Ancestral Altar Best Practices

Honouring our departed loved ones is a deeply sacred practice, allowing us to carve out time and space for their presence in our lives, and ours in theirs beyond what we colloquially call “the veil”. This act of reverence is an embodiment of love, offering profound healing potential by providing a fruitful outlet for the sorrow that often accompanies their passing, as processing and living with the absence of someone dear is among the most challenging aspects of their 3D departure.

A simple yet potent method to foster a connection with our departed beloved is by establishing an ancestral altar. Such altars, be they shrines to specific individuals or an altar of a group of family members, serve as dedicated spaces—whether a shelf, table, or cabinet—set aside for energetic gathering.

Choosing A Space for Ancestral Altars

For spirits to make their presence known to us, and for us to welcome them to be in our spaces, it’s important we choose a location that considers the deceased’s preferred space, as their spirit will naturally gravitate towards these areas, and not to mention be easiest on their energy. Even if an ancestor is unfamiliar with your space, it’s helpful to consider what elements and features they most likely would resonate with, such as by a window facing a tree, by a fireplace where it feels cozy, on a bookshelf if they loved to read, and so forth. 

Familial altars that honours more than one may find their place in communal areas like the living room or kitchen, depending on the family’s dynamics. Creating this sacred space for our ancestors should evoke joy and togetherness, as those we honour act as our wisdom keepers, guides and advocates, and also us including them in our gatherings and new memories made.

Altars crafted for recently departed souls, and those whose absence is perennially felt, serve as three-dimensional collages embodying the essence of our cherished ones in life. They incorporate photographs capturing their essence, personal items they once treasured, and food and plant offerings evoking memories, old traditions, and even new ones.

Building An Ancestral Altar

Ancestral altars, in my tradition, and in many other traditions, contain the beloved’s photograph or an otherwise artistic rendering of their likeness (such as a painting or drawing). With the image taking the central focus, other chosen objects may (or not) be placed on these altars, holding either sentimental value or energetic significance. 

While individual altars often facilitate healing and solace for mourners, family altars typically function as places of reverence, and even magick, for and from our lineage, seeking guidance from our ancestors, giving them energetic fuel through offerings. 

Engaging with Ancestral Altars

Once the altar is in place, daily visits are encouraged. For me, the bare bones are offering a cup of water every morning. On some days, it may be further layered with tea offerings, snacks, candles and incense, and longer moments in conversation. Elements from nature, like stones, feathers, or plants, to infuse natural energy into the space, along with the food and drink offerings, can function as a way to feed the spirits’ energies. During cultural holidays, such as the Lunar New Year or Qing Ming Jie, as well as the birthdays of the departed, I often offer seasonal foods that they would have enjoyed during those events.

For those who have animal house/roommates who may find food offerings tempting, stick with nature offerings.

Ancestral Altars Should Be Dynamic

Ancestral altars, as any altar, are meant to be alive, and reflect the dynamic of the relationship between the living and the more-than-living, the Seen and Unseen. This is because an altar that stays the same, is never refreshed to reflect the weeks, months, and seasons, though may in a way be seen as a 3D documentation that asks to preserve time and cherish the past, it can also confine us to our grief, that locks the energy in, ensnaring both ourselves and those we revere from being in flow.

Altars ask us to continually change, and from an animist’s view, they are living energy centers that act as portals mutually for the departed and the living. For folks who actively engage in ancestral rituals and magick, the function of the ancestral altar becomes not only symbolic but quite literally, sacred sites.

Ancestral Altars When Travelling

One of the most asked questions I receive is what does one do when we travel and cannot physically attend to the ancestral altar (or altar of any sort)? My general suggestions:

  • Share with the spirits that you will be away for a period of time and will be thinking of them in the meantime. Place a dried floral offering on your altar, and a larger than usual, water offering that will sustain them for a longer period of time.
  • Another idea is to take the photo(s) of the beloved departed with you on your travels, and keep an ancestral altar in your wallet – dedicating a pocket in your wallet for their photo, along with a pressed flower, and even a coin offering.
  • A variation of a travel altar (as mentioned above), create a mini altar in the space where you will be staying. Offer water daily.

When you return to your home, attend to your altar again by cleaning the dust off, removing old offerings, and refreshing the altar space with perhaps tiny objects offerings from your travels, along with your usual food / nature offerings.

If you’ve found this article supportive for you, and are looking to extend your relationship with the departed or the Unseen in general, UGLY WORDS SERIES is now a recorded, self-paced offering, and may be just the transformative writing container for you, as you navigate through endings, liminal spaces, and the Unseen.

Following the spirits,
Animist spirit medium