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Why the Ancestors?

by Francisco G Gómez

Ancestor Altar

Ancestor altar on the stage of New Brunswick’s Crossroads Theater in the 2011 Raíces production “Festival for the Dead”

For most people the ancestors are a picture on a mantle, a necklace that grandmother left in her will, a pen knife that belonged to their beloved dad or an old guitar that a favorite uncle passed down to them before he entered the hereafter! Sights, sounds, smells and a whole host of other stimulus bring back that particular remembrance of those that came before you.

Memories of the dead contain many ways of honoring or venerating them. Marc Cohn’s interpretation of the “King” really brought this home when I first heard Walking in Memphis. One of the stanzas in the lyrics reads:

“Saw the ghost of Elvis On Union Avenue. Followed him up to the gates of Graceland, then I watched him walk right through. Now security they did not see him, they just hovered round his tomb, but there’s a pretty little thing waiting for the King, down in the Jungle Room”

We may never really know what motivated Cohn’s notion of seeing Elvis walk through the gates of Graceland or ever understand what it is that awaits the King down in the jungle room. Perhaps what’s most inspiring and touching about these lyrics is that in Cohn’s mind he sees the Ghost of Elvis somewhere and somehow in his remembrance.

Aumbao Wa Ori: Song for the ancestors

Aumbao Wa Ori: A song for the ancestors

As the Day of the Dead approaches, I reflect on how much we humans have forgotten the importance of those that came before us. As you pass cemeteries in the cities, suburbs and countryside, you see row after row of headstones for the dead. You also see sporadic wreathes and flowers, occasionally some type of memorabilia left at a gravesite. You may even notice older grave sites that haven’t been attended to for some time. It occurred to me that after a generation or two memories of the dearly departed are left for specific days like birthdays, date of death, holy days or any other days for remembering individuals that mean or meant something in your life.

We’ve even been programmed to believe that the dead are relegated to places like graveyards, mausoleums or urns where the deceased’s ashes are placed after cremation. Perhaps that’s why most modern day people view the dead with such finality.

Boveda: Altar for the Ancestors

Boveda: Altar for the Ancestors created for Raíces Cultural Center’s 2011 Día de los muertos/Day of the Dead art exhibit “Art and Ancestors”

Given the fast paced life that most of us lead, there never seems to be enough time to sit daily at a given time and place, to break bread and possibly talk about our ancestors. Is it no wonder that generations to come will never really know who grandma or grandpa were.

What makes remembering ancestors so cold and impersonal on the one hand and warm, nurturing and spiritually sustaining on the other, you might ask? In a world of religious fanatics, agnostics and atheists, that’s a rather difficult question to answer! No criticism here on the latter, we are all entitled to believe or not believe the way we wish. But, if we respect, venerate and revere our ancestors in an untraditional way that is alien to western thought of the dead, we could understand that what we hold most memorable about ancestors emanates from our mind, from the essence of that remembrance.The way we choose to express the remembrance, as you may have already understood, is expressed in many different ways, and rightly so.

Ancestor Altar

Ancestor altar created for Raíces Cultural Center’s 2011 Día de los muertos/Day of the Dead art exhibit “Art and Ancestors”

As November 1st. approaches, and the Day of the Dead comes closer, you may want to reflect on your loved ones who have passed, Those that made a lasting impact on your life and possibly were instrumental in molding the person you are now. Remember, their physical bodies may be gone and yet their energies will live on forever. Maferefún to the ancestors!

NOTE: This was posted one year ago on the last version of our blog, leading up to our 2011 production “Festival for the Dead”.  In celebration of el día de los muertos, or the Day of the Dead, we are reposting with photos from our Festival for the Dead and Art and Ancestors projects.  Please leave your comments and questions on the article.  Tell us how you honor your own ancestors.  What do you do to remember them?