In the tradition of Vodou, we celebrate Fet Gede: Festival of the Sacred Dead or ‘The Feast of the Ancestors’ on or around November 2nd. In Haiti & New Orleans this holiday can be a vibrant as Mardi Gras and as sacred as St John’s Eve. Celebrations continue throughout November and give us a fresh start as we begin to welcome in the new year to come.
While death and cemeteries can be a solemn topic that reminds us of grief and loss, Fet Gede is a time to celebrate death, honor our ancestors and appreciate the gift of life. It represents the death of the old year and the birth of the new. We look at death as a transition of life and honor it by remembering that.
In celebrating Fete Gede it bears some similarities to Mexico’s Day of the Dead as practitioners and celebrants have a feast or parade in or on the way to their local cemeteries. During Fete Gede we “feed” the ancestors with offerings of homecooked food or foods that their dearly departed once enjoyed by laying it at their gravesite and wear black white and purple clothing throughout the event.
We dance with our ancestors, make offerings to the Lwa with prayers for good fortune for times to come and celebrate life. For Vodou followers, it’s not uncommon to be mounted (or possessed by the Lwa) which is considered to be an honor. On this day we get to actually dance with the spirits we get loud and wake them up.
The particular death Lwa that we pay our respects to on this day is Baron Samedi, Maman Brigette and the family of Gede.
The Keepers of the Cemetery
The Gede or Ghede are considered our sacred ancestors. They are aspects that live in all of us no matter where or who you come from. If you are in the human species having human experiences, you have experienced a connection to them. They are countless and come in many forms. We honor these sacred spirits – as one day as our spirit will transition from the physical body and will join them.
As a family, the honored Ghede of Death and Sexuality ARE the very life of the party! They cuss, they swear, they drink hard liquor, dance provocatively, play fight and romp, smoke cheap cigars they possess and they have the ability to cross over the crossroads between life and death because of this quality thus don’t follow traditional rules of the living. They are the manifestations of death and present as having a life without the boundaries of social norms.
Even if you are not able to make it to Haiti or New Orleans for Fet Gede festivities here is an outline on how you can still pay tribute to the dead in the New Orleans tradition on a smaller scale. If you have your own spiritual practice review your practice’s guidelines, incorporate aspects that pay respect and review the below before you make a visit to the graveyard. In Haiti, sacrifices can include black livestock, roasted corn, and nightshade vegetables
Below is a suggestion for honoring the core Gede of the Cemetery on this special occasion. To learn more about working with and petitioning the Gede check out our workshop coming to House of Twigs this fall.
Cemetery Visiting hours
- Try to visit at Twilight if you are planning to petition for the Lwa’s help.
- If visiting after midnight. Be safe bring a headlamp or flashlight. Many cemeteries have open hours late during this time of year. They most likely know what you’re up to but do check their hours and make sure you are aware of the rules. Some customs if you cannot get into the cemetery at night feel that it is acceptable to leave your offerings at the gate.
- If paying reverence to ancestors, I like to go first thing in the morning before breakfast or right when the gates are open with a cup of coffee, bring homestyle food that your departed would have liked or play some music on your phone.
For example, my grandmother was a HUGE fan of the movie Dirty Dancing and when I hear the song: “The time of my life” by Bill Medley & Jennifer Warnes. I feel her especially close by and pay attention to what she may be trying to show me at that moment. I play that tune when commemorating her and maybe that’s something you can incorporate into your own practice.
Preparation: Before you even walk into the cemetery you should be prepared with the following:
- Offerings: Pennies and/or rice: To pay the dead before entering the cemetery and at gravesites.
- Food: Homestyle food that your deceased enjoyed.
- Flowers: white, purple or red & flowers that your ancestors liked.
- Piman Rum &/or Hot Pepper Rum (you can purchase the shot bottle size) or Coffee (strong/dark)
- A small pack of cigars or cigarettes (unfiltered). Best to use a clean natural brand.
- Wear: black, purple or white
- Bottle of water
- Chocolate and hard candy
- Every Cemetery has a Baron & Baroness this is the first man and woman buried at the cemetery. You may have to do a little research by asking the sexton or cemetery’s office to find where the first gravestones were. Once you have the names, obtain a map of the location of the grave if possible.
