Commemorating Friends and Ancestors Past
[[this post is an updated version of my 2022 version]]
Februarius XIII (Ides of February) marked the beginning of a nine-day Roman festival, Parentalia, which was held in honor of deceased ancestors. It seems like the festival acquired its name from parentes, who were the primary recipients of the rites. The term was usually just applied to one’s biological parents, but its application was very flexible in the context of this festival. So it’s best to translate it as “relatives”—all relatives by blood or by marriage both near and distant. As the festival evolved over the centuries, members of the same collegium —a kind of professional or legal association—would commemorate each other after their death. With that in mind, I think it’s reasonable to use this time of the year to commemorate not only our ancestors but also our deceased friends and colleagues who we’d like to remember.
A quick note: this festival was (and should be) centered around the deceased. Gratitude certainly should certainly extend to everyone —the living and the dead— but we already have a holiday in the US for general gratitude: Thanksgiving! We’ll make sure to commemorate this in November as always.
What rites were involved?
I learned more about this ancient festival by reading an article by Dr. Fanny Dolansky titled “Honouring The Family Dead on the Parentalia: Ceremony, spectacle, and memory” [in Phoenix , Vol. 65, No. 1/2 (2011), pp. 125-157]. A lot of the historical details are drawn from this work.
Concerning the objects of commemoration, for example, she had this to say:
From the evidence for the festival in practice, it is clear that the Parentalia concerned a spectrum of kin, and honoured both vertical and horizontal bonds. The rites commemorated relatives who had departed long ago—grandparents and great-grandparents, who could legitimately be called ancestors (maiores)— but also those who had died more recently, such as siblings, spouses, and frequently children and youths.p. 130
Placate your fathers’ souls,
Bring tiny tributes to the erected pyres.
The dead desire little. They want piety,
Not rich gifts; deep Styx has no greedy gods.
A tile covered and arranged with wreaths is enough,
Sprinkled corn and a thrifty grain of salt,
And Ceres softened in wine and loose violets.
Leave them lying on a shard in mid-street.
I do not forbid larger gifts, but these appease wraiths.
Build hearths and add prayers and ritual words.verses 533-542, trans. Boyle and Woodard
This is a remarkable passage and I’ll return to it a few times. At the moment, we can just take stock of the kinds of tributes (munera) that Ovid lists here, which are elaborated a bit by Dolansky:
- decorating a clay or metal tile (which served as a makeshift temporary altar)
- dedicating—and sometimes burning— a kind of grain like wheat or barley (not maize corn)
- sprinkling salt on the altar
- pouring wine libations
- laying down garlands of roses, violets, or myrtle
- saying a few words of gratitude
These munera are offered either at the ancestral tomb in the local necropolis (the neighborhood outside the city walls that served as the cemetery) or in the middle of the road as Ovid suggests. This is because it was thought that—though the spirits of the dead resided in the necropolis—they were thought to wander around town during Parentalia and consume the food left for them.
My first impression of this holiday was that it seemed similar to the Mexican Catholic Dia de los Muertos festival celebrated around All Souls’ Day (Nov. 2). This is particularly important in Los Angeles considering that the largest religion represented here is Catholicism—and this is likely because of the large Mexican population.
For Dia de los Muertos families set up altars (ofrendas) to their deceased loved ones; clean and decorate their graves; leave food and beverages as offerings; and lay fragarent marigold flowers around the cemetery and their homes to guide the dead.
The most important similarities between Parentalia and Dia de los Muertos is the celebratory atmosphere they foster. Participants of both festivals are known to have picnics or hold a commemorative dinner at gravesites. During Parentalia, some families would even host games (ludi) in the necropolis as a kind of offering to their ancestors. Music was not uncommon.
This idea—that we should celebrate our ancestors and that a festival commemorating them should not be too solemn—is in keeping with the Stoic approach to life and death. Life is a dinner party and it would be a faux pas to outstay our welcome; death is a natural culmination to a complete and happy life. Far from fearing death, we should embrace it. Far from being upset about the death of our loved ones, we should focus on the good that they did in life and the inspiration that they can still provide.
Why was/is the festival meaningful
During Parentalia, the munera were offered out of a sense of duty (officium), piety (pietas), reverence (reverentia), and honor (honor) to the dead. Recall Ovid’s line: “The dead desire little. They want piety, not rich gifts; | deep Styx has no greedy gods.” You don’t need to give much or do much in order to stay in keeping with the spirit of the festival. The importance is in the emotional, psychological, social, and overall moral significance of the holiday.
Parentalia persisted for centuries well past the onset of Christianity. It could be argued that it still persists in festivals like Dia de los Muertos, although I’m not sure there is a direct influence there. At the very least, we can say that there is a universal human need to show respect and gratitude to those who came before us. It provides a way to properly frame death to mitigate grief and sadness. It also instilled a sense of shared identity within the Roman Empire, which spanned so many regions and absorbed so many local cultures.
Dolansky also proposes that the longevity of the festival can be attributed to “respect for pietas and officium as guiding moral principles” and “the appeal of the social dimensions of the rites” (152). This is partitularly relevant to Stoics. The term officium is often translated as “duty” (think Cicero’s On Duty), but it is more broadly construed as “appropriate action.” The term was Cicero’s suggested translation of the Greek term kathêkon —the means by which we undertake Epictetus’ second field of study, the “discipline of action.” (see Epictetus’ Discourses 3.2.1-3). Presumably, fulfilling our duties in the context of Parentalia may help us live in accordance with our social nature as human beings. It provides a framework around which we may exercise virtue—in particular, the virtue of justice.
How to observe the holiday
OK. So how could we observe this festival? The following are some minimal suggestions—feel free to leave a comment to help us explore more concrete ideas.
For a certain length of time between Feb. 13th and Feb. 21st, do your best to keep your ancestors in mind. Do things that you think they would approve of or appreciate. Please feel free to also think of friends or colleagues that have past. It seems in keeping with the spirit of the festival to commemorate anyone who is deceased who served (while they were alive and/or in memory) as a role-model or inspiration. Think of their virtue or character strengths that you yourself would like to emulate.
As for me, I often think of my ancestors who had encountered and overcame hardship and serve as my role models. For example, my paternal grandfather put his education on hold and enlisted in the Army Air Corps during World War II. Because of his small stature, he was ultimately assigned to the ball-turret of a B-17 “Flying Fortress”—often considered the most dangerous position considering how exposed it was, hanging below the plane. He flew dozens of missions over Poland and Germany and survived the war to then get his PhD in political science. He taught in schools throughout the United States, Ecuador, and Pakistan, while raising—rather, helping my grandma raise—four boys including my father. The virtues that I see him exhibiting through his story are courage, a sense of justice, a love of learning, and a kind of prudence. From my personal experience of him, I can say that he also exhibited good humor—an important character strength too! He passed away over fifteen years ago, yet he still influences me:
More recently, my father-in-law excused himself from the proverbial dinner party last year. Though his final days with us were difficult, it seemed that he certainly left life satisfied. He and his spouse successfully settled in the United States and secured a stable foundation from which his six children could build their own lives. He cultivated a practical skill (tailoring), made sure to appreciate nature, and enjoyed simple pleasures and interests The virtues I see exhibited through his story are fortitude, patience, good-heartedness, generosity, and moderation… and good-humor.
I’ll be thinking of my grandparents, father-in-law, my mentors and colleagues, and several others throughout the week. I hope you find some time to do the same.