It falls to me to create a reliquary for my parents.
What are the objects that encapsulate their lives? That reunion ID tag with the 1947 graduation picture of my 22 year old father on it, well, that’s a definite. But what else? What is so potent that it carries their lives, and what is just something they touched and used, but doesn’t really have their imprint on it?
It’s a challenging task. And it leads me to try and understand a bit about veneration.
This isn’t a culture that worships ancestors. When we think of people talking about the deceased, usually we think about someone who is wailing at loss, claiming unfairness, showing their own distress and emotion.
The most formalized kind of memoriam is that we have given to those who have fallen in the wars for us. That has always been the promise we made to soldiers: you put your life on the line, and if you lose it, we will carry your name and memory forward with pride.
We don’t do that so much, anymore. In the US, Armistice Day, 11/11, didn’t turn into Remembrance Day as it has in the Empire countries. Instead, it has become Veteran’s Day, to honour the living and active who served more than the dead who we have to remember. That just feels a bit off to me.
My brother had one last chance to be his mother’s son by taking time to remember her on the evening of her death. Instead, he chose to be his wife’s husband by making sure the family schedule wasn’t disturbed by something as trivial as the death of his last parent.
I don’t think he is at all unique in this choice. We live in a culture that doesn’t allow time for reflection or consideration, and certainly doesn’t value veneration of anything but the present. Our attention is squeezed from every side, because getting out of the flow means we might become less than driven by the marketing messages that drive us forward, always forward, without much awareness or pause.
Valuing where we come from, the line of humans that we come from, is the chance to value the essential and eternal lessons that we can learn from human lives. The tradition of humans having sacred spots and sacred rituals isn’t about routine, rather it is about creating milestone moments where we can feel we are repeating what our ancestors valued, and creating touchstone moments for our descendents to value in their lives. We walk in the same place as the elders, and that means that they walk in us.
That is an old human tradition, part of who we were from the days of hill forts and round houses. St0nehenge was constructed as the scene for these rituals, where humans who understood the magic of birth and the ever-presence of death played their part in the life of the world. This veneration of the circle of life, this worship of where we came from before we entered this world and where we go when we leave it is woven deep into human nature.
Making space, in this culture and in this family, to value the essence of my parent’s lives, well, that seems quite a challenge. I was so tired and so stressed that I barely got through the eulogies, but even then it was clear that my brother and his family had no impetus to speak for my parents, to speak for their memories, to speak for the dead. And now, the challenges of a pressure filled life has moved them down the road.
It falls to me to create a reliquary for my parents. To gather what is important and to dispose of the rest.
But in this culture, do we have any time or energy left to care about the ancestors and what they offered us?