An ancestor altar is an effective and beautiful way to connect with and gain support from the spirit world. It can be as simple as a photograph and a glass of water, or as elaborate as the spirits direct.
An even stronger connection than a photograph is a little dirt from your ancestors’ graves. There is an art to getting that dirt in a respectful manner.
Go to the grave, bringing with you a small container such as a pill bottle, a spoon or trowel, a few coins and (if your ancestor has no history of alcoholism), a small bottle of whiskey. Introduce yourself to your ancestor. Explain what you want to do — bring home a little dirt from the grave so that you can build a connection with him or her. Pour the whiskey over the grave and tuck the coins into the grass about where your ancestor’s hand would be. Then spoon a small quantity of dirt into the pill bottle.
When you get home, put the graveyard dirt into an attractive, appropriately sized container. Definitely something nicer than a pill bottle or zip lock bag! I have dirt from several graves; some of them, as you can see below, are kept in the sort of gold- and silver-papered cardboard boxes that jewelers sometimes pack rings and earrings in.
Saturday is the traditional day for working with the dead. The traditional, basic offering — the “meat and potatoes” of the spirit world — is a glass of water; some folks, drawing on the traditions of the Spiritual Church, dye the water pale blue. Once you have set up a simple altar, you may wish to make weekly offerings of food, music, or other items as the spirit directs. Of course, if you know your family’s favorite foods, etc., you may certainly offer those.
Pay attention to unusual food cravings and “earworms” – tunes running through your mind that you can’t get rid of. These may be requests for particular offerings from your ancestors. The lyrics, or an associated memory, may reveal what they want — or it may be the music itself that they want to hear.
When you approach your altar, show respect, ask forgiveness if you have done wrong – but also tell them your troubles and don’t hesitate to express yourself. It’s OK to get your BMW on (Bitch, Moan, Whine).
You can also recruit “new” ancestors – those who have passed on and succeeded in the things you wish to accomplish, even if they are not related to you. I would also recommend at least one person who dedicated his or her life to good works and/or justice.
If you have trouble connecting with their ancestors due to adoption, divorce, family feuds, or other reasons, don’t give up! If you have no photographs of your ancestors, and cannot get to their graves, you can use a personal possession of theirs instead: a piece of jewelry, a tobacco pipe, a favorite book, etc.
If you don’t even have that, you can — over a period of time — call the spirit of your ancestors, even if they are unknown to you, into “ordinary” dirt. African-Americans with unknown Native American ancestors have been doing this work for centuries; they refer to it as putting “Blackhawk in a bucket.” Blackhawk is a stand-in for their unknown Native American ancestors, and they place him in a bucket of earth — a very three dimensional way to do this work! (Read more about working with Blackhawk at the Independent Association of Readers and Rootworkers.)
If the ancestors you are seeking are not Native American, you can do this with a figurine representing the ethnicity of the ancestors that are unknown to you. You can even do this with a small figure of a skull — there is no better symbol of the dead, after all.
After you have your dirt, and attractive container, and your statue, leave offerings just as you would for an ancestor known to you, as described above. Don’t hesitate to talk or commune or pray as you make your weekly offerings. In a year or so, your ancestors, known and unknown, will have found you and your altar and will be ready to stand by you.