest aunts and and sisters and cousins receive token dishes, lesser ones a share of her “salt” and “spinning cotton.”  The majority of the inheritance is released to her daughters.

Closure, inheritance, strengthening of extended family ties:  all good and important things, surely.

And yet, I remember hearing Sister Agnes, a leading elder in one small Christian assembly, stand up at a funeral gathering and declare.  “When I die, do not break my hearth!”


A good question to ask when looking at customs is, “What will happen if I don’t perform this?”

And the answer here is.  “If you do not perform this custom and break the hearth, your mother’s ties to her possessions will not be broken and she will not be free to travel to the ancestors.  She will bring sickness and death on the family until it is done and she is freed from her misery.”

If I have become a Christian, and believe that “absent from the body, is present with the Lord,” if I believe that as soon as death occurs I will be in the presence of Jesus and at peace, then I am freed to say, “Don’t break my hearth, let my daughters cook on it.”

The problem for the Christian community is how to achieve closure, strengthen family ties, and pass on an inheritance, and at the same time affirm their freedom in Christ from old fears. How do you keep the baby, and throw out the bathwater?

Leave a Comment