Researching the Celts, Samhain, and the Mexican and South American customs of the Day of the Dead, we learned that altars designed for the dead are not uncommon, nor are they evil or unsavory. The altar becomes a focal point of honor and a physical connection from yourself to a specific person you loved who has died, or the altar can encompass your lineage of ancestors. Many magickal people and individuals of various religions keep such an altar in their homes all year round.
Why would we make such an altar? Recognition. Realizing that our spirit lives on after death, and using a physical object or objects to affirm this belief. Understanding that death does not kill the vital essence of who and what we are. Honor. That we continue to give our loving energy to someone we cared about.
What does an altar to the deceased look like? Is there a wrong way to construct such a thing? The altar should look the way you want it to - a pleasing sight. It should not contain anything that you would find offensive or frightening. There is no wrong way to honor the dead, unless you in some way pervert his or her memory. The altar can consist of a simple shelf, a small table, the top of a bureau in your room, a flat stone - the surface of the altar does not matter.
My ancestral altar is a flat stone on my vanity in my bedroom. I have chosen stone because it is fire-safe and belongs to the element of earth. This altar changes as my life changes. I have two significant pictures there: one of my mother when she was 16 years old, and one of my grandmother holding me when I was three. Although some magickal people would shudder, several members of my family use this altar almost every day. as it sits under a large mirror. My teenage girls often set their makeup there, hook up their curling irons and blow dryers, twirl in their outfits, etc. My husband and sons comb their hair, check their teeth, and do whatever else fellas do in front of a mirror.
What's my point? Remembering those who have died is not a scary thing in our house simply because the altar has become a part of our daily routine. Everyone knows what it is. They know why the pictures are there. They all know I talk to my mother and my grandmother. No one is bothered by it. In fact, my daughters, on occasion, have talked to them, too. Nothing bad happened, and they felt much better afterward.
Offerings to the Dead
Incense, fruit, nuts, items of harvest, milk, chocolate, ale, strings of beads, candles, cakes, colorful stones, shells, rose petals, rum, strips of colored paper with words of love or blessings - all of these items have found their way to the altars of the dead all over the world. It is believed that these items carry an energy of their own and that, by offering them to the dead, you are giving the essence of the thing - a quantity of positive energy to the deceased. By lighting a candle, you are making a connection from yourself, through the elements of earth, air, and fire, to the Other Side - giving energy and the light of love to someone who has passed over.
Many cultures practice prayers for the dead. These prayers feed our loved ones positive energy so that they may work off any negative karma. Many individuals believe that when the dead reach out from the Other Side to assist you with a problem, or watch over you for your protection, they fulfill an important function in "making the world go 'round." These two beliefs take the fear out of death and fill a very real need in the human psyche.
Prayer of Offering
Light a white votive candle and lay an offering of your choosing on your ancestral altar, or next to a picture of your special loved one. Hold your hands together in the "prayer position" (Note: The prayer position that most of us are familiar with actually has magickal significance. When you hold your hands together, palm to palm, you are creating a flow of circular energy from the right palm, up your left arm, through your heart chakra, and down your right arm into your left palm.) Say:
From the dawn of your birth
To the sunset of your death
I honor you.
From the missions you completed
To your duties left undone
I honor you.
From the seasons of your being
Through the cycle of your life
I honor you.
From your time beyond the veil
Till your earth entrance back again
May the angels support you
May Spirit surround you
May my healing love reach you.
From this moment until the end of time.
So mote it be.