How to Make Piman:
** Unless you are possed by the Loa and under the guidance of Vodou practitioners. DO NOT TRY TO DRINK Piman. This is a drink strictly for the Gede offering. If you want to drink pepper rum there are loads of recipes available to you on the web that won’t land you in the hospital.
This drink is only for offerings to the Loa. As it deals with hot peppers please use precaution; protect your skin, wash your hands thoroughly and seal the jar properly after use.
- 21 Scotch Bonnet Peppers (Capsicum Chinense): Harbonero or Hot chili peppers can substitute (get the smaller ones if you can.
- Pint Overproof White Rum (I prefer Wray & Nephew)- Bacardi 151 isn’t available most places: legend has it in bartending school that this rum was so strong that it could burn the bar down if left on the top shelf under hot lights. If you cant find overproof try to get the highest proof you can.
- Large pickling or mason jar.
Instructions for Piman
Take all the peppers and put them in the jar. Pour the rum till it covers the peppers. Seal the Jar.
Let this sit for 21days. (So if you are doing this ritual on Nov 2nd you will want to complete this by October 13th – also note offerings happen all November for the Gede so if you want to bring it to them later in the month this is appropriate for Maman Brigette). Some say if you don’t have time strong coffee can also make an acceptable offering. The Gede really like spicy hot rum, so make it special if you can! If all else fails try to get your hands on a shot glass of Captain Morgan’s spiced white rum to make your offering.
Day of Visit
On the day of your visit take a shower or bathe before getting dressed. As you dress align your thoughts and intentions. Collect your offerings, bring your journal and any sacred items that you feel are asking to attend with you.
When you arrive at the cemetery gate: You should ask permission from spirit to enter. Leave a few pennies or rice at the gate if you get a yes or no answer. If your intuition tells you that you should not enter or you get a “no” in response… thank the spirits go away and come back another day, try another cemetery or if that’s not an option repeat your request at another entrance.
Once inside visit the Gede family
The first plot to visit is Papa Gede /Baron Samedi: Aka the Baron (Lord).
In catholic and Haitian graveyards, this marker is usually very prominent as the Cross of Baron. He is the Master of the Dead, Death itself. If there is no cross marked visit the grave of the first man buried there by date of death on the headstone or marker.
In addition to being the lord of the dead and sexuality, Baron has the power to restore and resurrect life, curing infertility, heal those near death, and prevent death if one is cursed. He is the protector of the innocent, especially children. No one passes to the underworld or the land of the living unless Baron Samedi allows. If he digs your grave your number is up.
Offering: Rum & Cigars. Also acceptable: Coffee, roasted peanuts, sunglasses with one lens, small raunchy toys or souvenirs.
Greeting: (Taken from Voodu Visions: By Sally Ann Glassman)
“For the Bawon, Simitye, Lakwa, Samdi, – All in black powerful, magical. Come to the crossroads, dance, joke, you who are the sentence of death. Accept our offerings. Enter into our hearts, our arms, our legs. Enter and dance with us.”
“Father of all the dead help is us in our (our named persons) grief, let us welcome the dead to the Mysterious Abyss. Make us ever potent and my our offspring be safe in your care”
(Place your offering) Place your offering by pouring some of the rum and puffing a cigar or placing some tobacco. Do not inhale the smoke.
Once you have greeted Papa Gede next visit Maman Brigit
Maman Brigit (Gran/Brijit/Brigette) is honored at the grave of the first woman and/or the trees in the cemetery.
She is the wife of Baron Samedi and the Goddess of Death. In Celtic traditions she is Brigit. In Yoruba she is Oya. Maman Brijit is a very powerful Lwa and the queen of banda dancing and the market place.
This Goddess is responsible for reclaiming the souls of the dead from the dark abysmal waters of eternity and transforming the souls into Lwa Ghede giving them identity and purpose. She brings healing (especially for STDs), prosperity (entrepreneurship) and she guards the tombstone in the cemetery.
Offerings: Coffee or Pepper rum, Purple flowers (violets, lavender, iris, or fuchsia). Puff smoke from the tobacco.
Greeting Maman Brijit: A song that Haitians sing to Maman Brijit goes as follows as translated from Haitian Creole.
