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Ancestral energy lives in the stars above us, the stones beneath us. Their memory gathers in oceans, rivers and seas. It hums its silent wisdom within the body of every tree.

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Celebrating Spirit with a Silent Supper

“And in one house they could see an old grandfather mummy being taken out of a closet and put in the place of honor at the head of the table, with food set before him. And the members of the family sat down to their evening meal and lifted their glasses and drank to the dead one seated there, all dust and dry silence…”
~ Ray Bradbury, The Halloween Tree, 1972

Dine with the Dead
Bradbury’s text was my first introduction to the idea of the silent dinner with the dead, also known as a Dumb Supper. This formal sit-down is traditionally done any night between October thirty-first and November third. I enjoy it most when we can set the table on Halloween evening, also known as Samhain (sow-in), which we are planning to do this year. This one is also special as it marks the first anniversary of the accident where I almost died.
My Ancestors stood at my bedside with me, helping to channel the healing energy. I was so near death myself that I saw them clearly. A few were faces I recognized but most were new to me, with eyes or jaws or mouths set in familiar slants and patterns. When I was closest to the other side, I was least alone. My wife and I will be celebrating life as we honor those who aided my healing from the spirit world.
It’s meant to be silent but it does not have to be a solemn or somber event. Hold the supper sacred and keep conversation on the experience at hand; it is not a place to chit chat about the workday or chores that need to be done as such mundane life can keep the timid dead away who no longer recognize the world-as-is. Perhaps there was a time when true silence was possible but for the scraping of forks and howling of the wind, but in this day, when our homes are filled with the not-so-quiet hum and thrum of electronics, appliances, traffic and plumbing, I try to use the electrical aids to entice the dead to visit.
We play some kind of music that might appeal to our invited guests. We often listen to the radio drama of Ray Bradbury’s The Halloween Tree, which pulls the spirit energy into our home. I grew up sitting around the radio with my family, listening to music. A generation before us it was music and radio serials. The emotional sensation that fills our home when we play the radio drama is one of a joyous family reunion.
The event itself can be as simple or elaborate as your circumstances require. The intention is the magic. Welcome in any weary travelers from the other world and offer them an extra place at your table. Feed them before you feed the living. Allow them an evening of humanity on the night when the overlapping worlds bleed through.

What We Do
We use the dumb supper to open a space for the living and dead to dine together. We have greatly ritualized the evening, though we keep it family-style-casual. At the heart of the evening, it is about honoring Those Who Came Before. We may make a connection and touch spirit world, but that is just an aside. It is not about us. So imagine you are gently trying to lull spirits who have been in other world back into the familiar trappings of life. Think about it like you are starting at the end and moving backwards, like a mirror image of their last breath.
It may seem like a stretch, but apply that to the table itself. I think of the table and meal like a reflection, a photo-negative image of your mundane life. Whatever order you would normally eat dinner courses, serve them backwards. However you would place-set the table, set it backwards. Do you usually put forks on the left and water glass on the right? Reverse them. Whether it makes sense or not, it works, and is one of the oldest guidelines for hosting a supper for the dead.

Prepare the Food
Planning the menu is part of the fun. What foods will you serve? I like to make items that were meaningful to my family as well as items I find that hearken to the cultural heritage I am discovering in my genealogical research: German, Polish, Irish, Dutch, English, French-Canadian, etc. What lines live in your bloodstream?
In order to highlight what makes this supper different, it’s helpful to plan a series of courses. It ends up being a bit more formal than a meal we would normally prepare, but for us, this is a special occasion. It may be helpful to note that pungent and fragrant scents are more enticing to the dead who no longer eat.

