So You Want to Honor The Trans Dead?
The Transgender Rite of Ancestor Elevation: An Open Letter to the Curious
By Alder Night
Hello, friends! I’m so excited that you’re interested in the Elevation! It’s coming up really soon, and we’d love for you to be involved.
Essentially, the Transgender Rite of Ancestor Elevation (or Trans Rite of Elevation – TRoE for short) is a collaborative nine-day ancestor elevation ritual, styled after rituals in the Espiritismo Cruzada (Blended Spiritism) tradition, which is open. It originated as the brainchild of a small group of trans spirit-workers, myself included, at the Polytheist Leadership Conference in the summer of 2014. The thought was, the trans dead, trans women of color in particular, are a “uniquely traumatized group of spirits who often” die in awful and painful ways after dealing with a lifetime of people trying to deny their humanity. That kind of pain and rage and shame and trauma lingers after death. Our ancestors, beautiful queers whose struggles and sacrifices, both deliberate and nonconsensual, formed the entire basis of our current fight for liberation, are dying and getting stuck. We stand on their shoulders, yet they continue to suffer after death, trapped in horrible feedback loops of anger and pain, unable to move on.
We at the conference had just left an excellent workshop on ancestor worship, and the thought surfaced: if an elevation could be used to lift one chosen ancestor out of their pain and help their soul find peace, could a more expansive ritual, featuring a large group of worshipers, be applied to the death trauma of a whole group of beloved dead?
We decided to find out. We did some research and a bunch of divination, and we schemed and formed ambitious, grandiose plans, and the chosen date approached and all that shit fell apart and we scrambled to have anything prepared at all. We really wanted to make a huge, overwhelming gesture of gratitude and love for the ancestors, and in our enthusiasm we overshot. The Elevation happened, and it was a success as far as post-Rite divination with our honored dead confirmed, but it lacked cohesion and organization, and we really fucked up some things in the process. This year, we are trying hard to learn from those mistakes and do better going forward. (On that note, I personally apologize for last year’s blundering. It was oversight, not malice, but that doesn’t make it okay.)
The Rite begins on the evening of November 12, and runs for nine nights, culminating on the Transgender Day of Remembrance (TDoR), November 20. You can participate anywhere you are. You can work solo or with a group. You can spend money on your altar and offerings, or you can make it work without monetary investment. You can even keep it up while traveling or changing nightly locations, if you need to, although keeping a set spot for your altar is ideal.
Honestly, all you really need to participate is a sincere dedication to honoring the transgender dead for the nine consecutive nights of the ritual. There’s other stuff we recommend you have, but the essential thing you need to do, in order to participate and throw your energy in with that of everyone else who is doing the elevating, is to pray and offer water on all nine nights. We’re anticipating that it will work that way because of the size of the group – the physical/spiritual elevation synergy is vital, but as long as most of us can manage that, collectively, the combined energy will serve the same purpose. That’s the hope, at any rate, and showing the ancestors some extra love is never a bad thing.
To get the full effect, you’ll need to build an altar. This is going to be a specific style of ancestor altar (adapted, as I mentioned, from Spiritualist practices), and even if you already have an active ancestor work or other altar set up, this one should be separate. Build it on the ground, someplace out of harm’s way. Put down a cloth – white is traditional, but use what speaks to you (when in doubt, do some divination). Many of us used bandanas last year – they speak more specifically to our lived trans experiences, and tie us to the recent queer ancestors who also relied on handkerchiefs to innocuously communicate identities and desires. On that altar cloth, set a candle and a glass that can be filled with water. At its core, that is what the ancestor elevation altar is: cloth, candle, cup. What you add beyond that is up to you.
If possible, incorporate names or photos of any specific transgender dead you wish to honor. (Two notes: check via divination that those ancestors in question do, in fact, wish to be included in the Elevation, and do not use photos with living people on your altar.) Other items may include incense (frankincense is particularly soothing to the troubled dead), offering dishes for food or drink, objects that represent transgender resiliency and gender variance (makeup, prostheses, glitter, condoms, protest fliers, art), additional candles, and flowers (particularly white cut flowers – live plants offered to the dead tend to die quickly, in my experience; YMMV). Finally, you will need a stack of nine solid books large enough to hold your photos and names, cup, and candle. The books will be added one at a time, night by night, to literally, physically elevate the dead in conjunction with the elevation prayers. You may use other means of raising up your altar if you prefer, but books are what we recommend.
Each night, purify in whatever way you prefer for approaching the ancestors, whether that’s washing your face and hands, smoke cleansing, or asperging with holy water. Sit on the floor in front of your altar, if you are able. Light your candle and incense. Fill the glass with cool, clean drinking water. Call to any deities with whom you wish to work (confirmed, again, through divination), and then call to the ancestors.
