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Tending the Tales of Grief

Every so often, I offer a workshop or discussion on Ancestor veneration. I hadn't done one in several years, but felt the urge to do it this year.  Last night was the chosen evening and we drew in together at Mother Grove's little chapel to talk about the Dead and our Dead.

It was informal--more of a conversation than a class.  I started out with some general information about honoring our Beloved Dead through altars or memorial displays. We went on to discuss the layers of the Dead that we may choose to honor--family and friends who have died,  all those folks we find on Ancestrydotcom and those intentionally selected heroes and inspirations who have no blood or cultural tie to us but who have inspired us through their story.

We talked about some artifacts that may be employed in our commemorative process--including memorial candles like the one above.

And we talked about the story of the death. Storytelling is a big cultural deal here in the southern Highlands of the Appalachian mountains and that goes double when someone dies.  There is always someone who is the keeper of the death and when you find them, they will take your through the transition from "Well, we got to the hospital about 4, and.." to "We'll know something about arrangement once all the family gets here."

Then the group began to tell its own stories of grief and shame and healing, of Ancestors lost and found, and Forebears unknown but suspected. There was much laughter, nodding heads, some tears.

And the tales told were redolent with the stuff of myth. Outsize relatives who are still discussed to this very day. Ancestors who lived hard and died the same way and the effect those deaths have had on the generations who came after.

We acknowledged the hard thing that sometimes the Dead are not Ancestors but Descendants and how that comes to shape some families and their stories and emotional health. In many parts of this country, there is still a staggering incidence of children who die before their parents--the stuff of nightmares and of classical drama.

We often write this in personal notes on Facebook and in tiny condolence cards--what is remembered, lives. The story of the transition from matter to spirit is a powerful rite of passage for the teller as well as the listener.

May we all have a passing worthy of a good tale and be blessed with a keeper gifted in the telling of it.

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H. Byron Ballard is a ritualist, teacher, speaker and writer. She has taught at Sacred Space Conference, Pagan Unity Festival, Southeast Her essays are featured in several anthologies, including “Birthed from Scorched Hearts“ (Fulcrum Press), “Christmas Presence“ (Catawba Press), “Women’s Voices in Magic” (Megalithica Books), “Into the Great Below” and “Skalded Apples” (both from Asphodel Press.) Her book Staubs and Ditchwater: an Introduction to Hillfolks Hoodoo (Silver Rings Press) debuted in June 2012. Byron is currently at work on Earth Works: Eight Ceremonies for a Changing Planet. Contact her at,


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