Setting Up an Ancestor Altar



This posting is for those of you who haven’t done an Ancestor altar before and are interested in participating in this particular form of veneration. I am making the assumption that you are living in such a way that creating this altar is something you are doing in the public area of your dwelling-place. I realize this is not true for everyone and that you may have a tiny altar on the shelf in your closet, just west of your snow boots.

As with any altar, you want a place that is easily accessible and that you can see. A free-standing table is usually my indoor altar-of-choice but a mantelpiece, the top of a piano, a window sill (sans cats) or a bookshelf are also fine places.

Clear the space of whatever is there now and wipe it down. I like to use a cloth for the base and the choice of cloth will depend on the size of the table. (My main altar doesn’t have a cloth, oddly enough. I like the polished wood of the high table and find it is easier to sweep away incense ash than to reset the entire altar simply to replace the cloth.) A silk scarf is pretty but I often choose to use a textile from my family as the base of the altar. A ratty but loved apron, an moth-eaten sweater that you remember your loved one wearing, an old dishcloth that is a calendar from 1965–all of these can be called into service.

What sets on the altar can be as simply or as elaborate as you want. A simple black rock and a candle is perfectly sufficient, especially if your relationship with those Ancestors is still a wavery, tenuous thing.

Most folks have at least a few trinkets or photos from the Olden Days and those make a nice addition. My grandmother’s clip-on sunglasses adorn my Ancestor altar as does a pair of my grandfather’s wire-rimmed glasses.

Fresh flowers are always a good choice. And a pretty dish of some kind to hold offerings is important.  (We’ll talk about feeding your Ancestors in an upcoming post.)

And you may choose to have actual Ancestors on your altar.  In this age of cremations you may choose to have a container of ashes (or two or three) gracing the sacred space that honors the Dead.  If you are fortunate enough to have soil from the Homeplace or family graveyards, that’s good for livening up your altar, too.

You can stop there, of course.  A simple set-up where you can sit in meditation and stay in your head and heart. But what often happens when you step through the door of veneration of the Dead, is that it doesn’t stay simple and lovely.  When you begin to honor them–and certainly if you start to feed them–well, they come a-calling.

When you practice the ancient and honorable act of hospitality, you may find yourself doing rather a lot of welcoming.


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