Plate the Table
We set a chair at the head of the table and shroud it in black fabric to represent the Spirit Chair. A candle is placed in the center of its plate. This is the setting for all those who wander the night and wish the living no harm. During each of the courses, this chair is the guest of honor.
Then we each set out an extra chair for our personally invited spirit guest. It cannot be someone who has died within the last year. We write the name of our invited guest on a piece of paper and place it beneath their plate. Sometimes I actually write letters or ask a question I am hoping to gain spiritual insight on. If you do not have a particular ancestor you wish to invoke, you may simply write the ancestors of your name, your bloodline, your spiritual heart, etc.
A candle is placed on the center of the plate. I place my guest’s chair across from me, so that I may gaze into the space there, like divination, during the meal. Ultimately, where you place them is not important. What is important is that you serve the Spirit Chair first, your invited guests next, and then yourself. It’s the intention of hospitality that matters most.

Open the Door and Light the Way
At the beginning of the meal, we stand behind the head chair and invite our ancestors to come and dine with us. I even go so far as to open the front door and invite them into my home. We light the candle on the Spirit plate and pour a libation into the cup at the head of the table. I call in the Ancestors with this prayer:
To those who have gone before,
To those whose names live in our hearts and dance upon our lips,
To those whose names have been lost in the sea of time,
To those whose bones lie above and below the earth,
To those whose ashes have travelled on the winds,
We, the living, bid you welcome and entrance.
This action opens door for your personal guests to step in, too. We light the candles on our invited guests’ plates and call them by name. This year I am inviting my unknown-to-me-in-life paternal great-grandmother Hattie Eva Smith. She trained to be a nurse late in life after her husband died. She stood at my left thigh most of the time I was in the ICU.

Enjoy the Evening
A place set for our beloved cats.
The meal itself is also a reflected image of what the dead would remember. We start with the dessert course and sit down to enjoy it. Next, the main course, then the sides. Then the soup and salad, followed by any appetizers and pre-dinner cocktails. You should structure your meal in a way that seems appropriate to you, your heritage and your family traditions- just backwards from whatever that might be.
During each pause in courses, while we are eating, I focus on the space across from me and the multiple sensory impressions I receive. In years past, I have invited my Great-Grandma (known-to-me-in-life) Elsie Durant Riddle to dine with me. From the ether I have been chastised for not salting her meatballs or being stingy on the chocolate cake. I have also heard the gentle trebling of her voice and felt the cool paper of her skin as our hands brushed while I was serving her. I have found myself responding to an unspoken request from her spirit for another napkin. On this night, they can allow themselves the human moments they had in life and we can be reminded of them; Elsie did often need an extra napkin.

Bid the Dead to Rest
When the meal is finished, we express our gratitude to those who came and supped with us. That mostly consists of speaking our thoughts and feelings out loud. When the evening feels over, I thank my guest for coming and I open the front door, wishing them a safe journey for the rest of their evening. I put their candle out. (If I use tea light, I just let them burn out.)
I thank the Ancestors for dining with us and I snuff out the candle on the Spirit Chair. I carry the libation from the Spirit cup, usually water, outside and pour it on the ground:
To those who have gone before,
To those whose names live in our hearts and dance upon our lips,
To those whose names have been lost in the sea of time,
To those whose bones lie above and below the earth,
To those whose ashes have travelled on the winds,
We, the living, thank you for dining with us.
We, the living, bid you safe travels.
Ideally, the food would also be disposed of sacredly, either burned, buried or, traditionally, placed in running water. For me, it means leaving it out in the woods for critters, an offering of the bones of spirit-eaten food to other life in need. When I dispose of it, I do so with sacred intention.

Death is a part of the natural cycle we are all a part of and it’s healthy to find ways of acknowledging it as we celebrate the lives we lead. Our Dumb Suppers are portals that allow us, for one moment, whether we truly believe or not, to open up the part of ourselves that remembers the imagination of our childhoods. And we can believe that we might not know what comes after. And we can allow ourselves to speak words to the dead that would otherwise seem foolish.
            Many blessings to you and your family, both living and dead on this day. I have much gratitude to the Ancestors who lived, who opened the Way that we might walk this earth together. May we walk this earth softly, that those who come after us will speak our names in joy. May the peace and stillness of the season be with you. May the Ancestors walk with us, always.



[Article revamped from a post originally published October 31, 2012.]

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