Ancestor work is a way of working with those who came before you. It can be done to honor or worship your ancestors (both physically/biologically and spiritually) or to help them pass from this world into the next. No matter what method or reason you use for ancestor veneration, the altar is the place where many people do this work. The importance of ancestor altars for this work can’t be stressed enough.
Many cultures practice a form of ancestor veneration. I wrote a brief post about Sukkot and ancestor veneration which you can read here. If you aren’t familiar with ancestor veneration or the practice of honoring ancestors, you can read a great introductory article here. The basic premise of ancestor veneration among all cultures is the belief that those who have come before us have impacted our lives and that we must continue to honor them for helping to make us who we are.
Ancestor altars are an important part of honoring your ancestors. It gives you a physical place to commune with those who have come before you. A shrine is another name for an ancestor altar. It is a space to honor and pay respect to those who made it possible for you to be alive.
The importance of ancestor altars and the altars themselves vary from culture to culture. Some are extremely elaborate with photographs of multiple people, items that correspond to each person, and offerings to those people. Others are simple and understated and may appear to be something other than an altar. Some altars are permanent places of honor and others are temporary only making their appearance for special times of honor. Many people create ancestor altars in their homes, but this isn’t always the case. Sometimes people erect ancestor altars outside of the home, and sometimes the grave acts as an ancestor altar. The reasons for these differences correspond to differences in culture and practice. No one ancestor altar is better than another. They all serve a purpose and meet the needs of the culture using it.
Creating Your Ancestor Altar
So, now that you know what an ancestor altar is and why you need one, how exactly do you create one? Ideally, you would research your tradition and how ancestors are honored in your religious practices. If, however, you aren’t part of a specific tradition or want an easy way to do it, you can follow this simple method. Keep in mind you can make this as elaborate or understated as you like or need given your current situation.
The basics are photos or your ancestors. If you want to honor ancestors whom you don’t have photographs of, you can have a list of their names. You’ll also want something to represent each of the elements- a candle, glass of water, seashell, essential oils/perfume, sand, dirt, bells, feathers, whatever. Choose whatever resonates with you and fits the space you are setting up.
If you need to “hide” your altar in plain sight it can be as simple as photos on the wall hanging above a table with a candle, incense, and flowers. Or, you can go as elaborate as you like with an entire room dedicated to your altar.
Working at Your Altar
Once you have it up, this is the space where you will commune with your ancestors, pray to them, honor them, and offer gifts to them. Exactly what you do and how or how often you do it will depend on your tradition. Alternatively, if you are at a stump, I would suggest asking your ancestors what they would have you do.
No matter what your ancestor altar looks like, it’s a good practice to keep it clean and fresh. If you have flowers on your altar, replace them with fresh ones before the old ones are dead. Replace water daily or every few days so it doesn’t get stale. If you offer gifts of food, leave it for an appropriate amount of time and then dispose of it.
Speaking of disposing of offerings- don’t throw the offerings in the trash when you refresh your altar. This can be seen as disrespectful. Liquids can be poured into the earth as a libation. Flowers, plants, and foods can be offered to nature or composted. Do what feels right to you.
Do you have a practice of ancestor veneration? What do you find to be part of the importance of ancestor altars? Let me know in the comments below.