Posts Tagged ‘ancestor altar’

Looking for more Samhain-related posts? Here’s some past posts: Honoring the Ancestors, Embracing the Wise Crone, and Herb or Rembrance, Herb of Samhain.  

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Happy Halloween and Blessed Samhain to all of you! It’s been a while since posting something other than the Halloween Oracle Card of the Day (on Facebook), but this time of the year always makes me want to get back to the keyboard.


My Beloved Dead altar for 2016

Of course, I’m not alone and I’read many blog posts and articles about this beautiful season and what we learn from it. We see how others deal with loss, and Heron Michelle from Patheos wrote how we as Pagans should do more than honor and celebrate the dead but also prepare for own death even in practical ways. It’s an excellent and honest article.

I lost my Mom a little over two years ago, and I do know that Michelle’s words ring true as my Mom had taken care of everything for her funeral and burial except her head stone, which she always said she would leave for us kids to pick. When an undiagnosed liver disease finally became known, we had precious little time with her and it was a blessing to not also worry about her medical wishes, funeral expenses and so forth. Planning all of that years ago was a gift my mother may not have even realized she was giving.

However, I my biggest Samhain lesson from losing the most important person in my life is this: Don’t wait to live the life you want.

Mom was one of those who worked hard at underpaid and underappreciated jobs all her life. She raised four kids and showed great resourcefulness in keeping us fed, clothed, and sheltered on a tight budget. Even after retirement, she had to work to make due. With undiagnosed illnesses (for him, it was dementia) affecting their personalities, my mom and stepdad divorced when she was in her late 60s. What little savings they had was split. They had to lower the price of their home to sell it, losing money in the process. Her last year was stressful as her tight budget, her medical issues, and mental confusion combined to make life very difficult, even with three daughters hovering over her.

Mom’s “golden years” had become pretty tarnished. All her life she had planned to travel and relax in retirement – that dream mocked her as she struggled to get by.

Sadly, I see so many people go through this same thing. They focus all their energy on work or professional goals or doing the things they “ought” to do, thinking they can work on their real dreams or just take time for themselves later. So many have their retirement dreams cut short illness. For others, it’s financial surprises that ruin their plans. The fact is that even careful planning can be for naught in some situations. We simply don’t control as much of what happens to us as we think.

It reminds me of a picture I once took where a sign warned about falling rocks, but a log was falling in the background instead. Life is like this: prepare for one thing and something different will happen.


And as I put up my Beloved Dead altar every year, I’m reminded of this lesson.

This is why I don’t work overtime. Yes, I have what many consider a good job, but the fact is that the company really cares more about its bottom line than it does about me. And while it’s a good job, it’s not exactly a dream job. So I’d rather spend my extra time for me or with the ones I love.

This is also why I saved some of the insurance money leftover from Mom’s final expenses to travel to Ireland next year. We have some Irish heritage, so I know my Mom would have approved – but it’s the place I’ve longed to go to for the longest time.

This is why I allow myself the really good chocolate and time to write.

This is why I took up an old hobby that brings me joy.

It’s why I try to focus on smiling and laughing with friends and family rather than getting too involved with things that bring a lot of unneeded stress.

Many Pagans quote the “live in the moment” philosophy and yet are often as bad as the rest of Westerners about taking time for themselves and honoring their real life goals and dreams. We are not immune to the disease of just getting by or wasting time on things that don’t fulfill us.

No matter who we are, the fact is that life is much shorter than what we imagine. Let’s not waste it.



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Every year in the days before Samhain, I either move or take down my everyday altar and put in its prominent place is the Ancestor Altar, which I call my Altar to the Beloved Dead. It is something I cherish doing and something that is adjusted every year and also reflects what is important to me. Every night for the week before Samhain and week or two after, I take a few minutes to light the candles and remember the Beloved Dead represented there.

2015 alt all Many of us do this and, frankly, ancestor altar building is covered in many places, so never felt the need to do it here.

But every year when either people see my Ancestor Altar in person or on a blog or Facebook photo, I inevitably get someone saying they just don’t know how to go about building their own. They don’t know enough about their family, or they had issues with their family. Or they don’t know where to start. I’ve been told many reasons. Considering how important and sacred this altar is to me, it makes me sad that there are people who want one but don’t feel comfortable building one.

So for those who need a little nudge, here’s a quick and dirty write up of my philosophy on building the ancestor altar.

I will say that I personally do more than ancestors of my blood. As discussed in this essay by Druid author Joanna Van Der Hoeven, I welcome ancestors of blood, of place, and of tradition. There is no way I could limit it to just relatives – there have been too many people that were important to my spiritual development to ignore them just because we do not share physical DNA. We share spiritual DNA, and that’s good enough for me and many other Pagans.