“Gentlemen of the cross (ancestors) advance for her to see them! Maman Brigitte is sick, she lies down on her back, A lot of “talk” won’t raise the dead, Tie up your head, tie up your belly, tie up your kidneys, (imitate tying a belt around your waist)They will see how they will get down on their knees.” (get down on your knees) “Maman Brijit, awake it is Fet Gede today”!
“I am calling you Maman Brijit, can you see? I bring food/ smoke and drink to honor you. Please accept this offering. This food and drink and smoke are for you Maman, please bless me with (Healing/ Prosperity/ Favor with … through your grace Maman Brijit.”
(Give your offering) Place your offering by pouring some of the rum and puffing a cigar or placing some tobacco. Do not inhale the smoke.
As mentioned above there are many many many Gede (Ghede). A few well known Ghede are available to research more in-depth online. Each has its special station in the order of death rites and each one has an equally fascinating origin story. For example, Gede Nibo a handsome dandy who died violently and was adopted by the Baron and Maman acts as a patron of those who’ve died before their time.
I like to walk through the cemetery and sing a song to welcome them, thank them and give them compliments. A fun song I like to sing for my honored Ghede is a variation of Sister Sledges “We Are Family” as the tune. You are welcome to make your own lyrics so long as they are respectful.
Greeting the Gede family:
“We are family,
get up every Ghede and sing!
We are family, all my honored Ghede and me!
Get up Living life is fun and we’ve just begun
To get our share of this world’s delights
(High) high hopes we have for this Fete
And our nights gonna be outta sight!
Cause tonight there be no rules
Have fire in you and the things you do
“We are family,
get up every Ghede and sing!
We are family, all my honored Ghede and me!”
Offerings: Coffee or Pepper rum, puff smoke from the tobacco.
Then move on to your relations
If you are visiting relatives:
- Pay your respects at their grave, leaving flowers, food or wine.
- Talk to them and write in your journal any thoughts that come to mind any visions that you may have and recall memories.
- Make sure to clean up any trash and consider cleaning off their grave.
If you don’t have any relatives see if you can find a gravestone with your family’s last name, a noteworthy ancestor of a similar background as you who lived in the town or someone who resonates with you.
For example, I have no known deceased relatives in my current town of Portland, Oregon. With the help of a volunteer was introduced to one of the first black women in Portland who not only ran her own business but she was an early Women’s rights activist. Who paved the way to make women’s votes count in Oregon and lived well into her 80’s in the late 19th century!
We can all find someone who resonates with us for one reason or another!
Do a bit of research about the residents of your local cemetery, it goes a long way and you get to carry the story on. Try to get as much info-you might not want to spend your energy at the grave of a murderer or less virtuous spirit…or maybe you do!!!
As a last resort, you can also simply find the main worship area or monument of the cemetery and call out the names of those important to you and your work or light candles in the designated area. Here are a few ideas of what to offer.
If it is a female leave some flowers and/or chocolate.
If it is a male leave some poured coffee or liquor.
If it is a child leave some candy.
If they are elders, leaving some traditional food or flowers from their place of origin is a fantastic offering. If possible when leaving traditional food leave a small portion that can be buried or will rot easily on the earth and not leave remains or attract flies.
Leaving the Cemetery.
Before you leave the cemetery:
- Give thanks, collect your personal belongings, clean up if needed and leave immediately.
- Do NOT look back (Even if you hear someone call out to you…). There is a belief that looking back will invite ghosts to follow you home… and that is a whole other article.
- When you arrive at your next location wash your hands with the bottle of water before you enter your home over some earth. Then shake the remaining water out on the earth. This helps to prevent any negative energy from ‘sticking’ to you, wipes away mourning and loss, and returns it to the earth.
- If you left your offering at the gate alone, the same protocol follows. Say thanks leave without looking back.
- If you have a form of divination. Consulting your cards and lighting a purple candle at your altar space might yield a special message for you. Don’t be surprised if it’s a lewd message – these are the Gede after all!
Above all show respect for the dead for someday, you will meet them.
References: Baron Samedi & Gede,Books: Glassman; Sally An Encounter with Divine Mystery (2014)