Seven Ways to Honor the Dead

The dead are invisible, not absent.

--Saint Augustine of Hippo

Last week was my father's birthday. He passed away nearly 14 years ago. I often think of the dead, of my ancestors whom I turn to for guidance and strength, but a special occasion like a deceased loved one's birthday or death day is a good time to reflect on how, exactly, we can honor those we've lost, and keep connected to them in our everyday lives. I like Saint Augustine's quote—"the dead are invisible, not absent"—because it reminds us that, just as we were required to do in life, we need to tend to our relationships even when those we love become invisible.

Below is a list of some of the ways I honor my dead, both those I knew when they were alive and those who died before I was born. Small acts are just as impactful as grand gestures, and if we keep our acts manageable, we're more likely to do them regularly.

1. Altars and gifts of expression

I have a corner in my kitchen dedicated as a space to light candles and place items in an expression of prayer and thanks to my ancestors. While this is often called an "altar," you can call it whatever you like; honestly, I simply see it as a space dedicated to this relationship. As an example, on my father's birthday, I placed photos of him, his prayer card, as well as a glass of homemade wine in his favorite glass to express my love, and also my understanding that homemade wine was something he enjoyed, both making the wine and sharing the wine around the table with those he loved, including me. :)

While naturally I'd rather be able to have a glass with him face to face, since that is no longer an option, I lit a candle, poured some in his honor, some for myself, and said a small prayer and raised my glass to him, wishing him a happy birthday. It was a simple, heartfelt way to acknowledge that this was the day he was born, and also, that I feel and mourn his absence.

2. Writing and telling stories

I have known people who lose someone and then cease speaking of that person, because it causes them pain. While everyone grieves in their own way and handles loss in their own way, the dead die a second death when we no longer keep their memories alive through story. Talking about those we've lost with others who either also loved them or did not know them keeps the energy of that person in this world. It also honors their memory. Writing stories is another way to keep their memory alive, and written memories can be passed down to future generations. I also know people who lost grandparents before they were born, but because their parent and aunts and uncles talk about them so vividly, they feel a strong connection with their grandparent, as if they knew them in life. While this connection is likely also on a deeper, genetic-memory level, it is possible to make our deceased loved ones memories so vivid, those who never knew them feel that they do.

3. Praying the requiem

The Requiem aeternam is a Catholic prayer asking for light and peace to be shown unto the dead. It is a prayer when someone is newly passed to assist in their passage out of purgatory, and it can be prayed afterwards as well, to assist in their peaceful repose. The text is below. I encourage you to memorize it and recite it on special days, like birthdays, as a way to acknowledge the person's passing and ask for that they rest in peace.

Eternal rest, O Lord, grant unto him/her (them),

And let perpetual light shine upon him/her (them).

May he/she (they) rest in peace.


4. Wearing things that belonged to them

If we are fortunate enough to have items that belonged to our ancestors, like jewelry or clothing or other accessories, wearing these items is a great way to honor them. Personally, I find jewelry, with its bent toward sentiment, its intention to adorn, and the fact that it is often given as a gift for special, celebratory occasions, a wonderful way to honor the dead. After my father passed, I wore his wedding ring on a necklace around my neck for many months, taking great comfort in holding so close to my heart something he held so close to his, and which symbolized something so important to him—his marriage and subsequent family. A handkerchief, a fan, even a tote bag can be incorporated into our regular day-to-day as a way of honoring and staying connected to those who have passed.

5. Displaying things they owned around your home

In the same vein as the above, we can place items that belonged to our ancestors around our own homes, as opposed to stored away in boxes in attics so that their memory fades. The one single item I have from my maternal grandmother is a coarse-fabric nightgown embroidered with her initials; it's not something I would wear, so, instead, I have it set in a shadow box, initials on display with a photo of her perched at the top. Separately, I have my father's landscaping business card in a small gold frame in my office. These items keep the dead, as well as their work, close to us and part of our daily routine.

6. Ancestral patron saints

Many cultures have the Catholic custom of acknowledging patron saints, both of towns and of those associated with names. If you know what region your ancestors originally lived in, you can do a quick google search and likely find the patron saint associated with that town. Your ancestors would have partaken in yearly festivals and rituals in honor of that saint. They would have had images of the saint in their home, and likely prayed to him/her routinely.

In addition, many of our ancestors have names that correlate with the names of saints, and we can acknowledge our dead on the day of their saint name.

Honoring our dead in this way brings us closer to our roots and to a spiritual practice akin to the one our ancestors would have experienced.

7. Carry on their passions and traditions

Another way to honor the dead is to carry on the traditions and passions they enjoyed while alive. I mentioned my father and homemade wine earlier; continuing to make homemade wine in his honor is a way to keep his spirit present in our lives, even when his bodily form no longer is. Perhaps your ancestor enjoyed the theater, or gardening, or watching old black and white movies. Partaking in these things with the memory of your ancestor in mind is an active form of connection. Perhaps Christmas was a very important holiday to one of your dead; upping your Christmas celebration, decorating more than you normally would, for instance, is a way to honor the passion and joy of the person you lost and keep it alive.

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