You’ve probably seen an ancestor altar in a place of worship or at a cultural ceremony of some kind. One of the more common displays of ancestor altars are the ones created for Day of the Dead in Mexico. Day of the Dead is an annual ceremony honoring the dead. The entire family comes together to celebrate both the living and the dead.

Honoring and connecting with the dead doesn’t have to happen once a year. Ancestor reverence can happen year-round by creating an ancestor altar in your home.

What is an ancestor altar?

According to Merriam-Webster, an altar is usually raised structure or place on which sacrifices are offered or incense is burned in worship. You can think of an ancestor altar (or shrine) as a place where offerings are made and reverence is given to the spirits of those who came before us. 

Why create an ancestor shrine?

Cultures all over the world have practiced some form of ancestor reverence at some point in time. Ancestor shrines may not be commonplace in today’s modern society but they have been a part of cultures around the world.  Jump back a few generations and you can find a long history of honoring those who came before us. So why did people take the time and energy creating sacred spaces for ancestor worship? The more obvious reason is that they are of our blood and gave us life. If they hadn’t walked this earth before us we wouldn’t be here.

There’s a deeper reason for ancestor reverence than the blood ties. Our ancestors still have an interest in us and how we live our lives on this physical plane.

Whether we acknowledge them or not they are here for us. It’s only logical that they would want to see their descendants grow and prosper. Our ancestors can be tremendous sources of guidance as we navigate through our lives. They were here before us and have an intimate understanding of the human experience.

Creating an ancestor altar is a way for us to acknowledge their presence and guidance in our lives. Our ancestors include anyone who played a significant role in your life. Use your altar as a place to give thanks to all those who came before you or played a significant role in your life.

Your ancestor altar is a place where you can go to speak to and receive guidance from your ancestors. Creating an altar shows your ancestors that you value and welcome their communication. If you don’t feel as though you have the guidance of your ancestors, creating an altar space is a great way to start. A space dedicated ancestors is a great step towards connecting with them.

Who are we honoring?

When someone says ancestor we think of a deceased person with whom we have a blood connection. While this is true we can also have spiritual ancestors. This could be someone who was a teacher, caregiver, or anyone who has played a significant role in your life. You want to be sure you are inviting in ancestors that are loving, helpful, and well in spirit. You can read about invoking your helpful ancestors here. For more guidance on how to connect with a loving ancestral guide, try this guided meditation.

What you need for your altar

Preparation

An ancestor altar can be created no matter how large or small your space. First, you’ll need a place for your altar to rest. This can be a small table, desk, or cabinet. If you are short on space you can also use a shelf in a cabinet or a drawer. In a pinch, you can use a box where you store all the items and take them out when you want to light a candle and make an offering. In this case, it would be nice to use a wooden box or something made out of a natural material.

Next, you’ll need an altar cloth. All the other items on your altar will be placed on the altar cloth. For your altar cloth, you’ll want something made of a natural fiber that you find to be appealing. I personally like using a white handwoven cloth that I found on an adventure through the Yucatan. You can take your time finding this altarpiece until you come across a cloth that feels like a good fit.

Assembly

Everything that goes on top of the altar cloth will help to invite your ancestor into the space. You are going to be adding items that represent each of the four elements (earth, air, fire, and water). To represent the element of fire use a simple white candle. The color white is helpful for inviting spirits in. Be sure to place your candle in a place where it will be safe from fire hazard.

Seven day candles are great for ancestor altars. They are poured into a glass which helps keep the flame contained. Tea lights also work well because the burn time is long enough for a ritual and the flame can be contained in a small candle holder.

Water

For the element of water, you can place a glass on the altar and pour a libation. A libation is a drink poured as an offering to a spirit. Your primary libation should be a glass of water. You can also add a glass of wine or spirits if this is something your ancestor would like. Replenish the libations as needed.

Earth

You have lots of options when it comes to the earth element. Crystals, flowers, or any object your ancestor may like will work.

Objects could be something like a cigar, a deck of playing cards, or an heirloom piece of jewelry.

You can also add foods or sweets your ancestor may like. It’s nice to add some organic seasonal fruit to the altar every once in a while. For fruits that have a skin, you wouldn’t normally eat, remove the skin. For example, peel an orange or slice a pomegranate in half. This also helps make the fruit more fragrant and inviting. If you have or attend a celebration, save a slice of cake to add to the altar. Food items should be placed on a small plate.

Air

Incense is a great option for the air element. The smoke from the incense represents the element of air and carries our intentions to the spirit realm. You can find incense at a local shop or make your own using a mixture of herbs and tree resins. You could also use a feather to represent the element of air.

Finishing Touches

Now that you’ve covered the four elements you can add anything else you think an ancestor may like. If you have a photo of the ancestor or ancestors you are creating the altar for you can add that as well. When adding photos of ancestors you want to make sure that the ancestor is well in spirit. Did you have a positive relationship with the ancestor? Was there anything unsettling about their passing? Be sure to heal any disruptions before adding photo’s of ancestors to the altar.

You are inviting these spirits into your space and you want to be sure they are only bringing positive energy.

Also be sure that the photos on the altar do not show anyone who is still living. You may also want to add something personal that you create, like a piece of artwork.

Six-Step Checklist

  1. Table or shelf
  2. Altar cloth
  3. Candle
  4. Incense
  5. Glass of water
  6. Pictures and personal mementos

Maintaining the Ancestor Altar or Shrine

Keep your altar neat and tidy. Dust and refresh the water regularly. If you added flowers, dispose of old ones outside in nature. Fresh plates of food should be removed and disposed of in 24 hours. You don’t want anything rotten or moldy on your altar, particularly if you’re honoring a super tidy relative! Fruits that were not peeled can be removed once they are fully ripe.

Your ancestor altar is a place you can go regularly to commune with your guides. Creating an altar is the first big step in cultivating a relationship that can last a lifetime.

As you get to know your ancestors you’ll begin to recognize the different ways they show up in day-to-day life. Spend time at your altar speaking with your ancestors. You can talk to them like you would a friend. Now that you’ve created this sacred space to honor them, keep the lines of communication open.

Share pictures of your ancestor altar with us by tagging @wyrdcollective on Instagram!