“Would roses be too much?” I wondered, staring at a display of already-decaying white rose bouquets in the supermarket. They were only a few dollars, but I wondered if putting white roses on my bookshelf might draw too much of my parents’ attention to my akhu shrine. “On the other hand, I did used to buy roses when I visited my fiancé’s grave, so…”
I’ve written before about my still-uneasy relationship to death, and how I set up an akhu shrine (or a shrine for the blessed dead) in spite of a whole mess of doubts about the afterlife and concerns over whether the people I’m honoring would be cool with the whole thing. What I failed to mention before was the associated mess of fears I have that I’m not doing this whole akhu thing “right” and that it’s contributing to my status as the Worst Kemetic Ever™. And the whole massive ball of doubts/concerns/fears was recently dragged up by an impending Kemetic holiday.
Beautiful Festival of the Valley
According to the calendar I generally use, this upcoming Friday is the Beautiful Festival of the Valley (or “Beautiful Feast of the Valley,” as some others translate it). Basically, in antiquity it was a “celebration of the dead,” a time to visit the graves of dead loved ones to pay your respects and leave them flowers blessed by Amun. It was one of a couple of festivals honoring the dead that modern Kemetic practitioners still try to celebrate.
The tendency for families nowadays to scatter all over the place (and be buried accordingly) has made visiting all your loved ones’ graves in a single day nigh-impossible for some (including me). This, I think, is a major reason why many Kemetics have created shrines for their blessed dead: it gives them one central place to pay their respects, leave offerings, and do rituals if they choose.
Akhu shrines comes in all shapes, sizes, and configurations (as a quick Google image search will prove) to suit the needs and desires of each practitioner. Many include pictures of the dead loved ones being honored. Mine doesn’t. Part of this is an issue of space for me, and part of it is a desire to keep what I’m doing relatively private. (…Says the person writing a blog post about her practice.) For both of those reasons – as well as a desire to avoid an item acquisition frenzy – both of my shrines err on the side of minimalism.
My akhu shrine
As the picture above shows, my akhu shrine only consists of a white cloth, a small box decorated with stars (mimicking some tomb paintings I’ve seen), four candles, and a small skull carved out of lapis lazuli. The skull represents everyone I’m honoring. I picked a lapis one because of associations between the stone and the starry night sky; “akh” (plural akhu) is sometimes translated as “shining one,” and in one of the envisioned versions of the afterlife the akhu join the stars in the sky. My shrine my be simple, but I definitely thought that shit out.
But what about those fears I mentioned earlier? Well, in spite of all the thought I put into constructing my akhu shrine, I kind of stalled out when trying to plan how to actually use it. Again, I didn’t know what most of my dead loved ones would feel about honoring them in a Kemetic context (to say nothing of what my parents might think), but my culture also doesn’t really have its own tradition to draw from when it comes to honoring the dead – outside of just visiting a graveyard, that is. And I don’t want to steal another culture’s way of doing it just because it seems convenient or “cool.” So no, you won’t be seeing any sugar skulls in my akhu shrine anytime soon.
So basically this leaves me trying to feel this whole thing out as I go along, combining research with what “feels right” for what I’m trying to do. This most often takes the form of me anxiously asking myself “Am I doing this right?” and myself responding “I DON’T KNOW.”
Would roses be too much?
Which brings me back to the Beautiful Festival of the Valley. Since I’ve missed basically every other holiday since Wep Ronpet (the beginning of the Kemetic year, mid-July), I told myself I wasn’t going to miss this one – especially since my work schedule happened to give me that day off. “Maybe this will give me a chance to make up for not knowing what to do for my akhu on a regular basis,” I told myself. So I read up on it a bit, trying to plan out what I could do myself. Flowers? Offerings? Maybe even ritual drunkenness? Yes, I could do all of those.
Cut to me back in the supermarket. It’s the only place left in town where I could get real flowers, since the local florists had all gone out of business. Standing there, I debated getting fake flowers from the craft store instead, but decided against it since I’ve cut corners far too often with “fake” offerings (in Kemetic thought the image of a thing can have the same magical properties of the thing itself, hence all those elaborate tomb and temple paintings depicting piles of offerings). There’s only a couple holidays honoring the dead a year, dammit; I could afford to get real flowers for them.
“But would roses be too much?”
Maybe not. Roses would be nice, and they’d show I hadn’t completely half-assed this. Besides, roses are one of the only flowers whose smell I can stand; ironically enough they’re the only floral smell that I don’t associate with funerals. I don’t want to be reminded of losing these people in the first place. I want this to be a happy celebration, a way of recognizing that my dead loved ones are still part of my life, in one way or another. So yes, I think I’ll get the roses.
Now to figure out the ritual drunkenness part…