Spiritual Practices for Honoring a Loved One’s Legacy

woman-kneeled-over-headstoneMost cultures and religions perform rituals to honor their dead, both when the person has just died and in subsequent acts of veneration. In this article I will focus on the latter and connect these rituals to the notion of legacy. The word legacy, for our purposes, is defined as something handed down from an ancestor or from the past.

Rituals honoring the dead post burial/cremation include:

• Jewish people erect a headstone at the gravesite approximately one year after the burial, light a candle on the anniversary of the death and place stones at the gravesite

• Catholics request a Mass in the name of the dead and place flowers on the gravesite

• Buddhists and practitioners of other Eastern religious and spiritual traditions erect altars to their ancestors which they visit regularly, daily in some cases, to consult with the ancestral spirit

• Native Americans honor their ancestors by calling upon them in ceremonies and asking for their advice and counsel

• The Yoruba (and all of its derivative traditions, including Voudoun, Santeria, and Candomble) honor their ancestors by erecting an ancestral shrine, leaving offerings, singing, and praying.

In addition to specific rituals, many families create foundations to keep the name and values of the dead person alive; others request donations be sent to specific organizations favored by the deceased during his/her lifetime. Let me not forget the naming of offspring after a beloved ancestor. (Some traditions clearly delineate which ancestor the child is named after.)

Since this is a column about about spirituality and not comparative religion, I’d like to share my thoughts about the connection between these rituals and legacy.

I recently learned in a visceral and profound way the spiritual and psychological reasons why we Yoruba venerate ancestors the way we do. When we pray we call out the names of those in our family lines, both family of origin and spiritual family, who have passed on and after each name use the Yoruba phrase Ibaye Ibaye Tonu. Ideally, there is no judgement attached to the practice; we don’t have to have known or liked the person whose name is called out. We do it to remember them. It is a way to acknowledge that they at one time walked the earth in human form and that they are connected to us. Recently I learned that the most important thing we can do for our ancestors is remember them. Everything else is a bonus—for both of us. Their legacy is strengthened by our naming them. We need to be able to separate our relationship or feelings about them from this simple remembering.

Why is that so important?

Think of this in terms of your own life. Although some of us don’t give it much conscious thought, we want to be remembered when we die. Why else would we care what people think of us? Why else would someone’s good name be so important and so much shame attached to a tarnished reputation?

Perhaps the most painful thought we can have is that we will be forgotten when we cross over, that no one will remember us and what we have done. This notion of a legacy is behind the creation of art, children, and monuments, establishing chairs in a person’s name at universities, funding the building of hospital wings, and, in a dark and disturbed way, committing violent crimes.

As I research my family history and create a family tree, I appreciate more and more the importance of being remembered and having others carry on the family legacy. I also appreciate the need to do something worthwhile during my lifetime so that I can leave behind the memory of the work I did while I was alive. I’d like to be remembered as someone who had good character, or Iwa Pele, as the Yoruba describe it. I’d like to think that as I fulfill my role in this world—the Yoruba believe it is the role I chose at birth—I will be remembered by those who have crossed my path, whether it be a family member, friend, significant other, patient, godbrother or godsister, or neighbor, as someone who contributed something positive to their lives.

That in part is why a spiritual path is important in the healing process. As one heals and moves forward in life, part of that journey is the development of Iwa Pele (good character). It is not often explicitly defined as a goal of living a spiritually-guided life but in my opinion is an inherent part of it.

Since I would like someone to call out my name when they remember their ancestors, I honor my own ancestors. I would like to be remembered, so I remember. Maferefun egun. We praise those who came before us and created the way.

© Copyright 2009 by Kalila Borghini, LCSW, therapist in New York City, New York. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to GoodTherapy.org.

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • themuse

    themuse

    November 10th, 2009 at 7:56 PM

    I enjoyed your article, Kalila. I like to write and would want to be remembered for that. I can think of nothing sadder than to leave this world and not have left an imprint on it.

  • soldy

    soldy

    November 10th, 2009 at 8:11 PM

    It makes me sad when I see unkempt graves and memorials that are in disarray. I grew up with a healthy attitude towards respecting a final resting place and remembering our loved ones that had passed over. In my family we talk about them yet I’ve seen others that do everything they can to avoid that. Talking about them can be painful of course because you miss them and in time it eases. We should embrace that pain as a natural and loving response indicative of our love for them.

