Goodbye, Lola

Over the weekend, I “buried” my grandmother, my lola.

She died on February 28 this year, in her home in the Philippines. My family cremated her shortly afterward and put her ashes in our family’s grave. They held her funeral at their local Catholic church a few days later. Because of the pandemic, though, my parents, siblings, and I were unable to fly to the Philippines to participate.

I felt my grandmother’s loss deeply. When I was a child, she flew from her home to help my parents raise me. While my dad and mom worked hard, my grandmother fed me. Because of her, I grew up eating Filipino staples like silog, adobo, puto, and pancit. Whenever I had a stomachache or a cold, she rubbed Dragon Balm on my abdomen or Vicks on my chest. She sewed parts of my cosplay when I was a teenager, never questioning my unusual hobbies.

My grandmother was always gentle, kind, and thoughtful. She was a devout woman; I often caught sight of her praying the rosary. And I think she was very lonely, all the way in America. She spoke English well, but she had no driver’s license, no car, and no way to make friends. Her husband and other children lived thousands of miles away. As I grew up into a stubborn teenager, I spent less and less time with her. I took her for granted. I assumed she would always be around, that her love and support would never suddenly end.

A photograph of the woods by the river.

When my grandmother took a bad fall over ten years ago, her quality of life began to worsen. She developed dementia, and none of us could provide her with adequate care. So she flew back home to the Philippines, to my grandfather’s side. She lived there until her death, cared for by family and nurses.

The last time I saw her was when when my parents took her to the airport. I thought I would visit her eventually. She’d hopefully be lucid enough to tell me all about her life before my birth.

I never saw her again.

Reconstructing a burial rite

Of course, I don’t believe the death of a loved one is the end of a relationship with them. My Heathen practice involves ancestor veneration, so I give weekly offerings to my ancestors both named and unnamed. I can’t grow close to them as if they were alive, but I do sense of their love for me. I know they look out for me and for the rest of my family.

Now, I could have simply printed out a photo of my grandmother to put on the shrine after her death. I could have made an offering to her right away, as I did for my great-grandmother and my grandfather. But reconstructing Gothic Heathenry involves creating rituals for everyday life. I turned to my research materials and began piecing together some kind of funeral or burial ceremony.

I started with Herodotus. In The Histories, he writes:

As for the rest of the Scythian population, when one of them dies, his closest relatives put his body on a wagon and take it round to his friends, each of whom makes the entourage welcome and gives them a meal at which the corpse is served the same food and drink as everyone else. The corpse … is taken around to his friends like this for forty days. [1]

A photograph of the Middle Patuxent River.

Most of that was not applicable since my grandmother soon became ash. However, the timeframe of forty days reminded me of a passage from Herwig Wolfram’s History of the Goths. According to Ostrogothic legend, the Goths mourned Thorismund’s death for forty years before they chose Valamir as his successor [2]. Historians doubt the truth of Thorismund’s kingship, but forty years of kinglessness did occur during this time.

So forty days seemed, to me, like an appropriate mourning period. During that time, I did not pray to my grandmother, nor did I put her picture on the shrine. Instead, I focused on innovating a ritual from what information we have about the ancient Goths.

Alaric the Great, a king of the Visigoths, famously sacked Rome. A few days later, he succumbed to illness and died. Legend tells that his warriors diverted the flow of the Busento River in southern Italy. At the bottom of the riverbed, they buried Alaric with his treasures. Then they dropped the river back on top of his grave so no one could find it.

I know from the writings of Sallustius that myth is purely metaphorical, and that strange or disturbing events in myth are purposefully obscuring, too [3]. So I examined the legend of Alaric with this perspective in mind. Because of water’s liminality, I understood the river to be the “road” the dead use to travel to the afterlife. A grave in the riverbed further emphasizes this idea, suggesting that the afterlife “exists” beneath our ordinary world. After all, a person would have to swim down to its bottom to reach the grave.

With these metaphors in mind, I considered what I might use to represent a body. I thought about the Anglo-Saxon Heathen tradition of drowning a corn dolly every spring to return fertility to the land. I didn’t want to copy them, though. And I knew I wanted whatever the “body” is to be accessible, in case other Gothic Heathens like this idea. So I came up with alternatives, including grain and fruit, and settled on flowers.

A photograph of the altar on a boulder, with two electric candles, a dish full of oats, and flower petals.

A trip to the riverside

I woke up early on Saturday and packed my things into a bag:

  • Travel shrine box with electric candles and an offering dish
  • Reusable water bottle filled with water, for cleansing myself before ritual
  • A dish towel, to use as an altar cloth
  • Petals picked from the flowers I’d bought
  • Oats for offerings
  • Wallet, keys, phone

The river is not far from my apartment. It’s a 5-minute drive at most, then a 15-minute hike on a dirt trail. A thunderstorm had passed through the area the night before; the air was cool but humid, the trail muddy, the river swollen. I climbed down the steep, rock-strewn hill to the riverbank and sat on the large boulders. Then I spread out my things: my cloth, my candles and plate, my flower petals. I rinsed my hands with bottled water.

And then I spoke. Alone in a forest filled only with the sound of rushing water, I first prayed to the ahmans (wights). I thanked them for their hospitality and gave them handfuls of grain. Next, I addressed Laguhwaþo, Celestial Queen of the Underworld. Improvising my prayer, I asked Her to guide my grandmother to her destination, wherever it might be. I added more grain to the offering dish.

Then I stood, grabbing fistfuls of flower petals. With two quick motions, I threw the petals onto the river and watched as they floated off. A minute later, I picked up the offering dish and tossed the oats as well. They vanished into the water.

After sitting in silence for a few more minutes, I packed up my things and left. Immediately upon arriving home, I printed out a photo of my grandmother, framed it, and put it on the shrine. For an offering, I cut the first slice of a cake I’d made the night before. It was the same cake she used to make for my birthdays when I was a kid. And for the first time, I addressed my grandmother as an ancestor. I invited her to speak with me and guide me through life, to bless our family and share her wisdom.

I told her, “Though I should have visited you before you died, we can talk now. We can talk here.”

A photograph of the ancestor shrine, my grandmother’s photo, and an offering of cake.

NOTES

  1. Herodotus, The Histories, 258.
  2. Wolfram, History of the Goths, 251.
  3. Sallustius, “On the Gods and the World,” 202.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Herodotus. The Histories. Translated by Robin Waterfield and Carolyn Dewald. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008. Kindle.

Sallustius. “On the Gods and the World.” Translated by Gilbert Murray. In Five Stages of Greek Religion by Gilbert Murray, 200-226. Boston: The Beacon Press, 2009.

Wolfram, Herwig. History of the Goths. Translated by Thomas J. Dunlap. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988.

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