In my own ancestor work practice, I typically say:
Ancestors of my lineage, those related to me not by blood but by spirit, honored transgender dead, I call to you.
Figureheads, I call to you: Mama Marsha, Auntie Sylvia, Comrade Feinberg, I call to you.Hail Agdistis, first of the ancestors, holy in your weirdness; I call to you. Beloved ancestors, you whose path I gratefully tread today, I call to you, I praise and honor you. I thank you for your gifts, your guidance, your wisdom. I honor your struggles, your pain, your fury. I open my heart to you, I give you my love. Thank you, beloved transgender dead. I offer you cool water for your journey. May you never thirst.
You’ll note that in my introduction, I call to a few specific transgender ancestors by name: Marsha P. Johnson, Sylvia Rivera, and Leslie Feinberg. I do so because, last year, each of them specifically expressed interest in being a figurehead or spokesperson for the ritual – a liaison, if you will between the dead and the living, who can reach out to the dead whose names we do not know and can provide support and a buffer in the cases of truly traumatized and violent restless dead. I happen to have a working relationship with these spirits, in that I make recurring offerings to them. We are in the process of confirming whether Miss Marsha P. Johnson is again willing to act as the main organizer for the ritual across the veil, and will update accordingly when those divination results are ready. Include her on your altar, if you can, and please do specifically hail and thank her in your prayers. She’s taken on a very big job in the past, and may be doing it again.
I also call to the deity/daemon Agdistis. You don’t have to, but they have a lot to offer in these struggles. Consider it.
Adapt those words as necessary – they are a solid basic framework. Then, we will each be offering two prayers every night. One will be a common prayer that everyone uses, and the other is up to you. Write one, or find one, or use one of ours. Our Tumblr is being overhauled in preparation for Wednesday, but you can find them under our prayers tag.)
Then, put the pictures or names, the glass of water, and the candle on one of the books. Cover the book with a cloth, if you prefer. Continue to pray and meditate for as long as you wish, or you may offer music or movement. When you are ready, put out the candle, and thank the gods and ancestors. You’re almost done for the night.
Last year, we ran into some issues with miasma and spiritual pollution getting stuck on all of us. This year we strongly urge everyone involved to work hard at shielding (so as not to absorb the miasma afflicting our ancestors), and to cleanse and purify every night both before and after working.There are lots of ways. We can offer suggestions. Just make sure you do it. Then you’re done.
Part of the mechanism of the ritual is katharsis by proxy. We as living descendants are helping our dead to remove and process trauma and emotion, and that means that we ourselves end up doing some of that processing. You may feel low and depressed or anxious. You may have nightmares. We are hoping that shielding and cleansing diligently will mitigate those lingering negative effects. But this is frankly uncharted territory, and we collectively have more enthusiasm than experience with this sort of ancestor worship. It is a learning process and we honestly haven’t determined for sure what the best precautions are. Do what you need to take care of yourself. We’re in this together.
Repeat the nightly ritual for the nine consecutive nights through to the Trans Day of Remembrance. Each night, offer new fresh water, and add an additional book to the stack. On the final night, you have a few options. What I did last year was to dress in dark, formal clothing and attend the local university’s name-reading and candlelit vigil for TDoR. I found it to be worthwhile, but very difficult. There is value in braving the trigger gauntlet to attend a larger TDoR gathering if you can, and ideally to contribute our communal prayer if the space allows for it. By joining into that space, you can incorporate some of the ambient energy of the event into our collective energy pool. That said, if you cannot or do not wish to attend a public TDoR, you will not be failing in any way. Consider reading the names alone or with other Elevation participants while you complete the last night of the ritual. These are our newest ancestors and in many ways they need the most love and support of all.
Throughout, feel free to assess the Rite’s progress through divination. We’ll be checking in, but we’d love if you were doing so as well.
And I mean it about trying to do better this year. If we fuck up again, please feel empowered to point it out. If you can do it in a kind way, all the better – there are only a handful of us and we are stretched pretty thin. But there is no excuse for appropriative or oppressive behavior in our movements, whether for the living or the dead. It’s not anyone else’s job to watch us, but if you notice something, we’ll try to make it right.
Finally, if you are trans and you’re joining us in the Rite, please feel free to submit altar photos, stories, memories of those we’ve lost, and prayers to our Tumblr. We ask that only trans participants send us submissions, though anyone taking part is welcome to tag #tdor and #tdor2015 on their social media posts so that we see them.
Thank you again so much for your interest! It means more than I can say to have you working alongside us to honor and elevate our beloved transgender dead. In the words of Mother Jones:
“Pray for the dead and fight like hell for the living.”
Love and rage,