Ancestor Altars & Honoring Our Mighty Dead

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by Mari Powers

In many parts of the world, including the United States, people still actively honor their ancestors.  Some would call the practice “ancestor worship,” yet this is not how I understand or maintain the practice.  Worship implies a feeling that the recipient of your actions is more worthy of praise and love offerings than yourself, your family, or any other being like you.  For me, honoring my ancestors, both blood-related and chosen, fosters a deep connection and acknowledgment of appreciation and remembrance.  This is a two- way relationship.

Some people honor their relations on the anniversary of their death.  In the Northern hemisphere, many connect with them at the final harvest, called Samhain (pronounced “sowen,” and translated as “summer’s end”).  This is a time of communal or solitary connection at the end of October.  For many it falls on October 31st–All Hallows Eve, also known as Halloween or the “Day of the Dead.”  All Soul’s Day follows on the Christian calendar, while older calendars governed by the changing seasons mark November 1 as New Year’s Day.  Some people celebrate the lives of those loved ones who have cast off their mortal bodies on both the anniversary of their death and on Samhain, while some acknowledge and connect with “The Mighty Dead” throughout the year in rituals small and large.

Different spiritual paths set aside other days to grieve, remember and connect; it is a nearly global spiritual service which has been practiced for hundreds of thousands of years.  Why do we do this?  The answers lie deep in our psyches, hidden in plain view.  Life and death are as intertwined as day and night and the turning of the seasons.  We are all temporarily living, and will one day become ancestors.  Death does not stop love, and we acknowledge that we stand upon the shoulders of those who have come before.

More personal reasons include the need to grieve, let go and move on with our lives.  We remember and share stories to pass on to our children.  We show appreciation of what we learned, and show we still love those who give us so much.  We set aside time from our everyday busy lives to grieve our loss and celebrate the ones who have enriched our lives, known and unknown.

As we descend into the dark time of the year, and nature’s quiet time begins, plants die or go dormant after the final harvest.  This is the time to take a day and a night to honor the endings that make way for new beginnings.

I believe that our dead are not truly gone; they live on in a new form and continue to have a pact with the living.  As we honor and celebrate their lives, we feed ourselves with rich memory and directly connect with the spirit world.  An ancestor altar facilitates this.  And so we light candles to attract our beloved dead to join us.  We tell their stories, mourn the loss of everyday worldly connection, and celebrate their lives as we celebrate and give thanks for our own.

Altars may be small and simple–a picture or two, a piece of jewelry or a tool, a candle, and food and drink to feed their spirits.  Other altars may be large and weighed down with flowers, full plates, coffee or wine, garden produce, pictures, drawings, written prayers or praise songs and items representing what the ancestor loved in life.  Ancestors are fed first, with the best food and drink.  We honor them for helping us to be who we were, are and will be.  We pray that that they are happy and ask that they watch over us and our descendants.  We remember their sacrifices and celebrate their lives.  We ask for their love, guidance and support in the coming year.  It is a living relationship that is reciprocal in nature.

In some cultures people only honor their blood relations; they may call out the names of all who are remembered, even those they never met when living.  In my tradition, I honor all of my relations, known and unknown, and remember by name chosen family, friends, teachers or mentors, as well as blood relations.  Even blood relatives I did not particularly like in life are honored, as they contributed to who I was, am and will be in some way.

I also honor and connect with those who have gone before me throughout the year, as spirit moves me.  Sometimes I simply express appreciation.  Sometimes I ask for assistance or guidance.  I listen with my inner ear and journal what I hear.  The mighty dead can help us solve problems, give us perspective or inspiration.  I know I will be there for those I love when I am released from my body.  I will welcome connection and appreciate their prayers, praise and invitations to assist and guide.

So this end of summer, consider creating an altar to your own beloved dead.  Grieve and let go.  Celebrate their lives and share your fond memories.  Acknowledge their gifts, and make offerings to feed their bright and shining spirits.  Include your children.  It is a great gift to know where we came from and where we are going.  She, or He, who is remembered, lives.

Mari Powers, © October 11, 2012


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