A Guide To Building An Ancestral Altar
How do you prepare when inviting company into your home? I know that maybe it's been a while since you've hosted a friend or family in your space, but try for a moment to remember what that experience of preparation feels like. In anticipation of your visitors, you might sweep the floors, wash the dishes in the sink, open the windows for fresh air, prepare some food, or have a drink to offer them when they arrive. All of these ways in which you are making ready, are an offering to your guests.
Building an ancestral altar is much like preparing for houseguests — a general guideline: tidy up, have something to offer, and make the space inviting. I will share with you a glimpse into some foundational items I keep on my ancestral altar as well as simple guidelines if you’re just beginning or are looking for ways to refresh your existing altar.
Everybody Has Ancestors
Ancestral altars exist in cultures all around the world, each with their unique customs and traditions and ways for honoring their dead. I first fell in love with this practice while observing a seasonal community altar in my hometown in honor of Día De Los Muertos [an All Souls Day celebrated throughout Latin America where families welcome back the souls of the deceased with vibrant festivities, their favorite foods, and colorfully adorned altars]. I was enamored with the garlands of golden marigolds draped over black and white portraits like little suns, with the perfectly decorated baked treats layed out on plates for the spirits to feast on, the music, the colors — this was a party.
The families who contributed to these community altars had set a joyously adorned space with their relatives’ treasured mementos from their earth-life, “stocked the pantry” with their favorite foods and beverages, dusted off and lovingly set out their photos, and arranged vases of fresh flowers. This was a homecoming for the ancestors and the scene was nothing short of inviting.
As I’ve explored the Italian branch of my own ancestry, I’ve learned that Italy has its own All Souls Day [regionally: Festa Dei Morti, Ognisanti, Giorno Dei Morti] that is celebrated in a similar way as Día De Los Muertos, with ancestral altars adorned in all of the things that the dead enjoyed in their lifetime. It’s an honoring, but even more, it’s a celebration.
And in my way, inspired by this culture I descend from, I do celebrate.
Building Your Own Ancestral Altar
Today I will share with you the items that live on my personal ancestral altar all through the year and how I tend to this space with the intention of inviting in the spirits of loved ones now gone. I tend to an ancestral altar because it is one facet to the multi dimensional experience of cultivating a relationship with my lineage, which put quite simply, gives me deeper understanding of myself.
In last week’s blog post, we explored the wonder of remembering and what it means to be remembered. Meaning, when we think about our ancestors, what qualities or things are we reminiscing on? And as future ancestors, what might those who come after us remember about our lives? As I share with you my way of assembling an ancestral altar [which of course is just one of the many ways, and certainly not the only way or the “right” way], we’ll be focusing in on finding answers to these questions, which may be a helpful place to begin figuring out what your personal altar will look like.
There Is No Wrong Way
Let's pause and back up for a moment to make sure we’re on the same page as to what I mean when I say “altar”. Forget googling it, because the conventional definitions you will find there are limiting in their perspective. Simply put, an altar is a place of reverence. It can be an assembly of objects that you arrange and tend to with devotion and with the intention of honoring someone or something. I have many altars around my home space, several of which might not look like someone else’s vision of an altar. For example, my kitchen is one of mine. In my way, I practice ritual here, prepare for ceremony here, and engage with my ancestors here. The preparation of food feels sacred to me and at the end, I make an offering on my kitchen table. Suffice to say, your altar needn’t look any certain way as long as what’s included in it feels reverent to you.
[some items that live on my ancestral altar: old family photos in second-hand frames, a small, cork-topped vial of wine, coins, beeswax taper candles, and a Hina Luna made altar cloth.]
First Step: Know Who You’re Honoring And Why
Before you even begin gathering and arranging your items, you may consider jotting some things down to help clarify your vision and intention.
✷ Who do you want to honor on your altar? [not limited to just blood family — or humans, even. I have a beloved goat on mine!]
✷ What reminds you of them?
✷ What did they enjoy during their life?
