Ancestor Worship with Mother Nature: How Indigenous Death Rituals Illuminate the Web of Life
“For almost all oral cultures… the body’s decomposition into soil, worms, and dust can only signify the gradual reintegration of one’s ancestors and elders into the living landscape, from which all, too, are born.”
By Maria Popova
“Do you sometimes want to wake up to the singularity we once were?” the poet Marie Howe asked in her sublime ode to our belonging with the universe.
My dear friend Emily Levine, who awakened my love of poetry long ago, entered the final stretch of her life with an uncommonly beautiful orientation toward death. Beneath the inescapable sorrow of impending non-being was a buoyancy of being springing from her Augustinian excitement to return her stardust to the universe that made it — to belong once again with all the matter that ever was, with every other creature who ever lived and died, with raven and river and rock. She wanted to go into the earth not in a casket and all its attendant human pomp but in a mushroom burial suit that would slowly reweave “her” atoms into the great web of life.
It may be one of the great bittersweetnesses of human life that nothing brings that vitalizing sense of belonging into the centerstage of consciousness more clearly than death. This has been the case across epochs and cultures and civilizations, and this is what ecologist and philosopher David Abram explores in The Spell of the Sensuous: Perception and Language in a More-Than-Human World (public library) — his wonderful inquiry into the ancient wisdom of nature, witnessed and reverenced in the traditions of various human cultures across the span of millennia and meridians.
In a testament to Robert Macfarlane’s poetically phrased observation that “into the underland we have long placed that which we fear and wish to lose, and that which we love and wish to save,” Abram writes:
Our strictly human heavens and hells have only recently been abstracted from the sensuous world that surrounds us, from this more-than-human realm that abounds in its own winged intelligences and cloven-hoofed powers. For almost all oral cultures, the enveloping and sensuous earth remains the dwelling place of both the living and the dead. The “body” — whether human or otherwise — is not yet a mechanical object in such cultures, but is a magical entity, the mind’s own sensuous aspect, and at death the body’s decomposition into soil, worms, and dust can only signify the gradual reintegration of one’s ancestors and elders into the living landscape, from which all, too, are born.
Each indigenous culture elaborates this recognition of metamorphosis in its own fashion, taking its clues from the particular terrain in which it is situated. Often the invisible atmosphere that animates the visible world — the subtle presence that circulates both within us and between all things — retains within itself the spirit or breath of the dead person until the time when that breath will enter and animate another visible body — a bird, or a deer, or a field of wild grain. Some cultures may burn, or “cremate,” the body in order to more completely return the person, as smoke, to the swirling air, while that which departs as flame is offered to the sun and stars, and that which lingers as ash is fed to the dense earth. Still other cultures may dismember the body, leaving certain parts in precise locations where they will likely be found by condors, or where they will be consumed by mountain lions or by wolves, thus hastening the re-incarnation of that person into a particular animal realm within the landscape. Such examples illustrate simply that death, in tribal cultures, initiates a metamorphosis wherein the person’s presence does not “vanish” from the sensible world (where would it go?) but rather remains as an animating force within the vastness of the landscape, whether subtly, in the wind, or more visibly, in animal form, or even as the eruptive, ever to be appeased, wrath of the volcano.
Nearly a century after Henry Beston contemplated difference, belonging, and the ample superiorities of non-human creatures, insisting that “in a world older and more complete than ours they move finished and complete, gifted with extensions of the senses we have lost or never attained, living by voices we shall never hear,” Abram adds:
“Ancestor worship,” in its myriad forms, then, is ultimately another mode of attentiveness to nonhuman nature; it signifies not so much an awe or reverence of human powers, but rather a reverence for those forms that awareness takes when it is not in human form, when the familiar human embodiment dies and decays to become part of the encompassing cosmos.
This cycling of the human back into the larger world ensures that the other forms of experience that we encounter — whether ants, or willow trees, or clouds — are never absolutely alien to ourselves. Despite the obvious differences in shape, and ability, and style of being, they remain at least distantly familiar, even familial. It is, paradoxically, this perceived kinship or consanguinity that renders the difference, or otherness, so eerily potent.
Complement The Spell of the Sensuous with evolutionary biologist Lynn Margulis on the interleaving of life across time, space, and species and pioneering naturalist John Muir on the transcendent interconnectedness of the universe, then revisit Mary Oliver on mortality and the key to living with presence.
Published August 27, 2019