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Honoring the ancestors in religion

Brittney M. Walker | 11/24/2010, 5 p.m.

Ancestry is a highly regarded realm of life among many of us in our domestic sectors and even abroad. Many families have a deep reverence for those who have passed on to another life beyond the clouds in heaven or a life among the spirits in a realm unseen by the human eye.

Memorials in honor of the ancestors may remain on mantels in homes, or a small token from their former life may be kept away in a relatives, and loved ones' secret space.

Ancestors not directly related to us like Malcolm X, Harriet Tubman, or Menkaure (a pharaoh of the fourth Dynasty) may even hold a special place in our hearts.

For ages, African people have honored the ancestors before prayers in libations, in seeking guidance, and in the way they worshipped. And ancestors are indeed people, but who are no longer encased in a fleshly vessel. In traditional African religions, these passed on people are those who died a good death and who lived a life that was righteous and promoted peace. In many cases, those who are adopted into the ancestral world must have produced children, but in some cases, those without are extended the honor as well.

They are proof to those living on earth that life continues beyond the physical body. Ancestors are the connection to another dimension of life and praying, seeking, and speaking to them is a way people stay connected and maintain relationships between loved ones and honored ones.

"African Folklore: An Encyclopedia" by Philip M. Peek and Kwesi Yankah says ancestors are the greatest and most powerful link between families and God.

"Ancestors form the spiritual segment of their families and are the most intimate link between their living descendants and the spiritual world of God, the gods, and other spirit powers. They serve as intermediaries and mediators between their descendants and the spirit world, promoting the welfare of their descendants," Peek and Yankah write.

A common phrase in the Black community or any group for that matter is, "Grandma is watching over us right now" or "Uncle sent a sign from above." Our traditions, our sayings and our beliefs stem greatly from our ancestral understanding of the afterlife. Like our continental brothers and sisters invested in their traditional religious practices, many in the Diaspora believe our ancestors offer some type of protection or prayers for our sake. Peek and Yankah concede that the role of passed-on relatives and precious members of the community is to advise descendants, reward good behavior or ignore "belligerent and negligent" behavior, without taking the place of the Supreme Being.

Honoring the ancestors usually involves some sort of ritual whether that is a libation, prayer, offering, sacrifice or celebration. Not to be confused with worship, those who practice African traditional religions or religious sacraments may take a few moments before a family discussion, important event, or a sermon to call on the names of the ancestors to ask for their blessings and wisdom.

"Libation in traditional African cultures is a magico-religious ritual and is part of worship and prayers, which expresses the indispensable spiritual unity between the living and the dead," Peek and Yankah conclude. "It represents one way that the African concepts of communion among family, lineage, and clan members is reinforced. Belief in the reliance of human beings on the Supreme Being, the ancestors, and the deities is also reflected in African libation practice."

Many of us are familiar with the communion practice of drinking wine in the memory of Christ's blood sacrifice and eating bread to represent his body. In a sense, this type of libation for an ancestor of the Christian family is frequently practiced in most Christian churches. However, it is not directly called a libation, but a communion between the "dead" and the living.

"Libations, therefore, symbolize the human wish to maintain an equilibrium of interaction with supernatural forces," says the Encyclopedia.

Ancestors, although they may not physically walk among us, are felt in everyday life--at least in the belief of African traditionalists. They are the ones who keep us connected, reminded and in line with God. They are a supernatural connection between this life and the afterlife.