Ancestor Work: Start Simply, Simply Start

Ancestor AltarI put my fingers on the touchstone and allow my shrine to open. Muted sensations fill my mind and brighten. I light the two white candles on either side of the picture frames, then from those flames the incense. In my mind’s eye I let the light and smoke expand, both illuminating the space and obscuring it, filling it with a bright cloud on which my mind can receive images. Slowly I pour the hot water in the tea cups and say hello. I speak to my Beloved Dead, it’s not formal, it’s respectful but casual, these are my grandparents and great-grandparents after all. I tell them about the week, how it was my niece’s first birthday and she’s incredibly cute and they’d all love her, only one of her great-grandparents getting to meet her, just once before cancer took Nana. I talk about work, all the things that grandparents love to hear. I thank them, every week, for the role they played in shaping my personality. I ask for their support in my life, I have nothing planned, so it’s a general request, just be there for me.

Moving from my main ancestor shrine I light another stick of incense, and place a piece of buttered toast in two cups, marked in my mind with the light of the moon and the light of the sun. More formally, I offer the food and incense to them, but as with my Beloved Dead, I thank them for how they shaped me, and ask that they continue to work with me, and walk with me.

I never thought I’d be the type of person to work with my ancestors. Honestly I got into it accidentally it seems. I’m horrible with birthdays, so I asked my mother to email me all the birthdays for people in the family. She obliged, but her list included my great-granny’s birthday, despite being dead for nearly 20 years. I didn’t know how to arrange the information, so when googling my options to easily keep track of it, I ended up making a family tree. Then I decided to expand it, so I tracked down a few deceased family members and their information and added it. My grandmother (now deceased) found out and thought this was great, she was the family historian. She saw my initial family tree on Christmas Eve, and when she went home she couldn’t get to sleep, not because she was excited for Christmas, but because she wanted to track down all her records for me. It was bittersweet, for she gave me all her unorganized records and I made sense of them, but she died suddenly four months later. If we hadn’t worked on the family tree together the information would have been lost.

I don’t know how the ancestor work happened to be honest, but at one point it just felt natural that I should honour the dead I knew, that doing the family tree awoke this idea. I printed out pictures of them, both young and old when possible, and put their teacups in front of them, the only memento I have from most of them, and some candles. I don’t come from a family that has an ancestor tradition, my culture by the time it reached me had lost such things, and while there is some ancestor veneration in Buddhism, at that time I wasn’t involved enough to know it well, nor did I feel like their formalized methods were appropriate. So I made my own. I’ve worked with spirits for years, I regularly chatted with my one grandma as she’s buried a mere five minute walk from me, so I just adapted it from those ideas, and built upon responses over time. Sometimes when people ask me about ancestor work, when I mention that my simple methods are my own that’s the end of the conversation, they want something “traditional” because we’re taught to think that’s better. Other times the fact that it’s my own method is what appeals to people, because perhaps like me they’re not from a family or culture or religion with such practices, or perhaps like my take of Buddhist forms, they find it’s too formal and structured.

My practice is simple, but I thought I would share it. It’s nothing special, but it’s from the heart and effective for what I need.

My ancestor shrine has many objects on it, but a few simple classes of items. Most important would be the photos, the pictures of how I remember these people, and younger pictures them in their prime. I don’t know why I felt compelled to include both, but I like it, and when I acknowledge birthdays it’s nice to see them young and healthy, and when I honour their death it’s nice to see them as I remember them. As mentioned I have teacups from all the Beloved Dead, so they’re on the shrine. Two white candles, two incense holders, and a small vase big enough for two flowers. I also have a few random mementos, I didn’t want to include them initially, but they’re items I’d have no place for otherwise, and would probably throw out: a blue glass Madonna from my Grandma who wasn’t Catholic but had over 50 Madonna figurines, a backscratcher from my Great-Granny who died when I was five and that was always my toy when visiting, or the Statler and Waldorf figurines of my Granny who always claimed they were her boyfriends. Then in the centre is a statue of the Angel of Death, representing the Dead I don’t have on the altar, those who I knew but aren’t in direct lines (the Great Aunts and Uncles for instance), or those Dead whom I never knew.

