An ancestor altar will change your life.
When you invite your ancestors to engage, you can source from their wisdom and experience. They will reveal themselves in your thoughts and dreams. The exchange becomes a 2-way relationship. You help them on their journey in the world beyond as they help you in this earthly world.
Many cultures throughout the world use ancestor altars for protection and inspiration. A most colorful example of the celebration of ancestors is the Mexican celebration of the Dia de los Muertas or Day of the Dead. On November 1 and 2, families build ancestor altars, dance in the streets and vigil in the cemeteries inviting their deceased relatives to return for a visit.
A traditional Mexican ofrenda, or ancestor altar, has multiple levels laden with marigolds, photographs, fruits, vegetables, drinks and memories. The basic elements of earth, water, fire and air are represented on the altar. Photographs of the departed serve as the spiritual focal point.
Traditional objects on an ofrenda might include:
• Candle – fire is one of the four elements of nature
• Earth – in gratitude to our current home
• Glass of water, soap & towel – to refresh the spirits after their long journey
• Copal – to welcome and guide the visiting spirits
• Paper Banners – flutter in the breeze to represent wind (papel picado)
• Salt – to purify the air
• Flowers – traditionally marigolds and other fall ornamentals
• Food – the beloved’s favorites, fruit and loaves of bread (pan de muerto)
• Beverages – a favorite beer, tequila, coffee or tea
• Personal Objects – clothing, jewelry or mementoes
• Skeletons – traditional sugar skulls or other folk art
• Small Dog – believed to be companions for the dead
Once the ofrenda is created the celebration begins. Family members and friends eat, drink, and tell stories to celebrate the relationships that give our lives meaning.
While the Day of the Dead is an annual event in Mexico, ancestor altars may be maintained throughout the year.
An ancestor altar is only helpful if regular rituals are observed. Daily, weekly or monthly offerings, meditations, and conversations keep the relationship fresh and vibrant. Spending time at your ancestor altar can be very rewarding. Ancestors love to solve problems, provide protection and unravel family disturbances.
For more information about other rituals to prepare for death as a rite of passage, we invite you to explore our Guidebook to Conscious Transitions: Living with Dying.