Setting Up an Ancestral Shrine

Image courtesy of Cheryl Winn Boujnida on Unsplash

In a corner of my living room, next to the front door and under an assortment of wall-hung photos, my husband and I have a little corner shelf. The entirety of it is crowded with little urns of pet ashes, mementos of family members who have passed, and little bowls of dried flowers. It is not, on first glance, what one would think of if they tried to picture what a witch’s ancestor shrine looks like. For me, it’s perfect, and it fulfills the five criteria I think every ancestor shrine should meet:

  1. It is easily visible. You should never be ashamed of your family, so I consider it in very poor taste to hide them away like you came from nowhere and nothing worth mentioning. You don’t have to have a full corner shelf or fancy carved mantle to rest your shrine on, but try your best to put it somewhere you see every day and frequently walk past. It’s good to stay reminded of who and where you come from.
  1. It contains pictures or mementos of those who came before you. It’s alright if you don’t have any photos of the people themselves. You may just have a framed image of the country they came from, or a pressed flower that reminds you of where you were born or raised. Maybe you don’t have photos, but you’ve written poems or essays about those who’ve inspired you or who had a hand in your upbringing. At its core, people need these tangible symbols of where and what they come from to touch and refer back to, especially when the people themselves are gone.
  1. It’s a safe place to lay offerings. It’s not going to do you much good as an ancestor shrine if you can’t put anything on it for fear of things getting blown off, knocked off, or the shrine itself falling apart under the slightest of weights. Make sure that the shrine is sturdy and kept reasonably out of reach of small children who may not understand what a priceless heirloom is, or a dog who just wants to chew and can’t tell the difference between a whittled toy and a Nylabone.
  1. It’s kept clean and well-tended. You wouldn’t offer a visitor a drink from a dirty cup, so please don’t offer your ancestors a drink from a dusty mug. I’m as guilty as anyone of letting things get cluttered up during the workweek, but when the time comes to sit down with your ancestors and talk to them, take the time to first clean off their shrine and lay a few fresh offerings before you begin. You’ll feel better about “taking care” of them, and they’ll be grateful to you for showing them some basic consideration.
  1. It brings you joy and peace. I’ll say this once: family doesn’t begin or end in blood. You are not required to honor someone who abused you, who harmed the family, or who abandoned you. Likewise, it’s perfectly okay to honor those who may not be your blood ancestors but are your ancestors in spirit (either those who have inspired you, or the family you were adopted into). Family is about those who have nurtured and guided you, and that can be a pretty adaptable definition.

[Written by Ashley Nicole Hunter.]