There’s something that’s bothered me for a little while now about how we talk about ancestors.
There is an implicit assumption that it is Good that we are here; that it is Good that our predecessors did things such that we came about. And I couldn’t disagree more.
There is nothing inherently Good about us having been born instead of not born, or someone else being born instead. Nothing. We are the product of a long line – 13.8 billion years’ worth, you might say – of coincidences and accidents, and why do our ancestors get credit for that? What, exactly did they do? Let’s break this down.
“We honor them because they provided the material conditions for our life.”
Yes, and so did the people they inevitably exploited in their time – don’t forget, almost everything you have was, thanks to capitalism and imperialism, stolen from somebody else that it should be given to you. That is, if you’re not the descendant of slaves and born into anything but poverty. I see no reason to honor a financial and material legacy in this day and age. Honor died with the gift economy.
“Without them, we wouldn’t be here.”
I see no value in this statement, or in the philosophy that my existence is a transcendent Good. My value as a person is immanent, just like my Gods. If I didn’t exist (mortally and physically), then there would be no one wishing I did. In other words, my value came to be the moment I was born and no sooner. Without me, the world is not an especially better place – a minutely different place, but not a more ontologically Good one. If you worship your ancestors because of this reason, you’re basically worshiping yourself in a way that is simply less obvious in its narcissism.
“We honor them because they gave us our heritage.”
This is something that can make sense to me. Culture and tradition are things that I believe have tremendous (immanent) value, being social and tribal beings who need an identity to not be miserable, after all. Postmodernism seeks to rob everyone and everything of their context so that all things in the world can be commodified – even our generic heritage – and if I have an ideology, then it aims to negate everything that postmodernism is. To recontextialize ourselves, to re-root, to decolonize; these are worthy endeavors to involve our ancestors in. In fact, we can’t really do it without them.
“We honor them because we love them.”
Working from a Mexican perspective, this is why I do it. This year I’ve built the ofrenda, baked the pan de muerto, gone through the photos, and set out the offerings because these people are my family, first and foremost, and I miss them. As people they were flawed, and their flaws made it hard for me to get to know them. And I’m not just talking emotions, but actual estrangements, logistics that for many years were just too exhausting to deal with. So this is my way of getting to know them better, of being able to invite them into my home since they didn’t have the opportunity to do so when they were alive. This also means that I can honor people who aren’t blood relatives – the concept of blood and lineage is so reductive – and invite them to sit at my table as well.
Why, exactly do we honor or worship our ancestors? For reasons of simple hospitality? Or to elevate ourselves and ward off existential fugue?
Sure, they might want to see you succeed for their own selfish reasons -and I am not one to formally criticize selfishness in the tradition of Protestant moralizing – but maybe thinking about the actual why’s, especially if you’re of an anti-humanist bent, might prove useful.
Especially, yannow, if you’re telling folks to “honor” Columbus because, sure, genocide happened because of him, but all least there’s you to show for it!