✷ What might they have needed but didn’t have in their lifetime that you can offer them now? (I include coins to offer my ancestors the wealth they didn’t have while alive.)
*Note too that an ancestral altar is specific to those who are no longer living. Some ancestral altar builders and cultures believe that photos of the living should not be included. I don’t feel any particular way about this and if it feels right to you to include a photo of your passed grandmother holding you as a child, then I am an advocate for following that intuition.
Step Two: Choosing The Right Location
After you’ve reflected on these questions, the first thing to consider is where you want your ancestral altar to live. Consider where in your home you would entertain your ancestors if they were living and build it there [maybe not your bedroom or the bathroom, right?]. Mine is arranged on top of a waist-high wooden bookshelf between my kitchen and living spaces, so I interact with it daily. Build yours in a place where you will see it often, because when you see it often, you will think of your beloved ancestors often, and that’s the intention.
[The above photo is of my in-process ancestral altar during the Fall season of 2021. I have it arranged atop a small shelf between my living room and kitchen so that I interact with it daily.]
Step Three: Choosing What Items To Include
Once you’ve settled on who to include on your altar and the right space to build it, it’s time to consider what objects you’ll use to represent and honor your loved ones. At this point, your process can unfold in endless ways, and this is the beauty of the individuality of ancestral altars.
One of the most memorable altars I’ve seen was at the entrance of my local grocery store in memoriam of its elderly owner. There, carefully set upon a black tablecloth within a circle of a fresh flower lei was his photo nestled between a bottle of hot sauce and a can of inexpensive beer. Simple and effective! And a perfect reminder to adorn the altar with things your ancestor’s spirit will recognize. This is an offering for them, right?
If you have them, include objects that belonged to them in their lifetime (jewelry, linens, a watch, cooking utensils, a book, a hat, or sacred objects like prayer beads or rosary). Other items could be plants that are relevant to them (like their favorite flower or an herb hailing from where they were from) and reminders of things they enjoyed (like a baseball, game pieces, sheet music or printed lyrics to their favorite song).
Even if, for example, you’re not a passionate cook but your grandfather was, remember that the intention is to invite his spirit to your altar space. So include his favorite seasoning or a recipe he cooked often on his altar because his spirit will be present when familiar items are present.
[above photo: my grandmother’s charm bracelet. I marvel at the intricacies and at some of the tiny moveable parts. I will set this bracelet out next to her photo when I’m building up a more elaborate seasonal ancestral altar.]
Step Four: Arranging And Layering
Before you begin arranging your items, think about the foundation your altar will rest upon, beyond the bookcase or the shelf or table. Is there something else you might want to lay down first? Stones, fabric, wood...? I choose to lay an altar cloth down as a central foundation to all of my other elements; for me it feels like setting the table. This can be something as simple as a scarf or a fabric devoted to this purpose.
[above image: a collection of Hina Luna made plant dyed and block printed altar cloths from Fall 2020. Shop current altar cloth offerings here]
If you're using both photos and objects, the arrangement is very much up to your personal aesthetic but the key is layering. Set the items next to the photo of the ancestor whom they are an offering for; if great-grandfather made wine, offer the vile of wine next to his image. If you're without photos but have a collection of items to honor one ancestor, perhaps keep those items grouped together on your altar. If you're honoring various lineages of your family, or including passed friends amongst relatives, consider keeping family members near to one another [like grandma next to grandpa] just as you might if you had all these folks over for a dinner party.
[above photo: from left to right — my grandmother, my great-grandaunt, my great-great grandmother, and my great grandmother. The charm bracelets belonged to my great-grandaunt and my great grandmother so I placed them close to whom they belonged to. My great-grandmother’s pasta cutter rests below her and also represents all of these kitchen matriarchs.]
How To Honor Your Ancestors When You Don’t Know Them
To have a flushed out family tree and to be in possession of treasured heirlooms is something not everyone has access to. The histories of immigrant and enslaved peoples is often difficult to track if not completely erased from when they left their homelands. For many the necessity — or force — to assimilate meant survival in new lands and it also meant the erasure of cultural names, practices, and religions.
