Brace yourself…this is a long one.
As my previous posts have mentioned, I have been studying and dipping a toe in the practice of Santeria. Since ancestral spirits play an important role in the practice of Santeria, I began asking any relative who would listen to tell me stories about my ancestors. Many of these stories were familiar to me. As a Wiccan, I honored the spirits of my beloved dead every Samhain, but I never thought to pray to them for intercession or guidance, let alone build a relationship with them.
During a conversation a few weeks ago, I found out that several members of my family are buried in a cemetery about an hour away. Among these ancestors is my grandfather Joe, the man I was named for. When I asked why I have never been there, my mom couldn’t really give me an answer other than “It never crossed our minds…” So, tomorrow I will be visiting the cemetery with a friend and it has been on the forefront of my mind for the past week.
To prepare, I looked into the Yoruba lore surrounding cemeteries and the Egun. Among the first articles and stories I found mentioned the Orisha Oya. Oya guards the gates of cemeteries. With this in mind, it is important to gain permission before entering the cemetery. Based on my research, I planned to give her nine pennies, a little red wine, and an eggplant prior to asking for her permission to enter the cemetery. I also wanted to take flowers for each of my family members. I went to Giant Eagle to buy flowers bought several bouquets, red wine, and an eggplant. While there, I also decided to buy some ziplock bags in case I wanted to gather some cemetery dirt.
It snowed overnight, which made the hour and a half drive a little more daunting. I went anyway, I didn’t want to put off visiting the cemetery another week. I picked up my friend Garrett, dropped by a gas station to pick up a cigar and a few airplane bottles of rum, and we made our way.
Alger, Ohio is a village that time forgot. It’s super rural. I don’t remember passing a restaurant, gas station, or even a store that was open on a Saturday morning; all clues that residents of the town probably were not going to be too open-minded about a witch communing with his ancestors in their cemetery. I silently, actually it may have been aloud, prayed to Oya that no one else would be in the cemetery. Oya has a sense of humor, it seems.
While the cemetery wasn’t packed, there were enough people milling about that I had to be sneaky, without being suspicious. We pulled in and parked in the far corner of the cemetery and I began my offering to Oya. I laid the eggplant on the ground, encircled it with nine pennies, and encircled both with a line of red wine.
“Oya, I pray to you! Please lift Your Head
Grant me swift entrance to the land of the Dead.
An ebo I’ve left in honor of your tradition
My Egun to meet, please grant me admission”*
I paused, waiting for a sign that it was ok to proceed. When I felt nothing, I feared that I made the trip only to be turned away at the gate. When I finally gave up and began to tell Garrett that we had to leave, a strong gust of wind blew through the cemetery. No, not blew, tore. I took this as my sign from Oya that she had accepted my offering and that I could proceed.
After a long walk, we finally found the first of the graves. We found the grave of my two aunts, Rosemary and Jacqueline, first. They had both died as infants and were interred together. When I learned of them, I immediately linked them to Ibeji, the Yoruba Divine Twins. I know this correlation isn’t exactly correct, because they are both female (Ibeji were male and female) and since my aunts were not twins. However, to me, my aunts became the symbols of play and innocence. I laid identical bouquets on their grave and introduced myself to them. I promised to bring them candy and toys the next time I visited.
After a moment, I realized that none of my other ancestors were buried near the girls. This made me incredibly angry, then incredibly sad. I mentioned to Garrett that I wanted to see how much it would cost to have their graves moved closer to the others. That’s when I noticed the grave of my Great Grandmother Eva right beside them.
My mother described Eva as being brutally honest with a quick wit. Honestly, she called her a bitch, but then added the other descriptors when she felt bad about speaking ill of the dead. She also told me the story of how two monuments in the cemetery bear her name. The first was the one next to the girls where she was buried. The other was with her second husband. After her husband’s death, Eva decided that she wanted to be buried alone and close to her granddaughters. This made Eva my ancestral symbol for fierce individuality and protection. I laid a bouquet of yellow, white, and pink carnations on her grave and introduced myself. I didn’t instantly feel a connection, but I’m sure after several visits, she will welcome me with (semi)open arms.
Garrett and I then drove around the cemetery to find my other ancestors. I was about to give up when Garrett said “Drive down there” and pointed towards the center of the cemetery. I did and still didn’t see anything. Garrett then said “right there” and pointed to a grave with my family’s name engraved on the back. Garrett attributes this to his observation skills, I attribute this to his spiritual sensitivity. He and I agreed to disagree.
I parked the car and made my way to my Uncle Leonard’s and Aunt Kathryn’s grave. My parents never shared stories about them and I don’t know much, but I still felt drawn to leave flowers. I briefly introduced myself and asked if they would be willing to talk when I came back. Much like Eva, I didn’t sense any response, but I’m persistent and will definitely try again.
Next to their grave is my Grandmother Anna. She is the only one of those interred in Alger that I met. Granted, I only remember meeting her once and it was when I was five, but the memory is strong. It was her birthday and she came to Florida to visit my family. We took her to the beach for a party and the beautiful sunny day, turned into a sudden downpour. We packed up everything and headed home, all of us “soaked to the gills” as I remember her saying. When my dad apologized for her birthday being ruined, she smiled and said something that I repeat to myself 25 years later. She said “Why bitch about the rain? Just take off your shoes and jump in the puddles.” I smiled at this memory and lit a candle for her. I left the candle, a bottle of rum, and a bouquet of white roses on her grave and promised I would be back soon.
Next to Anna’s grave is her husband, my grandfather and namesake Joe. I never met Joe, but I remember having a dream when I was little. In the dream, a man that looked a little like my dad told me that he just wanted to say hi. When I told my parents, they exchanged a puzzled look, and my mom grabbed a photo album. She asked me to look through the album and see if I recognized the man. I did as I was told and immediately pointed to Joe. My entire life, my parent have told me stories about him. He was a soldier in WWII. My mom liked to share stories of his bravery, my dad liked to share stories about the shenanigans he got into overseas. I learned that he was illiterate, but also that he was a gifted carpenter. In one story, he measured the materials needed to renovate our kitchen just by looking at it. When the lumberyard “corrected” the measurements and sent over the materials, they didn’t fit. When they measured the kitchen themselves, they found that Joe was right in his estimate. I smoked a cigar with Joe at his grave, then left the cigar, a bottle of rum, and white roses on his grave. Unlike the others, I felt his presence strongly. He was excited for my return and so was I.
As a Wiccan, I approach other magickal traditions as if I were an expert. I look for commonalities and go with my gut. In regards to Santeria, this may have been a disservice. I immediately approached Elegua and began forcing a relationship with him. I prayed and left offerings to the other Orishas and fostered my connection with them. I did this even though everything I have read told me to start with my ancestors. Visiting the cemetery helped me to establish a connection with the spirit world and put the African diasporic religions into a personal context. I cannot wait to visit with them again.
*Adapted from Dorothy Morrision, Utterly Wicked