As many of my readers know, my grandmother passed away a few weeks ago. Ever since then, I’ve felt like there are two parts of me. The first part is the death witch side of me, which gives myself the same advice that I would give others who mourn. And the second part is me, who, for some reason, doesn’t want to take the advice.
Grieving is an intense group of emotions. When I grieve, I tend to shut down and numb myself. My current goal is to force some of those emotions out so I can make peace with them.
Ancestor altars are not just for death witchcraft; they also help people grieve. You can find versions of ancestor altars or shrines across the world, as they provide a place where one can give offerings and pray to those who have passed. That said, you don’t need to know any of your ancestors to create an altar for them.
Since I recently created an ancestor altar, I decided to share my process. Here's what we'll cover:
For the basics of ancestor worship, check out this post.
Find a Comfortable Spot
“Find a spot for your altar” seems like obvious advice, but the location deserves some thought. Your ancestor altar does not need to be a large table with a complex gallery wall behind it.
Many families place ancestor altars on a shelf. These shelves often include a dish for offerings, pictures, and other religious icons. I’ve also seen tables or shelves next to a bench or chair, so that people who grieve may “sit with” their family.
A spot on your desk, a bookshelf, bedside table--your ancestor altar can fit in any of those spots. It does not need to be big; it just needs the basics, which I will cover later.
I have a large altar table for my practice, but I had to replace one of my altars for the ancestor one. I ended up replacing my Wiccan one (temporarily--the Gods know that this is what I need right now).
While every ancestor altar is different, most contain two basic components: a representation of your ancestors, and an area to give offerings. Let’s dive deeper into these two components.
A Representation of Your Ancestors
There are many ways to represent your ancestors on your altar. The most obvious are pictures. Many necromancers and death workers display pictures of their ancestors, as both a mark of honor and a visualization to aid spirit work.
If you attended that person’s funeral, you might have an order of service (the pamphlet that details the funeral timeline). These often contain a photo or prayer for the deceased. For my ancestor altar, I displayed the order of service for my grandmother’s funeral, which included an Irish prayer.
But you don’t need photos to create an ancestor altar. Family heirlooms are also brilliant ways to portray your ancestry. Do you have a book that’s been passed down? A necklace? A card? Any object that has been passed down to you, through your grandparents, parents, aunts, uncles, etc. act as family heirlooms.
For my ancestor altar, I had a butterfly pin given by my maternal grandmother and a sliver cup given by my great-grandmother.
But what if you don’t have any family heirlooms? Then look at cultural representations. For example, my grandmother immigrated to America from Ireland, so the Irish blessing acts as a representation of my paternal ancestors. You might have a book in your family’s native language, a doll, a piece of art, or a plate that depicts your cultural heritage.
If you need more ideas, scroll down for several ideas in every category I’ve mentioned.
An Area to Provide Offerings
Offerings are the cornerstone of ancestor work. Even if you’ve never contacted your ancestors before, you can show that you’re thinking about them through offerings. What offerings you give depend on your culture and your practice.
Many death workers provide an area for offerings. For instance, I have a black and white leaf dish for food and herb offerings, and a brown leaf dish for incense. Foods, drinks, and incense are all common offerings for ancestors.
Another idea is to provide a candle. Many people devote a candle to their ancestors and light it whenever they want to honor their family. I have a votive candle to St. Joseph because my Auntie Mary, who was a Catholic nun, was a Sister of St. Joseph. I also have a more general ancestor candle, the one labeled “In Memoriam.”
Here are some ideas for offering areas:
If you need ideas for offerings, consider these:
About Religious Differences
Many people who read my blog have a different faith than their ancestors did. In my case, my ancestors were devoutly Catholic, and I am Wiccan. If this sounds like you, then you might wonder how you can respect both religions during ancestor work.
“Will my ancestors even like me since I practice a different religion?” is one of the most common questions I receive. The short answer is: it depends. Some ancestors will gladly work with you, and others will ignore you until you cater to their religion.
Do not answer this question before your ancestors do. You might assume that they won’t like your craft, and then when you start working with them, you’ll be pleasantly surprised. Death provides a different perspective for many souls. Although my grandmother was very Catholic, he happily let me take some graveyard dirt. For him, it was like giving me a sweater for Christmas.
So what does this have to do with ancestor altars? You might want to portray your or your ancestor’s faith on your altar. In my case, I did both. I provided a rosary that I used during my grandfather’s funeral and a St. Joseph votive. But I also included a pentagram to represent myself.
Do not feel as if you have to forfeit your religion for your ancestors. If you have an ancestor who forsakes your beliefs, do not work with them. You are not required to work with every ancestor, and you are not required to ignore your own beliefs or make yourself uncomfortable.
If you want to represent religions on your ancestor altar (this is optional), here are some ideas to do so.
Your Ancestor’s Beliefs:
Including Your Practice
If you are a frequent reader of this blog, then you’re probably a death worker or interested in death witchcraft/necromancy. In this case, you might want to add some magic tools on your ancestor altar. Doing so will aid your spirit work and enhance your connection with those passed.
Before you dump every magic tool on your altar, ask yourself: what do you want to achieve with your ancestors? Do you want to just honor and remember them? If so, you might want to provide some offerings, prayers, or paper to write letters to them. Do you want to practice spirit work? If so, include a divination method and smoke blends to boost your psychic abilities.
Here Are Some Death Witch Supplies to Include on Your Altar:
Stumped? Here’s Where to Start
If you’re building an ancestor altar, then you probably want to work with your ancestors. But where do you start? I always recommend beginning with offerings.
Offerings let your ancestors know that you are thinking of them and want them to be well. Light a candle, provide some incense, give some tea or coffee. As you give these offerings, talk to your ancestors. Tell them that you want to work with them and hope that you can get along.
If you are grieving a lost family member, like I am, spend some time sorting through your emotions. Write a letter to your deceased loved one. Tell them everything you wanted to when they were alive, or how much you miss them in death. You can keep them letter or burn it.
If you’re struggling with intense emotions, try journaling. Set a timer for two minutes, and write down your thoughts and feelings. At the end of the two minutes, take an emotional break. Cry, hug a stuffed animal, smell something soothing--do whatever you need to process these emotions. And when you feel up to it, do this again.
Meditating or praying at your ancestor altar can provide some mental and emotional clarity. Imagine that you’re sitting with your ancestors, just enjoying your time together.
Do you have an ancestor altar? Are ancestors a part of your magic practice? If so, let me know what you do to honor your family. And if I missed anything in this post, remind me in the comments below.