Where do we keep our ancestors ?This sign in the Chinese Collection Room at Compton Verney hooked my attention : ‘During the Bronze Age, the immediate presence of the ancestors had been sought by using music, food, wine to attract spirits to the temple. Later although ancestors were still seen as powerful and worthy of veneration and sacrifice, they were ideally kept happy in a realm of their own. Tombs began to resemble lavishly stocked underground palaces where the dead would remain, well cared for but separate from earthly existence’. I imagine the spirits in a kind of ancestral care home, safely tucked away with good facilities. I went to visit the site of the Terracotta army’s excavation, in Xi’an China, with its awesome 8000 warriors and horses .The first Emperor of China Qin Shi Huangdi, 2200 years ago, was terrified of dying. So he commissioned this army to defend himself and his status in the afterlife. What is power in this life has power in the afterlife ?
My own miniature Terracotta Army !
Fast forward some centuries to our (mostly) secular century. No Emperor’s any more. I wonder where we keep our ancestors now ? Maybe by association, in places where they lived. Or with a memorial that was given to them when they died ? Their spirits don’t congregate collectively anymore, I don’t think. I imagine that some part of them resides within us, trickles into our thoughts. Presbyterian grandfather says: serve others. Father says : don’t blow your own trumpet, don’t say what you are good at. Also, shall I tell you a story. Step-grandmother says: life isn’t all fun you know. Aunt P says: live by your values, contribute to others. And they live in our bodies, in our genes. I look at my skin tone and it reminds me of my uncle D. My father went to boarding school in Belfast, whilst his parents were in China.
My father’s school report when he was thirteen and a half, in 1930. I added the heart to the ‘Arts & Crafts’ section as recognition of an unacknowledged skill. ‘He still makes amazing mistakes but is improving in every way’ states the conclusion. A Presbyterian school in 1930’s Belfast, very stern and diligent I am sure. No wonder he passes onto me those messages about modesty. Yet I am intrigued by what his ‘amazing mistakes’ were ? Maybe he told jokes to his classmates, put on funny voices ? As a child, I remember his creativity, making up stories, encouraging me to tell stories. So maybe, at 13, he was revealing his free spirit, between the rigorous sessions of Classics and Mathematics.
Where do you think you keep your ancestors ?