Many of us are doing the work to resurrect old family stories and piece together our lines and even still, gaps may remain in the ancestral tree. Or perhaps your family story includes adoption or is missing knowledge of a biological parent but you still wish to include these individuals and lineages in your altar.
You can include photos or a map of where you think they lived. You can determine this either from what knowledge you have of proximal ancestors or from your own genetic make-up.
And you could simply leave intentional space. This of it like leaving an open chair at the table, an honorary seat for those that were but are not known.
Another option to consider (and this applies for all altars) is including representations of all four earthly elements — air, fire, water, + earth. The items I personally choose to represent these elements are loosely specific to my ancestors but more so act as reminders of the beauty of this earth plane to help invite the spirits (known an unknown in my lineage) back for visits. If this feels a little abstract, for context here’s how the four elements are present on my altar:
I burn frankincense. My aunt has a drawer of my great-grandmother’s unburned incense, much of which is frankincense. She burns it and thinks of her grandmother, and I honor this by keeping my own supply and burning it daily.
Other potential representations of air: an ancestor’s favorite perfume or scent, feathers, bells, angels, song, prayer, storytelling.
I light a beeswax candle. I’ve started keeping a regular supply of tapers from Alysia Mazzella and burn them liberally. At least one taper takes permanent residence on my ancestral altar and on most evenings I light it and the incense before I start cooking dinner. As I light my candle, I greet my ancestors.
I keep a thrifted vintage brass goblet of fresh water. This is perhaps the simplest and most important of offerings and yet I hadn’t even considered it until participating in an ancestral altar workshop with Camille Langston! The intention is to offer your ancestors fresh, clean water after their long travels to be with you. Camille recommends changing the water every few days or as needed.
And from water to wine... I also offer a small cork-topped etched glass jar of red wine next to the goblet of water. This is an offering specific to my ancestors, but, if you know, you may want to consider what your ancestors would have enjoyed in their lifetime and would be happy to receive when coming to you for a visit. Most important, keep your [ancestor] guests’ cups full!
Other potential representations of water: shells, seawater.
I keep a living plant to symbolize life in the existence of death. On occasion, like last month’s yellow roses for grandma, I will buy or collect fresh cut flowers to adorn my altar. Last summer, there was an abundance of dahlias in the garden so it was easy to bedeck the altar daily with fresh blooms. Relevant herbs also make for a beautiful offering. Other practices may differ, but for me it feels important to remove plant material that has wilted or died [which is different than intentionally dried]. Just as you wouldn’t keep wilted flowers on your table when having a friend over, consider offering only vibrant, healthy plant material on your ancestral altar.
Other potential representations of earth: stones, soil, seeds, salt, food, any tangible object representing them.
[a collection of items I use on my altar to represent the elements; candles for fire, a brass goblet of water, and a small vial of wine. Not shown are the live plant for earth and the incense for air.]
I prefer to keep my altar very simple throughout most of the year so that it is easy to clean and maintain. I do a regular weekly sweep where I dust down the frames, empty the ashes from the incense, and refresh the water. Besides a few special photographs, my four earthly element representations are the only things with year-round residence on my ancestral altar. During the Fall months when my birthday and All Souls Day draw near, I add more photos, burn more candles, and bring out the family heirlooms. You may choose to elaborate on holidays or special occasions, leaving offerings of food or decorating with some of their personal belongings.
Power In Simplicity
Whatever the extent of your offerings, if given with heart, know that it is enough. Most important to remember is to use what you have, just as our ancestors did. There really isn’t a need to purchase special items in order to do an altar right. As my sweet local grocer's memorial altar showed us, sometimes just a few chosen items can be quite effective in representing your loved ones.
Your altar will become a living thing and your relationship with it will evolve. Build it slowly and add to it organically over time. Allow your intuition to guide you.