A Litany for the Many Dead jump-starts my ancestor practice

When starting out with ancestor worship, two unanswered questions made it harder for me:

  1. What do I say? and
  2. What about all those ancestors whose names I do not know?

I wish I’d had a copy of A Litany for the Many Dead, because that’s exactly the questions that this book could have answered for me.

Ancestor shrine with A Litany for the Many Dead on it

A Litany for the Many Dead gracing my ancestor shrine.

This book, which I believe is Rebecca Lynn Scott’s first, is a collection of prayers to the dead, and it is also one big prayer that describes the many, unnamed dead in a variety of ways that make them approachable, and able to be honored.  This is an incredibly helpful tool for any beginner with questions like I had, or anyone else who wishes to explore ways of deepening an established ancestor practice.

My original plan to read through this book when I got it and give some heartfelt thoughts about it when right out the window when I received my copy; this is a working volume, and can’t be evaluated by flipping through it over the third cup of coffee in the morning.  Instead, I realized that it was better to take the litany out for a spin by reading it before my ancestor shrine, which admittedly doesn’t get quite the amount of use that I’d like it to.   (To be fair, the fact that I finally have a shrine is progress in itself.)  Slow and steady is a tactic that usually works well for me, so after glancing through and seeing that there was a short verse on each page, I decided to read one page a day until I was through.

Hmm, the introduction doesn’t really count, so I just read that at my desk this morning.  And because the bulk of this book is a litany, the first page is the introductory prayer, with the idea being that a practitioner can read the introduction, then choose from among the several dozen individual prayers, and then wrap up with the closing towards the end of the book.  It’s customizable, easily adapted for groups and solitary work, and there’s room for more stanzas for the many dead online, as this is an ongoing act of devotion for Scott, one for which she invites submissions (and I found I was unable to finish this post without first writing and submitting a verse of my own).  Despite learning all this, I still had a fuzzy idea that I could just light a candle and read a page.  Not that I didn’t understand how the book was structured; I more or less figured I could turn it into one, big, multi-day ancestral offering.  Hmm indeed.

As it happened, after lighting that candle and replacing the offering of water, I found that stopping after the introduction didn’t feel right.  I think that’s because the verses of the litany speak to the forgotten dead, in their many forms, and it’s precisely the forgotten nature of the dead which has held up my own practice.  Even those relatives I’ve chosen to honor are people I didn’t know very well in life.  Grandparents who died in my youth, and a parent who died much more recently, and about whom I am still learning ten years after that passing.  A hero of mine, an actor who was paid for breathing life into a fictional character.  As for the countless generations of ancestors about which I know nothing, the best I could do was include a black mirror, so that I can look into my own eyes and see them looking back out.  There are always going to be far, far more dead than we living can possibly remember.  Perhaps that’s for the best:  that which remembers, lives, so maybe it’s best for the majority of the dead to remain so.  Otherwise, our brains and cultures might be predisposed to reciting the names of our progenitors back five hundred generations whenever we are introduced to someone new, and that would never do in the age of txtspk.

How it played out, then, is that I read a group of prayers, left the candle burning, and went about my business.  Each time I passed the shrine, I picked up the book and read a few more, four or six or even eight a time.  Each verse of the litany carries in it the cadence of the whole, a somber and serious rhythm that shapes the tongue and throat to its purpose.  It carried me forth as I prayed to groups of dead I had never before honored:  the disabled, the abused, the stolen, the young, the burned, the drowned.  It carried me forth as I prayed to the forgotten dead, and the blessed, the beloved, the wise, and the restless, as well.  In the end I offered the entire Litany for the Many Dead before stopping, and then read the final prayer, The Offer to Serve, silently.  I am not yet ready to make that commitment.

Some of the verses could easily conjure vivid-and-unpleasant images, but it’s easy enough to see where things are going from the first line of any stanza and just skip that one entirely.  I actually lingered over the verses which represent types of death that I would prefer to avoid, but that’s just me coming to terms with the fact that we usually don’t have a lot of choice in how we go, and steeling myself in case I pull the icky straw.  Not everyone is quite so interested in dwelling on death-forms that hit too close to home, but that again brings home the advantage of structuring this as a flexible litany, picking and choosing which dead to honor each time.  Because my copy already has post-it flags marking some the ones I expect to use frequently, I recommend that anyone who buys this book would be better off coughing up the extra five bucks or so to get a physical copy.

Most of your ancestors, I’d be willing to wager, used more books than ebooks, so it might even help you get to know your old-fashioned, computer-less forebears.