Honoring the Ancestors - How to Build an Altar for the Dead
I get asked quite a bit on how to build an ancestral altar. I also have questions weekly on how exactly you’re suppose to worship them. Really, there is no magical formula on how to build one. Everyone's’ methods are going to be different depending on what your heritage is, but everyone has to have a starting point. So, here is a little guide to help get you started.
First, a little background information. Many countries around the world honor their ancestors. I am sure most of you have seen the Disney movies Mulan and Coco. If you haven't, you need to. They are fantastic! Both movies had excellent representations of how ancestors are worshiped and the different styles based on cultural background. In China, people will leave offerings at gravestones such as food, incense, and flowers. Some people have altars in their own home that they use daily by leaving out rice and fruit for the spirits to eat. In Mexico, Dia De los Muertos is the holiday in which the dead are honored. Families will set up a special altar filled with pictures of passed loved ones, food, candies, baked goods, flowers, candles, and gifts to honor the dead. Both are versions of ancestor worship and neither are right or wrong. It just all depends on where you or your ancestors are from.
Now, being from The South, I was raised Southern Baptist and my family did things a little differently. My Nanny had things and pictures from loved ones that had passed all about her house. Most of the furniture in their home was built by my great grandpa. That is how she honored them. My version is a bit of that, plus other hoodoo methods. Feel free to just use this as a general guide. If something doesn’t speak to you and you wish to change it, then go for it. Whatever works best for you.
Choose your space. I live in a 750 sq foot home, so my altar is small compared to other peoples who have more room. Some even have theirs in a cigar box so they can put up and tear down as need be to save room. So there is no excuse for not creating one for your ancestors. They do not care how grand or simple it is, they are just glad you care. A bedside table, tray, or kitchen table top will do just fine compared to a giant room filled with Cathedral sized pieces. Just make sure you clean it at least once a week. No one likes a dirty alter even in the afterlife.
Pictures and personal items. The easiest way to show who you are dedicating your altar to is to include pictures of those who have passed on. If you don't have a picture, any of their personal items will do. For my Nanny, I have a few of her handkerchiefs and her old powder case. For my husband side, we have pictures of his Mawmaw and Pawpaw. If you do not have anything like this, writing your loved ones names down and adding to a jar of dirt that has been blessed is the next best thing. This also works if you wish to honor those you do not know. I have a jar of blessed dirt on my altar for those I do not know in my lineage.
A bit of greenery. I love including plants with my altar because it represents the “family tree” or the Tree of Life. Currently I am into air plants, so that's what I use. They're also great because they don't take up a lot of room. Any house plant will do though. If you don't have a green thumb, but wish to add something live to your altar, I suggest buying flowers weekly or once a month. Dried flowers also work great, especially if they were a relatives favorite.
Candles are a must. I always have a candle lit for my ancestors. Usually, it's just a white jar candle that is cleansed with Florida water. To me, it represents the guiding light and fire that is the soul itself. It's also important if you do any type of personal spell work at your altar, so the spirits know that you need their help when you're spell casting.
A glass of water and other beverages. The spirits are thirsty. They have needs just like you and I, so don’t be surprised if you see a big gulp taken from the cup you placed on your altar. Same goes for other beverages. My Nanny loved strong black coffee, so when I have some left I leave it out for her. I also have a bottle of wine because my other ancestors liked a good drink every once in awhile. Whatever their favorite is, let them have it, but at least have water. Also, if you notice their are bubbles in your water after sitting there, then that means negativity is being absorbed and you need to cleanse the space.
And all the fixins. Your ancestors also have to eat. Yes, I know people don’t have a lot of money to spend, but really it doesn’t take much. Whatever meal I make, I give some to my ancestors. I also always have a bowl of candies and cookies. Who doesn’t want a snack once in awhile? Whatever their favorites were, that is always a good offering. If you can't do something daily, once a week is fine. Just make sure no one eats any of the food left on the altar. Kids and pets are excluded from this because innocence factor.
Life's vices. Some of my ancestors enjoyed smoking, so I have tobacco on my altar in the form of a cigar. Whatever your ancestors vices were, feel free to include them in the form they like best. Favorite cocktail, pack of Blue Camels, chocolate cake, the list goes on and on. Trust me, they will enjoy it!
The good book. My ancestors were Christians and I do use the Bible in my own personal work. So, I have my husband’s side of the family’s bible on my altar. If your family wasn’t religious, feel free to leave this out. If they were of a different faith, then replace with whatever book you deem appropriate. The key is adaptability.
So there you have it! An easy guide on how to build your own ancestral altar. Its really very simple and anyone is able to do it. So have at it and get creative!