I recently had a dream where I was having a discussion with an ancestor. We stood in a clearing white with snow. The grown cracked as if the weather had been cold for a while. I saw a traditional long house hidden under some trees and some men cared for a fire near the entrance. An elderly man I’ve seen in my dreams before said to me: “Make sure your resting place is on sacred ground.”
For a little while I talked and explained to him how in the 21st century people usually get cremated.
“The ashes are kept in urns, which people often bring home,” I explained. I even mentioned how expensive it can be these days to buy a plot for yourself and your family in a cemetery. Even lockers for urns can be quite costly. The old man didn’t seem to understand the concept and so he simply repeated: “Make sure your resting place in on sacred ground.”
I woke up wondering if the dream predicted my demise or if it was talking about something more specific?
From age 6 to 13 years old I was educated at a Catholic convent. The original school was built in 1844 and through time grew into a building that could accommodate approximately 100 students. In the back of the school there was a garden with grape vines and a corn field, and behind it all there was a small chapel and the cemetery where the pioneering sisters were buried. I spent a lot of time in the cemetery. I actually visited the sisters buried there until I was 18 years old and left for college. For some reason it was always important for me to pass through the cemetery on my birthday (16/06). Strangely enough after 1983 (the last time I visited the old site) the congregation cut public access to their yard and transformed the old school into a full time hospice. I don’t know if the grounds were eventually carefully kept for the old ones or if they were left to ruins…
When you speak to First Nation traditionalists about death and sacred burial grounds there’s always a deep sense of reverence. They don’t seem to see the site as a resting place; but more so as a territory where the ancestors reside. EC and ROS, Wabanaki elders filled an empty plate placed at the dinner table for Spirit with small portions of their food while they ate. They believed that the living still had the responsibility to feed and care for their ancestors. They certainly didn’t see them as dead or gone. Actually, the feeling during the meal was always as if their loved ones watched over them and obviously remained involved in their daily lives. I was so profoundly touched by the gesture that I chose to adopt it.
I’ve always had the ability to see and speak to spirit; but I’ve always struggled with the experience. In my early 20’s it became important for me to find peace and part of the journey was to explore different religious and cultural ways of mourning. In some cultures criers are hired to whimper over the dead to express to the departed they were loved and they will be missed. Other cultures celebrate with music, alcohol and hallucinogenic drugs to send the message to their loved ones will never be forgotten and will always be a part of the living. Christians sculpted statues of angels out of stone to watch over the dead indefinitely. And then, there are those people who give themselves a year of mourning before they can say “goodbye” sending the message that “time heals all wounds and even in death we cater to everlasting relationships.”
My grand-father always used to say: “Never go to bed angry.” Many of the traditions that I explored seemed to repeat this sentiment; but towards death. Anger, bitterness, resentment, pain, betrayal, sadness and desperation are all emotions, which are often attached to experiences concerning change and loss. Grieving seems to move through a process where these emotions are triggered, explored and resolved. For most people, saying “goodbye” can only occur once the heart is full and ready. In the end, my research (so to speak) seemed to say: “Life or Death revolves around attitudes and beliefs.”
My mother-in-law who was a nurse and proclaimed atheist always said that “the belief of an after life is an illusion created by the brain as it is dying.” She knew I was brought up Catholic and she often brought up the topic as if she needed to convert me to her scientific perspective. It was hard for me to accept this reasoning because my experience proved that even after death our loved ones could continue to communicate with us. When her parents came to live with her in the end because of cancer, she was often haunted by the notion of death. Suddenly she was feeling all kinds of emotions. Mourning started even before her parents passed on. She found herself caught in an experience that hurt and begged to be looked at.
During those last years before her parents passed we often talked about our beliefs and I noticed that more often than not the pain that my mother-in-law felt was attributed to the limitations of her belief system rather than the actual experience of death or loss. No matter how much I shared my story she continued to buck and believe that nothing existed after our last breath. Then, nana died. The morning before she passed she told her daughter that “her ancestors had visited her in a dream and told her to pack her bags because she was soon taking a trip that would bring her to them…”
At first, GT explained the hallucinations as somewhat of a med over dose but after her mom died it brought in question what she had believed as truth through her whole life. Rare are the people who stay focused on the relationship between themselves and their ancestors rather than their feelings of loss. Life or death it always boils down to learning and healing…
Many traditional Medicine People have believed for thousands of years that memories live in bones. EC used to say that on sacred sites you could hear the songs of the ancients whistling through the bones. This statement always resonated with me because for as long as I can remember I can feel a buzzing of sorts when I’m in a cemetery that resembles the feeling I get when I got to a concert. My body vibrates like it’s being fed by the excitement and anticipation of a crowd and the explosion of sound. I believe that on sacred sites the bones are congregating and giving us access to the medicine of memories. There is something that occurs there that is mysterious, powerful and beyond this world.
More and more today old people suffer from Alzeimer. There are many theoretical reasons why this is occurring. Sometimes I wonder if it’s because we’ve lost our connection to the bones; to the memories; and to the ancestors. I know for a fact that amongst traditional people there is rarely a sense of loss in death. The connection they create with the dead is about the sacred circle and a consciousness which promises constant renewal.
When I fed Spirit tonight I promised that “my resting place would be on sacred ground.”
I don’t know where this promise will bring me but I understand it as a blessing.