  • matt

    matt

    November 11th, 2009 at 3:14 AM

    I find most of these rituals out of place and consider them a tradition rather than having a practical reasoning… it has to do with what their ancestors followed, not necessarily what is scientific!

  • Kalila Borghini

    Kalila Borghini

    November 11th, 2009 at 4:47 AM

    Thank you both for your comments on my article. It may help when thinking about our ancestors to focus not only on the loss but also the many positive things we have gained from them. As we acknowlege our own need to be remembered, this will help us take steps to acknowledge those who have come before us, especially if we haven’t done so thus far.

  • Robyn

    Robyn

    November 11th, 2009 at 7:49 AM

    I love how in other cultures there is so much spirituality and looking got the past to navigate the present and the future. We can learn so much from our ancestors and our history and hope that I can stress this to my own children as they get older.

  • Kalila Borghini

    Kalila Borghini

    November 11th, 2009 at 10:01 AM

    I’m wondering why, Matt, you feel the need for things to be scientific. It seems to me that the purpose of rituals is to remember those who have been passed on and to sustain connection and provide comfort for the living.

  • LaScala

    LaScala

    November 11th, 2009 at 6:32 PM

    Not talking about them is a surefire way for them to fade from your memory. When we remain silent, we’re allowing a part of our family heritage to fade into invisibility. Each of us should aim to do something that will ensure our family doesn’t let the life we lived and the person we were be forgotten. I would hate to think that a year on after I passed, people would struggle to remember who I was.

  • Elizabeth R.

    Elizabeth R.

    November 11th, 2009 at 6:48 PM

    Absolutely, Kalila! Sustaining that connection is very important to me. I keep my dearly departed grandmother alive in my mind by sharing my memories of her and photographs with my children. They only know her through me. She died long before they were born and I hope they will tell their own children the stories I tell them about her and what a wonderful soul she was. I guess that’s our own little family ritual.

  • Sparky

    Sparky

    November 11th, 2009 at 7:21 PM

    I don’t have any legacy to leave. That’s a depressing thought. Right now I can’t think of one thing I’d be remembered for or a reason to remember me.

  • Cassie V.

    Cassie V.

    November 11th, 2009 at 7:35 PM

    You’re being too tough on yourself! Ask friends and family and I bet you’ll get a dozen answers of what they would remember you best for. We all leave an impression on those we come into contact with in some form and believe it or not it’s far more likely to be a good one than bad.

  • Sugarlove

    Sugarlove

    November 11th, 2009 at 8:08 PM

    I would be happy to think that one solitary person would remember me after I passed and speak kindly of me. I try to see the best in people and treat them as I would like to be treated. I don’t need my legacy to be a gigantic act. A simple memory of me making a positive difference to one person would suffice. Although if there were enough of them to fill a stadium that would be nice too. ;)

  • Kalila Borghini

    Kalila Borghini

    November 12th, 2009 at 5:37 AM

    The other day I said to a patient how paradoxical it is that from the moment we are born, we and those around us do so much to ensure that we (and they)are remembered after we/they die. Any thoughts on this?

  • Monica Farrel

    Monica Farrel

    November 12th, 2009 at 10:25 AM

    I have quite a lot of friends who were named after a dead ancestor… one of my guy pals was named after his dead uncle, who actually died in a land rover… now the thing that bothers me is that his parents, who are immigrants by the way, had a problem when he decided to buy a land rover himself! They thought he would get into danger as well… but he did buy it at last… but i ll tell you a fact… he hot into a road accident just days after he bought the new vehicle… what do we call that? superstition…? or real reason to worry…?

  • David Cooper

    David Cooper

    November 13th, 2009 at 2:06 PM

    This is a good topic, worthy of much consideration. We will all cross over to the other side one day so now is the time to do something that gives you fulfillment and joy which can have a rippling effect that extends to your loved ones, friends and people you just meet. No one knows the day or the hour they will leave here so acknowledge those who have passed before you and if you want to be remembered……then “remember”…….Ashe.

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