So, even if you don’t know your family, were adopted, or are estranged from family, you can still build this based on the people who have been important to you in one way or another. It could be a spiritual leader or counselor, a family friend, a coworker, or even a pet who has passed on. It could be someone you didn’t know but who inspired you. For example, the last couple years I included the late frame drummer Layne Redmond – her music and research was very inspiring and empowering for many of us women who took up the drum. And the drum has been a big part of my spiritual life.

I start, of course, with a table and tablecloth. This year, I added a box in back under the tablecloth to add more height and dimension the the arrangement. Do what will look good to you. I also have a lot of candles – but you could use some other type of lighting that you prefer.
Let’s take a look at a few of the elements I’ve included this year:

Ancestors of Blood

2015 altar ancestors

At the top, you see three photo frames with my great aunt and uncle, my Mom, and my grandmother when she was young. These are all from my mother’s family. I choose not to include anyone from my father’s family because they are negative, not well-known to me, or not yet deceased. My mother’s family has its flaws, but they weren’t intentionally hurtful and did the best they could.

I personally wouldn’t include anyone whose spirit might not be in your best interest because not only are you honoring ancestors with this altar but also inviting them in, whether you realize it or not.

Ancestors of Place

2015 altar crones

There have been many people in my life totally unrelated to me that have had a powerful impact on my life. Two examples are my first two Crones: Sandy and Bernice (I’ve written about Bernice before and recently reposted it). Bernice was my ex-husband’s great aunt but our friendship opened my eyes in so many ways. Sandy was one of the women who started the Daughters of the Sacred Grail, an Avalonian women’s group that really helped firm up my spiritual foundation.

2015 altar pets
I also include in this group all the positive friends and mentors from life. Some for me include old friends but also includes pets from my life. As an introvert and animal person, my anim
al friends have often been a true source of love and support. I would never leave them off this altar, so I would suggest people not feel limited to just humans.

Ancestors of Tradition

This section is a little more flexible for me. In some sense, I also consider the late Crone Sandy an ancestor of tradition as well as of place. Yes, I knew her in this world, but she also helped lay the groundwork for my spiritual tradition. Some of what I do spiritually is because of her. It could be a leader like the Pope or Dalai Lama. Some may disagree with me, but it might also include something to represent a spirit guide or spirit animal.

After you have found a photo or something to represent anyone who fits these, simply put them together in a way that pleases you. You could add more common altar items that represent the four elements, deities, etc. You could put out little items you think the Beloved Dead would appreciate – I always put out a Snickers and change for my grandmother. You can incorporate other meaningful things to you such as things from nature (like the gourds and bittersweet you see on mine) or whatever inspires you.

And think it’s too late? You have tonight and tomorrow before the calendar Samhain on Nov. 1. And astrological Samhain isn’t until Nov. 8 this year. Plenty of time to remember those who have gone before in however big or small way that you wish.

Bright blessings and wishing you all an inspired and magical Samhain!


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Last Friday was November 1, the official beginning to the Samhain season. Though astrologically, “true” Samhain begins on November 7th this year, giving us an opportunity for a seven-day celebration if we wished.


My Altar to the Beloved Dead for 2013.

For the last four or five years, I’ve set up my big ancestor altar – though I usually refer to it as the Altar to the Beloved Dead – a full week or more before Halloween and leave it up until mid-November. It’s just not something I care to rush. There are always the fond and familiar faces of my grandmother, great aunt and uncle, much-loved elderly mentors, and even much-missed pets.

A couple weeks ago, I began to build it again. This time, I was thankful that I was putting up the same faces because there could have been a new face there. One of my nephews suffered a life-altering blow when he was hit by a semi while driving home from work in July. There were a few days when we weren’t sure if he would survive. He did survive, although he continues to find his new normal. But his spirit is strong and feisty, and I was relieved that he pulled through.

But during the last week of October, I heard through the Wild Hunt blog that renowned frame drummer Layne Redmond had passed after a long struggle with breast cancer. Her music is ethereal, beautiful, and rich. Her book, When the Drummers Were Women, was inspiring and helped me to gain courage to step into drum circles even when I wasn’t very good. With sadness, I added her to the altar. No, I didn’t know her personally, but she had a significant impact on my life.

Then a coworker lost the battle to cancer on October 30. And a few days ago, my former mother-in-law also succumbed to cancer. Both of these individuals were bright rays of sunshine in a dull world, and they will be missed. They loved life more than many I know, so it seems a shame that they were taken from it so soon.

I’ve come to find my Beloved Dead Altar as a way to deal with the grief of losing people, but I’ve never seen so many losses so close to Samhain. It makes the altar all that more important and poignant to me.

