By Ivy Cox
The smell of incense wafting through the air is at once familiar and soothing to me, having spent part of my childhood in Taiwan. On the first and fifteenth of every lunar month, the Taiwanese light incense and honor our ancestors at the family altar, set up with the ancestral tablet and adorned with offerings of food, rice wine and light eternally lit. We pray to our forefathers and foremothers, wishing them well and requesting blessings for ourselves and our loved ones. This form of veneration is deeply ingrained in the cultural fabric as a secular family rite. Thus, one's religious faith does not preclude one from this tradition.
The Taiwanese/Chinese ancestral tablet houses the family tree of at least 10 generations of paternal lineage, complete with titles, names, locations and dates of birth and death. Although this type of record-keeping is not practiced in the U.S., Americans also have a strong interest in their genealogy. A 2007 survey conducted by Ancestry.com showed that 78 percent of the respondents wanted to learn more about their roots even if only half could name more than one great-grandparent.
This interest gave rise to television shows that explore family trees for celebrities: Who Do You Think You Are? on NBC and Finding Your Roots with Henry Louis Gates, Jr. on PBS. These shows illustrate how we are influenced by our ancestors beyond simple genetics and how we are shaped by their choices, their actions, and their sacrifices for us.
While the ritual of honoring ancestors with incense and altars may seem foreign, the idea is universal. No matter where we are from, it is meaningful to feel connected with ancestors who have helped shape who we are.
Take a memento, perhaps a picture of your grandfather or a piece of jewelry passed down from your great-grandmother, and place it where you deem appropriate. Make sure the surrounding space is not cluttered by other items (e.g., keys or loose change). You may want to select significant dates to honor your ancestors. Or you may choose to honor them whenever you think of them.
Take a deep breath, close your eyes, and think good thoughts with every fiber of your being. You may wish your ancestors well. You may request a blessing. You may reflect on your family history. When you are done, open your eyes slowly. Perhaps smile. You will find yourself more content in having honored your past.
Ivy Cox believes that our hearts resonate the most with personal stories of those we love. She brings her interest in different cultures and passion in finding common ground to create one-of-a-kind wedding ceremonies. Ivy is a certified Life-Cycle Celebrant as well as a professional graphic designer/art director. She lives with her husband, two kids, and a Boston Terrier in Bedminster, NJ. She is fluent in Mandarin Chinese and Taiwanese. You can reach Ivy at ivy.cox (at) gmail.com.