Days of Mid-Autumn Part II: Recognition and Gratitude: The Tree of the Ancients

Last Thursday and Friday, in Mexico and elsewhere, the Dia de los Muertos (the Day of the Dead) was celebrated with all the usual fanfare. It is a national holiday there, and everything is closed. The basic premise of the holiday, time set aside to honor those who are dead, is a very simple and ancient one. Indeed, the reason that the heavily Catholic countries of Latin America mark the day in this way, while Catholics in the United States do not is that it is not a Catholic tradition at all.

One need not be a student in comparative mythology to be aware of the role played by ritual reverence towards ancestors in many societies throughout history. Just access your stereotypes. We imagine the vain Romans making sacrifices to their dead predecessors while holding daggers and wearing togas. We envision a generic Native American society revering “the grandfathers” in their serene harmony with nature. These are caricatures that do not represent the complexities (or accuracy) of reality, and yet they often form the basis of our knee-jerk dismissal of ancestor worship as primitive, backwards, and even barbaric–even though neither the Romans nor Native Americans were and are any of those things.

The truth of the matter, however, is that regular reverence for the dead is just like a funeral–it’s not about the dead people. It’s about the living people. It’s about us.

Our problem, I suspect, is not with the essence of the thing itself but with the word worship, which can often be a loaded term. What I’m talking about here is not that dead people are gods or belong at the front of a church to be knelt before. I’m not suggesting that dead people actually know about any attention we do or don’t pay to them, and I’m certainly not suggesting that dead people hear us when we talk–even if we talk to “them.”

The truth of the matter, however, is that regular reverence for the dead is just like a funeral–it’s not about the dead people. It’s about the living people. It’s about us.

The dead people in your family that you knew before their deaths impacted your lives in some way. Through the recognition of their memory and the gratitude for what they have given to you, they can continue to impact you and give to you. The dead people in your family that you never met still impacted your life in that it was their actions that caused you to exist in the first place. Being grateful and respectful of that fact grants you awareness of the context of your existence. You can go on and on, even further and further back, recognizing the founders of your society (or even civilization itself) for laying the base for the life and world we all know today–just for the sake of understanding the broad path of where we’ve been and where we’re going. If it’s a good time of the year to reflect, we might as well reflect on all of that for a moment.

An evergreen tree, if you like those better, can represent the fact that life continues even amid the “death” of winter. And a rock…well, rocks exist for a long time, too.

One way to do so is to find a tree somewhere in the vicinity of your home. It might be the coolest or the oldest or the gnarliest tree. It might even be  a rock, if you don’t like any of the trees nearby. It doesn’t really matter. A deciduous tree, surely bare at this point, can represent that the leaves fall off but the tree lives on. An evergreen tree, if you like those better, can represent the fact that life continues even amid the “death” of winter. And a rock…well, rocks exist for a long time, too. Designate this place your Tree (or Rock) of the Ancients. This is the place where you will go if you wish to ponder or thank those who came before you for a few moments, and every time you see this tree (or rock), the recognition (and maybe gratitude) of your predecessors may well flash to mind.

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One thought on “Days of Mid-Autumn Part II: Recognition and Gratitude: The Tree of the Ancients

  1. Thank you for reminding us of the importance appreciation for those who came before. Extremely relevant in this time we are in.

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