All this thinking made me wonder if any of you find it to be the same? In a world that tries to shoo death under the rug, does the practice of honoring the dead help you not only to remember them, but to handle the loss?

Until next time, bright blessings.



© 2013 PJ Graham

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In my post yesterday, I opened a can of worms in proclaiming that working with recent ancestors has been more meaningful to me than distant, ancient ancestors. I had more to say, but the post was already too long. So consider this post an addendum to yesterday’s.

Basically, I wanted to add some words of advice/caution in regard to this work. Note that I’m not claiming to be an expert, but I’ve found these helpful.

Get your shit together

No, that’s not a very polite statement, but it’s true. Don’t try to approach any serious ancestor work (or working with any spirit, for that matter) when you are an unfocused, emotional mess. Try meditation and some basic shadow work before trying to contact someone from beyond for insight. And know how to spiritually protect yourself. There are plenty of methods and sources for this information, so there’s no excuse for not going into this prepared.

Be logical

I know – this is just no fun. But the great thing about working with ancestors from the past 100 years or so is that there is a good chance you know something about them. Whether from family stories or old newspaper articles, it’s likely that you can get some sense of their character. (Barring some pretty heavy-duty psychic ability, can you say that about an ancient ancestor?) Even the lack of family stories about someone can speak volumes.

A picture of my grandmother on my altar to the beloved dead.

A picture of my grandmother on my altar to the beloved dead.

Why is this important? Because you don’t want to work with just any ol’ ancestor. Logic dictates that people you wouldn’t associate with in life may not be good associates in the afterlife. Yes, some things may change for a spirit after crossing the veil, but it’s not a given. Avoiding those who were abusive in their lifetime is probably a good idea.

But be sure not to confuse abusive people with flawed people. Yesterday, I mentioned working with my grandmother. She was a flawed person. She did things that hurt others. However, she didn’t intentionally hurt people and much of the problem stemmed from the fact that she was easily manipulated. I strongly suspect the reason her spirit connects with mine is because she’s realized the damage she caused and wants to correct at least some of it. And she knows I’m open to her messages. On the other hand, my late father and his mother were intentionally hateful and mentally and verbally abusive. I wouldn’t work with them even if they begged.

Don’t ask for miracles

Try not to confuse working with the ancestors with petitioning a deity or saint for help. There are many advantages to working with your ancestors: they can give insight to family wounds, provide wisdom and guidance for your life, see a situation you are in from a more informed perspective, and more. But you shouldn’t expect them to cure a horrible disease or change someone else’s mind. Instead, they could help you accept the inevitable with grace and to learn to deal with things outside of your control.

And please, don’t waste their time with things that are normal setbacks or things within your control. Asking them to cure your cold when you don’t even wash your hands in public restrooms or to make someone you’ve dated for two weeks fall in love with you is wasting precious contact with these amazing guides. And it’s just bad manners.


There’s probably a lot more that could be said about working with the ancestors and the beloved dead, but there are entire books dedicated to that (such as Christian Day’s The Witches Book of the Dead and Christopher Penczak’s The Mighty Dead). I just felt compelled to put out a few basics before moving on to other subjects.

Bright blessings!



© 2013 PJ Graham

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“I know of the leafy paths that the witches take,

Who come with their crowns of pearl and their spindles of wool,

And their secret smile, out of the depths of the lake;

I know where a dim moon drifts, where the Danaan kind

Wind and unwind their dances when the light grows cool

On the island lawns, their feet where the pale foam gleams.

No boughs have withered because of the wintry wind;

The boughs have withered because I have told them my dreams.”


– from “The Withering of the Boughs” by William Butler Yeats

This quote from Yeats just seems fitting for today.

I’d like to wish everyone blessings on this Halloween night leading into the sacred day of Samhain, the Celtic New Year and time to honor the beloved dead. Of course, I’ve had my Altar to the Beloved Dead up for a couple weeks. While some folks might find it morbid, I find joy and wisdom in honoring those who have been important to me in this life as well as my ancestors from long ago.

I very much take a Day of the Dead approach to my altar. There are pictures or mementos of loved ones, things they would have liked – change and candy for Grandmom; catnip mouse for my old cat Sylvia, and so forth – and elements of the season and final harvest such as mums and gourds. It’s not an overly complicated altar, but the warm memories and life lessons make it larger than life.

Tonight I plan to light the candles on the altar again, make a small batch of Remembrance Cookies (with rosemary for remembrance) to share with the ancestors, and enjoy handing out candy to the few children in the neighborhood. And in a few days, I will join my spiritual sisters in a sacred celebration of the season.

However you celebrate the season, I hope you all have a wonderful Halloween and Samhain!


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