Welcome to the time of year when people from around the world remember their ancestors, honor their forbears, and express admiration for loved ones who have passed on. From our indigenous ancestors, we have Samhain (SAH-win) and Day of the Dead. From Christianity, we have All Souls’ Day and All Saints’ Day. And while many of these practices are grounded in various faith traditions, even no-faith/secular families can participate!
Some Ways to Remember loved ones
Celebrating some version of Ancestor Day with your kids is both fun and important. Many cultures eschew death. Rather than viewing it as an integral part of life, we treat both death, and those who are dead, as things to be feared. Many adults – even elderly adults – avoid making wills and estate plans because they don’t want to think about their impending demise. And, as parents and caregivers, we often fail to counteract negative cultural messages our kids encounter about ghosts/demons/spirits. Many of us claim our heritage is important. We submit our saliva for genetic testing and we join ancestry web sites. Yet, we often fail to take time out from our busy schedules to teach our kids about that heritage. Now is excellent time to change all that!
The days at the end of October/beginning of November provide ready-made opportunities to set aside some quality time for those who came before us. Use some of these ideas to create ongoing traditions for your family.
Visit a Cemetery
This suggestion shows up on all kinds of posts about honoring ancestors – for good reason. Cemeteries are usually quiet, contemplative places, and grave markers are so interesting! You can note how long people lived and when they lived. You can point out how family members use different methods to honor their loved ones (e.g., elaborate tombstones, small mausoleums, tiny grave markers). And, of course, you can bring flowers or do grave-rubbings.
But the most important thing a cemetery visit can offer is a chance to talk about death. Your kids have almost certainly thought about it, so now is the perfect time to address their fears, questions, and concerns. Humans have chosen incredibly diverse ways to handle the dead – burial cremation, mummification, and embalming to name a few. In some cultures, bodies are buried quickly – within 24 hours; in other cultures, bodies may lie around for years before they are finally laid to rest. Sometimes, dead bodies are buried with lots of treasures; sometimes, they are buried with nothing at all. Since kids often have an easier time exploring death than adults, a cemetery visit might turn out to be a time when you can learn from your kids about opening your heart and mind to the ideas surrounding death.
Make a Shoebox Altar/Memory Box to Remember Loved Ones
You might also want to consider making an ancestor altar. If you already have an altar or designated space in your home, this one is a no-brainer, but home-altars are not always realistic. Moreover, the word “altar” carries religious overtones that can make no-faith families uncomfortable.
Welcome in the shoebox! Shoeboxes are free, easy to up-cycle, and fit most anywhere. They are annoyingly difficult to cover in paper, so consider “painting” the top, sides, and inside using a paint brush and watered-down glue. Then, cover it with pieces of torn tissue paper. It’s quick, easy, and automatically makes your shoebox colorful!
Now add things to honor your loved ones. Commonplace go-to objects include: 1) items from nature – like feathers, flowers, or stones, 2) candles/tea lights, 3) photos of your loved ones, 4) items that remind you of them – like souvenirs/money from their country of origin or flag/map images printed out on your computer, and 5) offerings they would enjoy – like their favorite foods/beverages or something associated with their hobbies.
This altar honors my grandmother. She was Methodist, lived in Chicago, and brought us ashes from Mount St. Helens when she visited there. She liked to sew and taught us on her Singer machine. She also made our lunches before we went to school, so I placed some flowers (we are on the tail end of the season here in the NC mountains) in a little lunch bag. (You can see this post about Altars too)
Honor the Earth
The earth also connects us to our ancestors and other loved ones who have died. After all, they walked on this very same planet enjoying the same sun, the same moon, the same creatures, and the same seasons. Since this time of year marks the end of the growing season, find a way to enjoy the earth by eating some of the fruits of the harvest. Carve a pumpkin, make zucchini bread, or plant some. My family loves all things apple. This apple crisp recipe is from my mother-in-law, and we always make it at least once during the fall. It’s super-easy and delicious.
Grandma Carole’s Apple Crisp
5-6 granny smith apples, peeled and sliced
1 c. brown sugar
1 c. flour
½ c. butter
¼ tsp. salt
1/8 tsp. nutmeg
- Preheat oven to 325˚.
- Fill deep oven-safe dish with sliced apples.
- Mix dry ingredients together and slice butter into them.
- Pinch the mixture between your fingers until it becomes crumbly. (This will take a few minutes, so don’t give up too soon.)
- Place mixture on top of apple slices.
- Bake for 50 minutes.
Make a Loved Ones Mobile
An easy-to-craft mobile is an easy way to honor numerous loved ones without taking up too much space. Your mobile can certainly focus solely on family members who have died, but if you have young children who don’t yet know what that means, or if you are fortunate enough to have many living loved ones, feel free to honor them, too! You can also honor people you admire who have died. And don’t forget about your pets!! To depict your loved ones, use photos, printed images, or anything else that helps you remember who they were and how they affected your life.
This mobile is a simple one with images of loved ones strung along pieces of thick yarn dangling from a hanger. As you can see, we used a combination of images. For some of our loved ones, we made fingerprint people, for others, we used actual photographs, for others, we used images found on the internet.
Simply, cut several cards (we used card stock) measuring about 3½” x 3”. Add an image/photo/fingerprint person to each card. Put a hole near the top and bottom of each card using a standard hole punch.
Cut strands of yarn measuring about 2 feet in length. Tie one end to the hanger. Then, place a few cards on each strand. If you use thick yarn, the cards will fit tightly onto the yarn without slipping. You can also add a bead to the end of your strands for a little decoration and to weigh the strand down a bit so it hangs better.
If you want to offer a short, informal ritual, simply hang the mobile and gather around it. Each family member can offer a short statement about why they made a card for that particular person/pet. They can also add a special memory or something unique about that person/pet.
Regardless of your religious beliefs, the end of October/beginning of November is a great time to honor those who have impacted our lives in positive or remarkable ways. In many cultures, this time of the year is when the veil between the living and the dead is thin, making it an auspicious time to connect with those who have gone before us. Even if you don’t believe that, the days are certainly getting shorter, and the crops are getting ready to lie dormant for the winter. Honoring your loved ones is a great way to recognize the changing of the seasons and the arrival of long winter nights.
In the Wiccan/Neo-Pagan traditions, Samhain is also the New Year. It might seem odd to kick off the calendar with thoughts of death, but what better way to remind ourselves that is from death that new life emerges.
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