Fall is once again upon us, and the Veil thins as we draw ever closer to Samhain. This season is a time of reflection – on ourself and those who came before us. This time allows us to meditate on the past year, and reaffirm or rearrange our goals as needed. It also allows us to remember those who died before us that have helped to shape the lives we live today.
I generally see October, and even November, as a time to remember our ancestors and the dead. A time to honor those who’s choices shaped our family line, and to honor our own choices that are currently shaping our family line. By honoring ourselves, with our ancestors, we become an important part of our family line and are more aware of our own actions.
There are many ways to honor your ancestors and the dead. My two favorite ways are ancestor altars and a Dumb Supper.
Ancestor altars are a specific place where you honor or worship the dead, especially your family line – whether biological or adopted. You may keep them up all year, or only put out an altar for certain occasions like deaths, birthdays, and Samhain. Ancestor altars are very versatile. Though it may vary from each tradition, there are is no wrong way to set up a place of remembrance. Here are a few suggestions for both permanent and temporary altars:
- Food and Drink. One of the most common offerings to ancestors is food and drink. This also includes tobacco products. A lot of people leave out candy or even make the deceased’s favorite dish. I usually bless what I put on my altars, but to a lot of practitioners feel it is already understood what the offering is for and is already blessed.
- Keepsakes. Many ancestor altars contain a picture, or even items that the deceased owned. During the Victorian era, it was even common to keep locks of the deceased’s hair or make wreaths and jewelry out of them. (See an example and learn more about hair wreaths here). Some people keep clippings of nails or clothing. I have a pocket watch that my grandfather received from a company he was working at before he became disabled. I keep that and some things my grandmother gave me on my altar.
- Altar and Ritual Items. You can also add the basic altar and ritual items to your ancestor altar. These may include candles, incense, offering plates, a chalice, and other decorations. I usually bring out my skull that acts a mediator with Anubis and dead, as the attachment in it serves as a way to communicate and keep the dead in line.
Respect and care for these altars are important. It is the same as keeping an altar for a beloved deity. You’re only limited to your imagination on how you choose to honor the dead.
During this time of year I prefer to forego parties and trick-or-treating, and choose to do a dumb supper instead. A dumb supper is a way of honoring the dead, and reflecting on our own lives. To be dumb means to not speak – the whole dinner is done in silence. It represents the silence of death and the barrier of the Veil.
The purpose of the supper to is to honor and commune with the dead. For some people there is just silence throughout the meal, for others they may receive a message or overwhelming emotions.
The components of a dumb supper are quite simple. I choose to do it ritualistically, but you may do a regular supper in their honor (though I wouldn’t call on ancestors or the dead without a ritual).
The first part of the ritual consists of preparation. All the food, silverware, plates, cups, etc., are to be set out before hand. You will have one set of dishware for yourself, and another one for your ancestors. When I do this with a group, we have smaller plates and shot glasses for our ancestors. You may also set up your mini altars on the table, whether it’s Samhain decorations honoring the dead, an item that belonged to the deceased, or picture. I prefer to also place candles on the table, so that we can light those instead of using artificial light.
After preparing your space, then it is time to start the ritual. At this time the guests may stand up or sit down (according to your tradition) while casting the circle, calling in deity (if you choose), and inviting in the dead. It is common to invite those that have died within the last year to the supper, and help them move on if they can’t. You may invite family, friends, and those you loved to join in the supper. Make sure to express gratitude in your ritual when calling upon ancestors.
You will first serve any deities that you invited a portion of the food and drink before serving your ancestors or yourself. Remember to serve your ancestors food and drink before serving yourself, too. During the whole dinner everyone is silent while eating. When the last person is finished, you may end the ritual.
It is a very simple, but powerful ritual. It can evoke a lot of pent up feelings, and it’s okay to mourn the dead at this time. I’ve cried myself, and it was very cathartic. In this way, it is also a release for the living.
Some tips: You may want to turn off your outside lights and leave a note on your door not to knock or ring the doorbell. If you want to participate in trick-or-treating, then leave a bowl of candy outside. You may also want to have several candles in place around the dining area, instead of artificial lighting. Remember to keep a bucket of water, or fire extinguisher ready, in case of emergencies. Everything should be prepared before hand, so that guests can place what they need on their plate without fussing. This includes cutting up meat and vegetables before hand, and opening wine bottles before the ceremony. Place napkins, salt and pepper shakers, condiments, and other commonly used items on the table, so the guests don’t have to leave their seat once they sit down. This will cause less commotion and create a calmer atmosphere. Don’t wear clothing or use cloths that easily catch on fire. Have each guest ready their area before the ritual. That way there is no confusion of where the guests are sitting and their personal altars are already set up.
It is up to you if you wish to allow children at your event. Some are very quiet and respectful, and others are disruptive. Small children and babies should not attend. You may also want to consider that children do see the dead more readily, and it may not be an event you want your child to witness.
There are other ways to honor the dead, too. You may also want to look into other traditions and their beliefs to expand your practices.
Stay safe this spooky season while hailing your ancestors.
Photo Credit: Seeking Credit