Halls of my ancestors

When I die, I expect to be reunited with my ancestors in their halls “on the other side.” For many of my friends, that doesn’t come as any surprise, but I think it bears some elaboration.

I have a lifelong interest in genealogy, as well as pre-Christian religions. No surprise then that my polytheist journey will have taken me to the belief systems of my ancestors, or that I would want to rejoin them in death. For many years I’ve experimented with the question of who my ancestors are. The Indian family of my father? The Swedish family of my mother? The Celts? Romans?

How far back do you go, and when do you stop? A typical American Westerner, my ancestry is mixed. Roughly 1/2 English, 1/4 Swedish, 1/8 Scottish, and 1/8 Pawnee, with a smattering of French, German & German-Swiss, Dutch, Welsh, and Wampanoag. Sorting out a specific cultural identity becomes even more difficult when the cultural identity of certain ancestors doesn’t match their ethnic background. For example, my grandmother is half-Pawnee, but she’s culturally Lakota because one of her aunts married into that tribe and when she was growing up those cousins were the only relatives she had on a reservation. So, my father, a man who was only 1/4 Indian, and Pawnee at that, was a Lakota medicine man. If I had been raised by him, I would identify as Lakota too.

Now, this “folkish” approach might offend some. If you are called by the gods of a particular pantheon, you just choose them. Somehow that answer doesn’t sit well with me. Sure, if you think you’re called, take that path. Me, I like to think I have some choice.

Eventually, I came around to refining my question. Not, who are my ancestors? But, which ancestors do I want to rejoin in death? (A few simple calculations will show that the number of ancestors for any given person expands exponentially as you go back in time. Go back a few hundred years and you’d be rejoining several million folks.)

Now, in my case, that’s a pretty easy question to answer. My mother’s family, of course. They came to America from Sweden at the turn of the century. They’re all hardworkers and very well-educated, as well as being very warm and inclusive. Not to mention that I grew up among them and they’re the set of folks I think of when anyone talks about extended family.

As I thought about this, a process that took many years, it occurred to me that in our society we bear last names as a badge of family membership. Perhaps most of the people I know would characterize surnames as a nominal survival of a formerly patriarchal order. Maybe so, but it seems to me that surnames nevertheless tell us the family someone formally belongs to. That’s as true of married women as it is of children born into a nuclear family.

I didn’t want to belong to my father’s family. They have a lot of strong points — some very colorful people, some very talented people, a sprawling and diverse set of folks that includes relatives who are Asian, Black, Hispanic, and Indian. Nevertheless, they are also the most dysfunctional set of people you’d want to meet. They are torn apart by feuds that go back a hundred years, and many of them are deeply troubled by alcoholism, violence and psychosis. The thought of spending an afterlife among them is too much to bear. I’d be better off as a Christian expecting them all to end up in Hell.

Eventually I reach a point where it seemed to me that the surname test was easily solved. I changed my name. A simple matter for me, as I only needed to drop the name I had at birth and leave my last middle name as my new last name. That done, and now done so long ago, I think I’m safe. I don’t belong to the male line of my Norse ancestors, but I bear the surname they adopted during the Napoleonic wars. I’m confident now that I’ll join them when I die.

Every once in a while, one of my friends will object (although “object” might be an understatement for a tirade delivered as a screech). The objections I hear are generally some variation on the theme that not everyone wants to join their relatives after death. I shrug. I’m not making rules for anyone else; I’m talking about what I believe personally.

If someone is distressed by my beliefs, I suspect it’s because he or she feels threatened by the idea that we might all rejoin our families at death. Not everyone wants to do that. I’ve heard some interesting accounts of dysfunctional families in the process of arguing the point. My advice is make your peace with your family now, on this side of death, so you can have a peaceful afterlife together. They’re all fundamentalist Christians? Then, I’d say you have some work to do if you’re going to find a way to live in peace. I’ve got relatives who are Episcopalian, Lutheran, Fundamentalist, and Mormon, and we’re all trying to get along now (albeit we have different reasons for trying). You were abused as a child? More work to do. They’re manipulative? Please! Everyone I know claims to come from a manipulative family. If you believe you’ll be living in your ancestral halls after you die, I suggest you quit thinking about how awful that might be, and figure out a way to start fixing it now.

On the other hand, if you really can’t fix it, or don’t want to, choose a different branch of your family to identify with. Adopt their surname. Hang out with them. If you’re a married woman with your husband’s surname, take a good look at those in-laws, ‘cause you’ve left your own family and you’re going to end up with them. And, if you happen to like the family you’re in and you love the idea of spending the afterlife with them, good for you. I’d say you’re living out your heathen values.

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