October 31st marks one of the High Holidays in the widely-used Pagan Wheel of the Year – Samhain. Out of all our holidays, I’d say this one gets the most press. Our celebration of the end of the growing season coincides with all that is spooky in the larger culture. This time of endings in the natural world reminds us of our own mortality, and that recognition is mirrored back to us in a thousand ways with the annual front lawn displays of ghosts and goblins.
Underneath the silly lies something deeper, beautiful and more serious. The end of October begins what I have come to think of as Veil Season – the time of year when the barrier that separates the living and the dead gets thinner. It’s at this time that our Ancestors of every kind (blood, milk and honey, our friends, beloved animal companions, etc) can hear us more clearly, and respond in ways that we sometimes notice. We celebrate this closeness of the layers of reality with Samhain, Halloween, All Hallow’s, All Saints, etc. Western culture is not the only place such observances are marked – the end of the growing season in many cultures is also the time of Ancestral veneration across the world. I was fortunate to live in Japan for a few years and always enjoyed the August celebration of Obon.
My beloved Viking and I have marked the past several Samhains with grave tending. I strongly believe in the power of meaningful offerings and one way to demonstrably show your ancestors that they are loved and remembered is to tend their graves. On October 31st, Chris and I spend our day visiting our Beloved Dead buried in our region. We begin out in West Virginia and end up at Arlington National Cemetery. During that trip we tend the graves of and leave offerings to family members, friends and, in the case of Arlington, all the Pagan graves we know about. I’ve had a few friends ask about this practice over the years, so I thought I’d give you some guidelines to follow if you’d like to give it a try.
Photos from grave tending in previous years
First, find the graves. It’s okay if you don’t remember where your family or friends are buried. This website is wonderful for locating graves. Also, for cemeteries that are ‘active,’ if the grave you’re looking for isn’t listed online, many times the folks who manage the office will be able to help you locate a particular grave.
What if your family/friends aren’t buried locally? Or what if you want to connect with your ancestors but the family members buried near you were total jerks? No problem. Obeisance to the dead can be offered via proxy (and can sometimes generate additional spirit allies). Visit your local graveyard and take a stroll – in my experience, they’re very peaceful and not creepy at all, contrary to the Halloween decorations currently being marketed. Notice any graves that could use a tidying. Family lines sometimes move, or die out, or people simply forget about Great Uncle Ezra. Particularly in older, smaller cemeteries, there’s frequently an abundance of neglected graves to choose from. Select one or two that feel good to you. If you are psychically sensitive, ask whether it would be okay to clean the grave you’ve chosen. In my experience, most of the Dead are pleased to have someone care for their last earthly holding.
Additionally, if you are looking for concrete ways to work on ancestral remediation and your family included slaveholders or benefited from white supremacy (and if you’re white, that’s ALL of us), tending the graves of enslaved African Americans can be a good offering. Locating slave graveyards will take additional research, but if you live in the mid-Atlantic to southern East coast, chances are there’s one near you. As with the graves of other unknown individuals, ask the spirits of the graves you’re looking at whether tending their grave would be acceptable. Also, many times slave graveyards are under the purview of community groups. If that is the case, ask permission of the living as well as the dead before tidying a grave.
Gather your supplies. Remember that headstones and grave markers are sensitive and exposed to the elements. Avoid any harsh chemical cleaners – bleach and most spray cleaners are simply too corrosive to use. I recommend you pack a bag that contains:
- A big spray bottle of water. If you’d like to really get fancy, TWO spray bottles – one with water, one with one part ammonia to three parts water. Remember which is which if you go that route.
- A soft bristled brush or sponge. The sponges and brushes designed to be used on cars are perfect for this. Hard bristles can damage older graves and we want to avoid anything that could corrode the surface of a grave. Purchase a ‘fresh’ brush/sponge for this since car-cleaning supplies can have traces of cleaning products on them. A couple different sizes here can be useful as well, particularly for ornamented graves.
- A roll of paper towels.
- Tissues. It’s okay to cry – tears are a beautiful offering.
- Scissors (for trimming back grass) and potentially garden shears depending on the state of the grave in question.
- A spade if you are tending a grave with a flat headstone – they frequently sink a little bit and end up with soil creeping across their surface.
- A trash bag (or a few, depending on the overgrowth around the grave you’re tending).
- Biodegradable, non-toxic, non-invasive offerings. I personally prefer offering beverages of various sorts – coffee, wine, beer, whiskey, whatever my ancestors preferred or what I suspect they would like – simply because they’re easy to transport and immediately go into the earth. If you do not know what your ancestors would like, sweet liquors of various sorts are common grave offerings with rum being one of the most frequently used.
Pack some snacks and drinks for yourself as well. If it’s a beautiful day, bring a picnic lunch. It’s normal to find yourself very hungry after grave tending, especially if you were also crying.
Make the journey. If you are visiting more than one cemetery, plan your route. Wear good walking shoes and prepare to be outside for a while. I like to sit with the grave I’m cleaning first and talk to the spirit associated with it. I speak aloud – saying their name into the autumn air has a lot of potency at this time of year. Depending on the age of the grave, it may have been a long time since the spirit heard their name spoken aloud. Don’t be surprised if you feel a little ripple of reaction. When I’m visiting one of the Pagan veterans’ graves and do not know much about the individual in question, I’ll frequently just say their name aloud, hail their spirit, and then say ‘That which is remembered lives. May this offering find you well.’
Clean the grave. I generally begin by trimming back overgrowth and removing soil buildup, plus general tidying. To clean the headstone of a grave:
- Soak the stone with water first. Stone is porous and will immediately soak up any water. If you’re using an ammonia mix, soaking with water first will keep the cleaning solution on the surface of the headstone.
- Begin cleaning at the bottom of the headstone and work your way up. Starting at the bottom minimizes streaking and staining. If you are using a diluted ammonia solution, spray it on and gently scrub in circles with your brush or sponge. Many if not most graves can be cleaned with water and scrubbing, though.
- Rinse again with plain water. You can wipe up any accumulated gunk with paper towels if you’d like.
Make an offering. Finish up by pouring out or placing an offering. Linger afterward if you would like. There’s no harm in spending time just being near the last holding of one of your beloved Dead. This time is wonderful for simply sitting with the connection and feeling close to one who has gone on before us.
Rest. After your grave tending is complete, try to take it easy that evening. Expect to be a little wiped out – having food already prepped or eating out might prove necessary.
I wish you the blessings of your Ancestors this Samhain. May you feel how deeply you are loved by those who have crossed the Veil! If you have any additional tips or suggestions for cleaning or locating graves, hit me up in the comments.
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