Every week I boil some water, and perform the basic ritual described above. I make offerings to them, tell them about my week, what’s happening with the family, remind them they’re loved and missed, and thank them. If it is an important day, a birthday, anniversary, or death date I’ll make them a proper cup of tea, as an extra honouring for that day. I don’t use tea weekly for a few reasons, first water is traditionally offered by…well almost every culture to their dead, it’s the elixir of life, practically I don’t think it’s needed to use tea, and quite frankly brewing several cups of tea, only to dispose of them before they go bad (and they do, experience taught me that) is annoying, whereas water can stay on the altar all week until the next offering.

More important than anything I’ve found as I’ve done ancestor work, is to connect and acknowledge. Unless we come from a family/culture/religion with ancestor work, the dead are buried and then mostly ignored. Just by acknowledging them, you’re welcoming them back into your life. Sometimes I think about offering more elaborately, but to me, it’s about family. If they were alive and came over, I wouldn’t have cake ready for them, I wouldn’t have large meals just appearing, but I’d have tea, and if they wanted anything else, they could ask. So I keep it simple, hot water or tea, candles and incense. These are my Beloved Dead, they don’t need anything more, just love and remembrance.

A lot of people put off ancestor work (and a lot of work) for fear of doing it wrong. Contextualize it in the flesh though. Start with your Beloved Dead, the ancestors you knew in life, and just give them a space and time of your attention. Just talk. You don’t have to be formal, you don’t have to be elaborate. These are people who loved you (and if they didn’t that’s another issue for another time about ancestor work), so they’ll be understanding. If Grandma came over and I didn’t have tea, she might grumble, but in the end it wouldn’t be a big problem. Don’t worry about getting it wrong, they’ll forgive you, and if you’re open, they’ll guide you. Like many things in life it’s better just to start.

8 Responses to Ancestor Work: Start Simply, Simply Start

  1. As someone who has recently begun Ancestor work, I have to agree with you, the best way is to reach out and start. It’s important to note that even if you don’t know their names, they know you and can respond.

    • Kalagni says:

      Ahh, that last bit gets into part of a later post I’ll be writing, the different classes of ancestors and dead, including family you know and family you didn’t.

  2. Hammer says:

    Thank you so much for this. Your blog was part of a synchronicity involving Gordon White @ Runesoup, and Christina Pratt @ whyshamanismnow that spurred me into starting a very humble shrine.
    Within 4 weeks my life swapped tracks completely, for the better!🙂 Now, I feel I need to follow the rabbit down the hole and go beyond grandparents.

    Thank you again.

  3. Sound very sensible to me thanks

  4. Andrew says:

    I use a three-fold system, myself, which I was told was Yoruba (but which I’ve since learned, ISN’T): the Remembered Dead (people who still have living people who remember them, usually within your own family); the Heroes of the People (people who shaped the history of your tribe and culture and helped form the values you hold dear, whether or not they’re related to you — everyone from Martin Luther King, Jr., to Thomas Jefferson to Tolkien and Madeline L’Engle could fall in this category, for me); and the Nameless (“she who first ate a pineapple”, “she who first counted the days of the year”, “He who first shaped metal,” and so on).

    The most startling thing to come out of ancestor work was that during one of my offerings, I heard my dead grandmother’s voice ask if Annie could come. I said yes, but asked who she was. The voice responded, “the woman who brought me back from Panama. She lives just down the street from you. We’re friends again.” My grandmother came through the Panama Canal in 1916 or so — and I thought she’d come home with her parents. But no, I checked in with my dad, and he remembered: they’d stayed behind, and grandma had come back to the US four months before them… with Aunt Annie, whom my grandmother hated apparently — and for those four months, Annie had hosted grandma at her house, which was… just down the street from where I now live.

    • Kalagni says:

      Interesting, the tradition I ended up dealing with in this regard had a Nameless Dead category (which I don’t call by that name) but meant family beyond those you knew. The idea of the “first” people is something I hadn’t thought of, but can see some interesting merit too.

      That’s neat about your Grandmother. My one Grandmother said something about “her love” and I asked if she meant Grandpa M or Grandpa L, as she had been married twice. She said neither and gave me a name. Turned out she was married three times, but the first guy was a total abusive jerk, so it was never mentioned…but she only married him because her true love was killed in World War II. So it was interesting to be led back by her.

      • Andrew says:

        Yeah, I get the idea of the Nameless Dead as family beyond family… but that’s sort of happening as the Remembered get larger. I had ‘Captain Oliver’ show up once, and he’s pre-Revolutionary War but a relation. When I try to shift to the Nameless, I get vague impressions, and thanks for offerings — but the assistance is … odd.

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