A while ago, I visited Sweden, trying to reconnect with a bit of my heritage that my family thought had been lost. According to my father, my grandfather did not talk much about his life in Sweden. The story was that he even went so far as to give us a fake name for his hometown: Norastadt. (Which, if you google it, you’ll realize is not actually the name of any town in Sweden.) After doing some intensive research, my sister and I were able to find his hometown. It turns out he did tell us the truth: He is from Nora Stadt (“Nora City”), a small, picturesque tourist town west of Stockholm. We visit the town and spent a few days scouring local cemeteries in central Sweden. We even found an ancestor we didn’t know we had–my kindly, childless great-aunt Hannah, who sent my father and his siblings gifts from Sweden each year for Christmas. We channeled our inner Cinderellas and tended her grave, the first time in several decades that anyone had done so. It was a powerful experience and solidified our desire to learn more about our ancestry and to honor those family members who had gone before.
Upon arriving back in the States, I was inspired to start looking for more recent ancestors in local cemeteries. You don’t really realize how much easier it is to do this in your home country until you’ve tried to do it in a rural part of foreign country and had to pantomime words like “great-grandfather”. (Go ahead, try it. Maybe you’ll have better luck than we did.) This evolved into my current practice of making the rounds of my local kyrkogårdar (cemeteries) once a season. I live in a large town and it has many cemeteries, but the three I need to visit are spaced around the outskirts of town in roughly the cardinal directions; it takes three hours to do the full cemetery run. Still, it’s a lot easier and cheaper than flying to Sweden.
My Swedish grandfather and his Norwegian-American wife didn’t agree on many things, but my dad says that at the end of the night, after the kids were put to bed, the two of them would gather in the kitchen and have a fika break. My father remembers being a kid and told to run to the local grocery store several miles away to pick the family up a bag of cardamom rolls. My grandparents would have them with some coffee. On cemetery visit days, we make sure to stop by the local Swedish pancake house and pick up some cardamom rolls and Dunkin Donuts, and I go have a fika break with my grandparents.
For my grandfather on my mother’s side, who grew up in Michigan, I bring freshly squeezed orange juice. Apparently his mother only fed him Sunny D when he was a child, and he refused to drink anything but fresh orange juice once he moved out. (Who knew Sunny D was that old?? I had no idea.) When he grew up and married my grandmother, she made him fresh OJ every day. My grandmother, for her part, did not have a specific food or drink that she enjoyed, but she loved gardenias. So she gets fresh-picked gardenias from my mother’s garden, as often as they are in season.
I did a recent round of cemetery visits with my parents when my aunt was in town visiting. She had never visited the cemeteries with me before, so I broke her in to the idea of leaving offerings gradually. She understood the desire to visit the cemeteries, and even understood tidying up the graves, but the leaving of offerings was new to her. After I explained it was just another way to honor those whom we loved in life, she understood. She told me later that was touched, and wished that she lived closer by so she could have a similar practice. My father, who has always been uncomfortable with religion as a whole (much my less Heathen religion, much less any religion than involves dumping out expensive alcohol for “no good reason”) asked me what I would bring to his grave when he died. “Pickled herring,” was our instant reply. He laughed and agreed that would be a worthy offering. (Give that man a jar of pickled herring and a Coors light, and he’s all set.)
Everyone’s offerings will be different. How each person decides to honor their ancestors will be different, too. The process doesn’t need to be big and showy or expensive (unless that’s something your ancestors would have appreciated). As with most things in life, having a practice and keeping to it is the most important thing. What can you do in your life today to start building your ancestor veneration? What do you feel is needed to honor your ancestors?