Standing between death and the dead

This time of year is when I most strongly feel the ancestors around me.  Memorial Day was yesterday, and tomorrow is the anniversary of my father’s birth.  Six years ago my cat went missing on June 9, and I wonder if he yet lives, or I may honor him among the dead.  This past weekend I helped adopt someone who lived in my town until his death four years ago as a community ancestor.

Perhaps that’s why I found myself weeping as I wrote yesterday’s remembrance of Taliesin Myrddin, who died trying to prevent hate.  I didn’t know the man at all, nor any of his loved ones; this was not personal grief.  Normally I don’t feel the deaths of strangers deeply; there are far too many people dying in the world for me grieve them all and yet live.  His death touched me, and divination confirms that my own dead wanted it to.

First, a little something about Ludwig Montesa, a man “whose unconventionality, both mentally and physically, sometimes unsettled people who didn’t know him,” according to one obituary.  He died in 2013, while I was at a point in my studies of Hellenismos at which I was learning about Hekate, the Deipnon, and ancestor veneration.  I knew him as a friendly, if slightly peculiar, man who was a constant presence in our downtown; when news of his death spread, I found stunned to discover the number of people whose lives he had touched.  My first ancestor offering was made at the impormptu shrine which emerged not far from where his parents ran a gift shop.  It had much the look of many impromptu shrines:  flowers, candles, heartfelt messages of grief were included, but also Metro cards, which to him were the connection to his favorite metropolitan area.

In the years since his passing, I have come to know Ludwig Montesa better than I did in life.  He transgressed boundaries of gender and personal space, ignored the hobgoblins of shame and comparison to others, and embraced himself with joy and abandon.  He was known for high-fives that never seemed to end, karaoke performances unfettered by self-consciousness, and an enduring love for New York City (which to me was the most alien thing about him).  Each May since he died there has been a Ludwig Day replete with games, musical performances, and remembrances.  I’d never been able to make it for one reason or another, but it was clear that Ludwig Montesa had a festival in his honor, much like the heroes of old.

This year I decided I was going to lead an ancestor-veneration ritual for Ludwig.  It meant forgoing Rites of Spring, but local praxis should take precedence.  Family members were on board, and one of them was in attendance.  A photographer for our local paper was also there, and gave me some images from the event.

It was a short ritual, with about fifteen people in attendance.  I set up a low table as a shrine, using a black cloth and candle mostly because people in this color associate black with death.  Before it was a really stunning framed portrait that captures Ludwig’s eccentric flair.  I did a brief overview of ancestor veneration and how in Hellenic tradition the dead are down in the underworld.  I invited him to attend and poured out an offering of Diet Coke, one of his favorite beverages.  Participants were invited to offer flowers, Metro cards, and brief remembrances; I had some of the first two for people who were unprepared.  (Cards with money still loaded on them will be distributed to those in need in his name.)

This was the first public ritual I’ve ever led, and it went quite well.  I felt Ludwig’s presence and had the opportunity to honor him in a way befitting his near-shamanic life.  Our communities all have local heroes, and it’s appropriate to identify and honor them.

Coming off of that experience, and readying myself for this annual pilgrimage of mine, I found myself learning about a young man who stuck is neck out to help some strangers, and got a knife in it for his trouble.  It’s both hard to bear and completely inspiring.  How many of us would put their bodies between hate and harm like Taliesin Myrddin did?  Who among us truly knows the answer to that question without it being tested like it was for him?

There’s more to tell in that story, to be sure; a member of his family may be speaking with me soon, and his mother seems to be responding to this tragedy with a combination of love and activism.  Like her son, she inspires me, and I hope to be able to speak to her at some point.  Even if I lived in that town, I am not the kind of reporter who could knock on a door and say, “Your son was just violently killed.  How do you feel?”  There is a need for personal space and time which transcends freedom of the press.

For me, the time for honoring death will continue through July, as I intend on undertaking the Vigil for the Bulls again.  It’s curious that it is now, as spring bursts into life, that death is closest to me.  Such is the mystery.

In closing, some pictures of the ancestor rite for Ludwig Montesa.

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